View Full Version : Subject vs Background

11-03-2012, 09:25 AM
So I walked past the "Founders & Presidents" portrait wall at a local community college yesterday and had a couple minutes to look. My interest was purely photographic/artistic, not historic. (In a historic sense they all do their basic job, the college's roots are in the vocational world, it's not an art gallery.)

It was truly amazing how bad most of the photos were and I'm not talking about bad printing.

Out of 30 or so head and shoulders and 1/2 length portraits only two were nicely done, the big failing with the rest was with the backgrounds competing with the foreground.

In some the subject was so sharp in relation to the setting that it looked as if the portrait was a "cut and paste" project. In others the wrinkles in the background curtains or walls were as prominent as the wrinkles in the subjects face. In others the backgrounds were too busy, bright, or just plain ugly to ignore.

Most even appear to have been done by local "pros" over the last 55 years.

The two portraits that succeeded were classic in style and pose. One was older, a B&W a bit low in contrast, prominent grain fading to white. The newer one was color on a black background, the background was lit with a well placed spot behind the subject to allow a nice transition and gentle offsetting of the subject from the background. Nothing in these two photo's backgrounds were in competition with the subject.

I've seen similar "problems" at various company or organizational walls of fame.

Is it really the case that 28 of 30 "pros" the college chose over 55 years are that bad?

Why is it so tough for us photographers as a group to do good portraits?

Have Y'all seen similar issues?

11-03-2012, 01:56 PM
There seem to be few excellent portraitists...those who know how to optimized lighting placement to best flatter the subject, who know good posing (and who avoid the hand up to the chin, in the stilted and cliche graduation photo pose which supposedly eliminates the 'floating head'). Most practice 'formula lighting' and 'formula poses', that look ordinary and cliche.

It does not help that most executive portaits are done in a rush manner, with location lighting set up on site hurriedly to least inconvenience the executive.

11-03-2012, 04:32 PM
Most practice 'formula lighting' and 'formula poses', that look ordinary and cliche.

It does not help that most executive portaits are done in a rush manner, with location lighting set up on site hurriedly to least inconvenience the executive.

I guess this is one of the reasons I'm surprised. Formula is part of most professional work. Hurrel and Karsh used "formulas" too, it is evident in that their style is clear in much, if not most, of their work.

What's so tough about coming up with a good basic formula?

11-04-2012, 11:44 AM
Perhaps the issue is that so many simply MIMIC what they see as lighting setups in books, rather than developing their own lighting style.

11-04-2012, 12:17 PM
Could be, but mimicry and stealing ideas from our predecessors is a time honored tradition in our world.

Its like the ones that did not do well chose the wrong role models or were just lazy about it.

11-04-2012, 02:12 PM
An acquaintance of mine has his own wedding and portrait photography business. The shots of his that I've seen usually evidence near zero thought given to either the background/backdrop or depth of field. Actually composition seems to have been a hasty afterthought as well. I've seen quite a few other "professional" photographers who have acquired the same aforementioned "style". I had mulled this over and came to a loose conclusion that it is a result of the digital world making everyone a self-perceived expert....but...Now that you mention this same scenario stretching decades back, makes me think that perhaps this is simply a case of every profession having its fair share of hacks? For instance, ever seen someone with a bad tattoo and wondered who the miserable slob was that did the work?

11-05-2012, 06:06 PM
i know a wedding photo company that sells a flat rate wedding package and they will give you a cd every photo they shoot. now they are all jpg images, (thus not very modifiable) and every one is flawed - dust, need of extensive cropping, poor composition! they make there money when you order prints because the require extensive photoshopping...

i imagine 50 years ago there were an analog equivalent. though they might have taken a bit more care, they probably were the low end photog of the day!

11-05-2012, 09:12 PM
I think it's an indication that being in the* business indicates primarily that you have business skills. 90% of everything is crap, most people are hacks even if they're profitable hacks.

If you want to see terrifying examples of mediocrity passed off as "professional" work, get into software. See also: Dunning-Kruger Effect.

* "the business" here really applies to nearly any field of commercial endeavour that one could choose.

11-06-2012, 05:51 AM
I agree Polyglot.

Doesn't have to be that way.

One of the role models I aspire to mimic is Jose Villa. ( Josevillaphoto.com )

He has a well defined style that looks good and is well supported by his business plan.

He shoots film because it is well suited to the aesthetic effects he wants and it is workable because he doesn't need 2000+ shots to cover a wedding.

Jose sends the film to a lab because it saves his time and focus for selling and shooting. I think this is actually an extension of the attitude/business ideas, that Henri Cartier-Bresson had.

Film and proofs come back ready for the client to proof. (Scans are done too so he is ready for the next steps.)

Jose weeds the trash out of the proofs and is down to a few hundred shots for the client to sort through (instead of a few thousand).

Jose meets physically with the client who keeps 1 out of each 3 or 4 shots and those are sent out the next subcontractor on the chain for finishing.

Easy peasy, next.

11-06-2012, 05:47 PM
Yeah I'm not accusing all pros of being crap, just most pros in all fields. There are always outliers like Hurrell and Villa to aspire to: people who have the domain-specific skills as well as the business skills.

I think photography is in an interesting place now because it's moving back to its amateur* roots. It was dominated by professionals for the latter half of the 20th century because the capital cost of entry was so high, but that's gone now. That's obviously bad if you're a photography professional (see all the pissing and moaning on forums like FM) but I think it's good for photography as a whole; despite the huge boom in crap output, there is also a boom in high-quality output because quality equipment got much more accessible. In other words, if you can find a way to filter out the 90%, the quality and quantity of exceptional practitioners has exploded because people can now do photography that they could never have previously afforded.

* in the sense of the skilled and passionate practitioner who does something because (s)he wants to, not because it will earn them a living.

01-02-2013, 01:44 PM
Interesting thread, particularly like polyglot's first post.

I'm on the verge of stepping into portraiture with a bit of freelancing in mind, and with much trepidation - perhaps partly because I'll be shooting digital primarily. I'm also surprised how many professionals are clearly doing very well without any sense of composition and in a lot of cases, very poor aesthetic judgement in post-processing. The thing is, clients are obviously happy with the results and with business in mind, any sudden self-awareness (in reference to Dunning-Kruger effect) might leave them struggling to pay the bills. Being as competitive as the game is, anyone with creative drive might ask themselves "why bother trying so hard?". A strong mind for business seems to be much more advantageous - is business 'vision' art? People who champion Apple seem to think so.

There are a few videos on YouTube by a successful photographer, Zack Arias. His insights are very informative, but I have to say, despite his criticism of many in his profession, his own work is pretty middle of the road. But perhaps I've spent too much time as an amateur aesthete. A big reason for my wanting to get into portraiture is the work of David Eustace (http://www.davideustace.com) which is so classic, simple and unaffected and about a million times more artful (I didn't say 'better') than Zack Arias. See his 'Character Project'. He started in his early 30s, after working as a prison warden in Glasgow! Surprising how many people get into professional portraiture as a dramatic and sudden career change. This seems to be getting more common with entrepreneurship becoming so celebrated in the current economy.