Wednesday, April 18, 2012

In which I recall that I have a blog, and opinions

Hey. Long time no talk. It's been... an interesting couple of years. A major transition or two, friend and family funtime adventures, et cetera, et cetera. But enough about then. Back to now.

I was out on Monday night, watching RuPaul's Drag Race at the Blue Moon with the most glittery painter I know. I'm not in the habit of bringing my grown-up camera to that venue; the stage lighting is pretty minimal, and I hate taking direct-flash pictures of live acts in dive bars. I know there are a bunch of you out there who do this. I see you at shows with your DSLRs, with speedlites or pop-up flashes pointed straight at the performers. Please stop it. Direct on-camera flash in a dark space flattens your subject, removing contour shadows from faces and costumes. It also lights the area behind your subject, which does a great job of cluttering up your composition. Congratulations, you've just taken a boring snapshot of a drag queen. Sashay away.

Taking interesting pictures of people, whether it's portraiture or performance, requires, among other things, interesting lighting. It doesn't require a fancy camera. This is an unretouched cell phone picture:
Pittsburgh artist Lauren Toohey, photographed in available light using a borrowed cell phone, just outside the ladies' room at the Blue Moon in Lawrenceville, 4/16/2012. Chanté, you stay.
I had just taken a picture of her and her friend with her phone, using the phone's white LED "flash." She had complained (justifiably) that the shot failed to show off her makeup, which was completely showing-off-worthy. I mean, if you're going to watch Drag Race, you're going to get all glittered up. That's just common sense. So, challenge issued, challenge accepted. "Ok, walk over here... now stand right there... turn a little... follow the phone... chin up just a little... ok." Click.

The trick was, "over here" was in a little dark hallway with a light in the ceiling. Directional light sources yield interesting pictures, every time. Whether or not that particular "interesting" is actually aesthetically pleasing depends on some other variables. That's when it's important to know things about how we perceive people, and particularly how we perceive faces. The goal — my goal, anyway — in portraiture is to render what you want to render about your subject. Here, it was glamour. Not evenly-lit airbrushed studio glamour, but shadowy dive-bar "this is my look, I own it, and if you don't like it I'll cut you" glamour, or something along those lines. So: even-ish light on the face, with well-defined shadows at the nose, cheekbones, and jawline; everything else, including the background, fading off into darkness.

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