Large format portraits with shallow focus

Discussion in 'Large Format Cameras and Accessories' started by Ian David, Jul 25, 2009.

  1. Ian David

    Ian David Member

    Messages:
    1,079
    Joined:
    Dec 19, 2006
    Location:
    Brisbane, Au
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Hi there
    One thing I have not done much of with the 4x5 is precision portraiture. But I am now thinking of doing a set of portraits of my numerous older siblings. One of the looks I want to experiment with is the very shallow depth of field, with super-sharp eyes but quite fast fall-off of focus through the nose and ears. My concern with this is keeping the focus spot-on while closing the shutter, putting in the film holder, pulling the dark slide, and making the exposure. Apart from simply asking my sitters to keep very still, and working on my speed, are there any cunning tricks I haven't thought of? (A related issue is getting the shallow focus right in a 4x5 self-portrait with air bulb release...)
    One approach would be to have the sitter sit with the back of their head against a wall, although that may pose problems with unwanted shadows.
    Grateful for your thoughts!
    Ian
     
  2. SuzanneR

    SuzanneR Moderator Staff Member

    Messages:
    5,832
    Joined:
    Sep 14, 2004
    Location:
    Massachusett
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    You can try the "string" trick, where you literally hold a piece of string between the sitter and the lens, figure out its precise length for the focus. Then, when you have the dark slide out, you can check the distance between the lens and the sitter to be sure they are at the plane where you have the focus with the proper length of string.
     
  3. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser

    Messages:
    19,311
    Joined:
    Jun 21, 2003
    Location:
    local
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    hi

    you can also have you sitter close their eyes and "relax"
    after you focus on them.
    it will allow them to recompose themselves as you tell them to
    look at the camera ..

    i have done a bit of wide open portraits like this, and it works best
    after you decide on a pose, and when dof is barely there.

    good luck!
    john
     
  4. DeBone 75

    DeBone 75 Member

    Messages:
    120
    Joined:
    Aug 29, 2004
    Location:
    Bradenton Fl
    Shooter:
    Large Format
    If you are developing and enlarging these your self you could try to do it with the enlarger. Focus as sharp as you want the eyes and while exposing the paper do the eyes as required then dodge them and gently bump the enlarger. I have seen this done with other subjects. Looked pretty good.
     
  5. BenZucker

    BenZucker Member

    Messages:
    161
    Joined:
    Jul 23, 2009
    Location:
    New York, NY
    Shooter:
    4x5 Format
    How close are you trying to get, filling the frame with just a head or more pulled back? I have shot a number of portraits pretty close, and i find that in terms of the focus, weather you are wide open or super closed down that you still have to be precise with the focus. Sure the additional DOF from shooting at say f22 compared to f5.6 will make parts of the face that you didn't focus on (everything but the eyes) closer to being in focus, but I could always see distinctly what was actually in focus. One thing that I found out very quick was to make sure the tripod I was using was very sturdy, this has a huge effect when working close up (with a flimsy tripod its easy to move the camera when you are adjusting the lens/shutter and putting in the film holder). Also try to re-focus as often as you, I usually try to not shoot more than 3 frames with out opening up and checking focus. Hope this helps.
     
  6. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member

    Messages:
    17,922
    Joined:
    Sep 7, 2002
    Location:
    Honolulu, Ha
    Shooter:
    Large Format
    The string trick is very reliable. I put a knot in the string, focus while the subject is holding the string taut to their nose, and then I can use the string to check focus after inserting the film, removing the darkslide, and cocking the shutter. The other end of the string is tied to a fixed point on the tripod. You can shoot 8x10" and larger at a wide aperture, and just about every frame will be dead on.
     
  7. Ian David

    Ian David Member

    Messages:
    1,079
    Joined:
    Dec 19, 2006
    Location:
    Brisbane, Au
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Thanks for the ideas everyone. Much appreciated.
    Ben, I am planning to get in quite close so it will be pretty easy to cock the focus up.
    Suzanne and David, I particularly like the string idea - such an obviously sensible solution that hadn't occurred to me! I will see how I get on. If all else fails, I guess I can always move back down to MF for this project...
    Ian
     
  8. brian d

    brian d Member

    Messages:
    396
    Joined:
    Jan 30, 2008
    Location:
    Indiana
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    not to sound clich'e but you might want to practise on some still life shots first, flowers or something to help have a system down before you start on people
    good luck
     
  9. Larry.Manuel

    Larry.Manuel Member

    Messages:
    291
    Joined:
    Jan 23, 2005
    Location:
    Kuiper Belt
    Shooter:
    Medium Format
    In high school days, the commercial photographer had a wooden fixed focus camera and a chain that he pulled out to each person's nose just before the exposure. That was early / mid 1970's in northern Ontario. If I recall, he wound the film on, implying, to me, 120 or 220.

    You might want to look at some depth of field calculations - [for example] a 135mm lens at f/4.5 has a very shallow D.O.F., especially in close. You may find what you want at f/8. [I'm no expert in 4x5, so do your own thing.]
     
  10. BetterSense

    BetterSense Member

    Messages:
    3,070
    Joined:
    Aug 16, 2008
    Location:
    North Caroli
    Shooter:
    35mm
    Seems like if you had an SLR or view camera with a fast lens, you could set it up next to the 'real' camera and peep it to make sure the subject hasn't moved.

    I don't quite understand the attraction of the razor-thin DOF done on purpose. I understand the appeal of isolating your subject, but to me, the subject is the person, and to me it seems basic taste that the person or at least their face should be in focus.
     
  11. Ian David

    Ian David Member

    Messages:
    1,079
    Joined:
    Dec 19, 2006
    Location:
    Brisbane, Au
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Thanks for the further suggestions. Some more food for thought...

    One of the beauties of photographing my brothers and sisters is that, as family, they are almost obliged to put up with a bit of trial and error on my part!

    Yeah, it's just one look I want to play around with, amongst others. But I have seen it very effectively used on occasion. The subject is the person, but some would probably say that the eyes reveal the person. Anyway I'm not sure what approach I will ultimately go with for the final prints, but I want to experiment a bit.
    Ian
     
  12. colrehogan

    colrehogan Member

    Messages:
    2,016
    Joined:
    May 11, 2004
    Location:
    St. Louis, M
    Shooter:
    Large Format Pan
    I did some portraits of my husband and our next door neighbor as they sat outside and played cards last week. I don't know how in focus the images were, I was not directing them and I was also using a lens with an air bulb release. I couldn't fill the frame without getting in the way, so I didn't worry too much. I was using a 270 mm Crown Anastigmat. I was hoping to shoot wide open at f/4.5, but the shutter speed was too fast for my old Compound shutter. I had to stop down just to get the shutter speed within the capability of the shutter.

    I developed several of the negs today, but haven't had a chance to look at them.
     
  13. Rolleiflexible

    Rolleiflexible Restricted Access

    Messages:
    1,274
    Joined:
    Mar 22, 2005
    Location:
    New York Cit
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    There is a risk to this. I have
    come to appreciate that most
    people sway when they close
    their eyes, side to side, front
    to back.
     
  14. Sponsored Ad
  15. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser

    Messages:
    19,311
    Joined:
    Jun 21, 2003
    Location:
    local
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    very true ...
    i guess one needs to gauge their sitter
    to see how sway-ish they are, and figure
    out which method ( string, plastic egg, chain, headclamp/rest &C )
    works best ... i tend to have a conversation with them
    get the rough focus, fiddle with the pose, and then tell them
    how they need to be still for a second &C ...
    it is the best when the dof is razor thin and the exposure is
    between 15 and 30 seconds :wink:

    sometimes over fiddling around, playing with the focus, eggs, strings &C
    leaves the sitter wondering what the heck is going on ...
     
  16. David A. Goldfarb

    David A. Goldfarb Moderator Staff Member

    Messages:
    17,922
    Joined:
    Sep 7, 2002
    Location:
    Honolulu, Ha
    Shooter:
    Large Format
    Another method that I use it to study the shadows on the face closely while focusing. I'm usually looking at details like where the nose shadow meets the top lip. Then when the filmholder is in place, shutter cocked, darkslide removed, I can adjust the head slightly so the shadows line up as they did when I was focusing, and most of the time the leading eye will be in focus. It's not quite as reliable as the string trick, but it works most of the time.
     
  17. DanielStone

    DanielStone Member

    Messages:
    3,105
    Joined:
    Dec 30, 2008
    Location:
    Los Angeles
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    i shot some head and shoulder, really shallow DOF portraits of my immediate family members 6 months ago or so, and i had them sit across the bathtub (yes, legs sticking out the side, hanging over the edge). since the wall in that bathroom is white, i had them wear a white t-shirt, and them being able to rest their head against the wall helped maintain focus. i focused on the eyes, and after developing, ALL were just as I wanted them! I attached two Nikon speed-lights with pocketwizards, and bounced them off the ceiling in order to bring all the tones up a bit, and since the only 4x5 film i had at the time was 4x5 QL acros, i needed all the help i could get :smile:

    here is an example of my mum from that little get-together of my family

    not edited, but an idea of what i was doing

    [​IMG]

    -dan
     
  18. Shangheye

    Shangheye Member

    Messages:
    1,094
    Joined:
    Jul 26, 2007
    Location:
    Belgium
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    I use Tilt. It is surprising how much movement the sitter can make in the tilted plane of focus, since it would now run "through" where their head is, not just up to it as with normal parallel plane of focus, where distance is critical...K
     
  19. eddym

    eddym Member

    Messages:
    1,927
    Joined:
    Jan 22, 2006
    Location:
    Puerto Rico
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Simple solution: just staple the string to their upper lip. If you shoot fast, you can get some great expressions!
    :wink:
     
  20. erikg

    erikg Member

    Messages:
    1,461
    Joined:
    Feb 10, 2003
    Location:
    pawtucket rh
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    ha! Like Karsh pulling Churchill's cigar from his mouth.
    John, what are the plastic eggs for?

    Slightly ot: graflex slr are great for this type of photography.
     
  21. keithwms

    keithwms Member

    Messages:
    6,075
    Joined:
    Oct 14, 2006
    Location:
    Charlottesvi
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Oh do I have a solution for you....

    http://neatorama.cachefly.net/images/2006-07/daguerreotype-head-clamp.jpg

    Indeed it is possible to get very smooth shallow-DOF effects at the enlarger- you just take a reasonable DOF shot and put some angle between the plane of the film and the paper. You can easily throw the focus in any direction you want... or in multiple directions if you shim the paper creatively. I've done this a few times recently with slide film... putting some angle between the slide and some b&w duping film, and then contact printing the dupe.
     
  22. Ian David

    Ian David Member

    Messages:
    1,079
    Joined:
    Dec 19, 2006
    Location:
    Brisbane, Au
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    Yes, that head clamp is exactly what I am looking for, Keith. Probably nobody sells such useful things (although it looks like something my dentist may have hidden away somewhere) - so I guess I should build one. It would need to be pretty robust in case my sitters start to struggle...

    I would definitely prefer to do the shallow DOF with the camera, rather than the enlarger if possible.
     
  23. keithwms

    keithwms Member

    Messages:
    6,075
    Joined:
    Oct 14, 2006
    Location:
    Charlottesvi
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    P.S. A *very* easy way to do this is with 35mm... using a longish fast AF lens or just a manual lens with focus confirmation. E.g. the nikon 105/1.8 gives extremely shallow DOF. Let's see, I think that's what I did for this (on the left) quick handheld shot. Getting the focus right is very easy, and if you screw up one frame, hey, it's 35mm roll film, who cares. You can 'bracket' the aperture if you wish. If you do your shooting to slide (e.g. astia or scala or some other dr5 processed b&w) then you can make a 4x5 or larger dupe neg on b&w and off you go.

    Beware that super-isolated DOF has become quite the fad lately, but... I'll admit it is fun to play with.

    P.S. For ultra shallow DOF with no focus difficulties, I also use the Nikon 50/1.2, it's great fun.
     
  24. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser

    Messages:
    19,311
    Joined:
    Jun 21, 2003
    Location:
    local
    Shooter:
    Multi Format
    ian

    the thing to do is get your set-up and practice with a friend &C ..
    kind of like a dry-run ...
    have the person sit, do some sort of chit-chat as you focus and all that stuff
    ... have them pose ... and see how things work for you.
    the hardest part of any portrait is making the person
    not realize they are in front of a camera ( or maybe not :smile: )
    and getting your "routine" down so you can focus their eyes ( or maybe not :smile: ),
    notice everything as you lock your focus ...
    then stand next to the camera and get them to do what you want , so they aren't fidgeting around while
    you focus + refocus &C ...
    what fstop are you hoping to shoot at ? you have a little bit of leeway
    sometimes ... ( even wide open! )

    the plastic egg is that thing tied to the end of a string, and it is just barely long enough
    to touch the sitter's nose ... you know, like 3rd grade picture day :smile:

    and i agree the graflex slr is the ideal camera for portraits like this!
     
  25. gerryyaum

    gerryyaum Subscriber

    Messages:
    467
    Joined:
    Aug 17, 2008
    Location:
    Canada
    Shooter:
    Med. Format Pan
    Love this idea..thanks ...when I shot some tight heads recently I was always worried that they had moved as I was running back behind the camera again after adjusting aperture....this string thing should help
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 26, 2009
  26. raucousimages

    raucousimages Member

    Messages:
    825
    Joined:
    May 12, 2003
    Location:
    Salt Lake
    Shooter:
    Large Format
    I use the string trick all the time but i use the corner of the closest eye, not the nose. Some of my portraits have the eye in focus but the nose and ear are out of focus. I love the look of an extremely shallow DOF.

    Another trick if you have the movements is to us a a generous amount of front tilt to give yo just a horizontal line that is in focus then do the same with rear swing to give a vertical line in focus. The overall effect is a spot in the center in focus and the rest of the image is out of focus.