The evolution of a creative portrait

If you are anything like me you’ll see the work of peers and wonder where it is they get their never ending and constant streams of creativity. I’m sure there are people who just have ideas each day when they are having breakfast and that’s them set. I’m a million miles away from that person, I can appreciate great art but sit me down with a blank page to write down ideas and an hour later my page will still be blank.   For me the only way to be creative and create something different is to just go out with the camera and try to build on what I know is important and works.

It’s important for me to stress here that I don’t believe that ‘waiting for that special moment’ ever works. I see that phrase in a lot of wedding photographers blogs and it’s nonsense.  To create strong images, you need to work with what is going on and  put something of your own in, you can’t just sit by and wait for it to happen.

I thought I’d write a blog about this creative process and use one of my own favourite images from 2015 as an example.  It was taken on behalf of a Manchester based charity called Safe Child Africa  and my brief was to capture some portraits that they could use to highlight their work.  You never really know what to expect when you arrive at a project in the field. As we were greeted I was told that this particular project  involved a foster mother who had voluntarily taken in about 15 young lads.  Apart from supporting their normal day to day activities she spends time encouraging them to  learn skills in crafts that they then use to help fund the cost of school.

This is an image from that session that I’m most pleased with. What this blog will show is how it could never have happened had I not built up from a simple image.

Portrait Calabar

From the second I get out of a car in any new place, I’m immediately looking for suitable portrait locations. The sun is always very high in the sky in Nigeria, so I know I need to either find good shade cover or pose people very close to a high wall. I know from bad experience that I don’t ever want the sun to feature in a portrait.  Archways are always good, and so I’ve become used to completing a quick 10 second survey of arches, doors and the like.  I’m not a great believer in taking any extra time to find something better, if something fits then I plan on using that place when the time comes to take my camera from my bag.

At this point I’ll just ask one person from a group (randomly) if they might just stand in front of the neutral background whilst I take a few pictures. If a group is watching (which at this stage it most probably will) I’m actually using this time to show them how I direct a pose.  I want them all to know that when their time comes I’ll be directing them in the same way.

This is all very deliberate because I know I’m never just going to be taking one person and leaving.  Thankfully Nigerians tend to be much more relaxed in front of a camera than the timid British and that is a massive help for me. If I ask someone to pose in a certain way, they’ll tend to do exactly that.

Here’s the first portrait from the day in question.
Portrait Calabar

The first thing that I noticed with this lad is his t-shirt. There’s so much going on with the colour and pattern here that I knew we had to do something.  The t-shirt is all over this picture and so it is hard for the viewer to actually notice the boy. The easy thing to do was to ask him to show something he’d made.   There’s nothing spectacular with what we achieved in this, we’d just built upon a good background and reduced the impact of his colourful t-shirt. I was happy enough at this point.

Portrait Boy, Calabar

The idea of featuring the crafts the boys had made in their portrait was now established , and so we simply repeated the exercise with another boy. To my right was a corrugated iron fence and by using that instead of the wall for the boy above I knew we were able to remain with the same theme, but give the impression that that it was an entirely different location.

This boy had made this marvellous woolen blanket and rather than just have him hold it in front on display we tried a couple of different ideas to make for a more interesting picture.  Blanket portrait

Blanket Portrait

I felt immediately as  I’d taken the shot directly above that it was a bit twee and just didn’t work. I liked the idea but it just didn’t work here, I wasn’t particularly worried because the image where he was holding the blanket out was already in the camera and I liked it.

And then… another of the boys from the foster home stepped up and asked me for his picture. He’d been in the group watching for the past 10 minutes and I not used him for anything because…well.. of his shirt.  I don’t like busy or complex fabric designs in any portrait, as they tend to become a feature which isn’t really my thing.  I would obviously never refuse a portrait request, so instead of just taking one I asked the boy above if we could use his blanket.

Shirt design

All of this is very light hearted which allowed me to be frank and say “I really don’t like that shirt” lets do something different.  and hey presto then we get this. Portrait Calabar

And that was pretty much it; we were able to create a strong and creative image by just being aware of the many imaging components and then adapting them to the situation we faced. There’s nothing magical in photography. The camera in my hand was a Nikon, but it could have equally have been an iPhone. Modern day cameras can do far more than we are able to ask them.

For those curious about the technical side of this portrait, I‘m using the actual owner of the blanket to bounce some light back onto the shadow side of his face. The reflector he was holding has a gold  side which works brilliantly on dark skin.   The exposure setting was 1/125 at f/5 with an ISO of 320.

Nick Cavanagh is a portrait photographer working at home in Ireland and abroad in Sub Saharan Africa.  You can contact him and ask anything by using this form.   His mobile is 0879 491 002


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