Assignment 2 – Proof of concept; decisions and issues

For assignment 2, I will take my inspiration from Richard Avedon and Clare Strand. Avedon fits the ‘vice versa’ concept by taking his studio outdoors and simplifying lighting to the use of ‘open shade’ natural northlight. Strand fits it by using a studio environment to reproduce a stylised form of a location environment.

I will add a personal criterion. As an antidote to demotivation, the project must be fun for me and for my subjects.

My idea is to create a simplified studio for use on location. In asking for sitters, I have offered to make the portraits in their own back gardens. Therefore I need studio equipment that is light, compact and easy to set-up and strike. I have bought several 7x5ft pictorial backdrops from an eBay supplier (woodland, beach, castle interior and pirate ship) and will ask my sitters to respond to the background, with minimal direction (“be yourself or your fantasy version of yourself”). Effectively, I will be faking a location – on location.


Today’s exercise was a ‘proof of concept’ using a lightweight background frame. It quickly threw up some issues to be dealt with. The weather was light overcast, with light winds…

I can understand why Avedon taped his background paper to a convenient building or RV. In my case, I will look for sheltered locations and/or use additional weights and clips for stability. However, I am reluctant to include sandbags in the set-up as they are heavy an bulky, conflicting with my basic concept. After this, I set up closer to the house and clipped down the bottom corners of the backdrop. My eventual ‘studio kit’ will include gaffer tape and string to give me options for securing the backdrop.

Lighting will be the subject of another exercise at the weekend. The options appear to be:

  • Rely entirely on ambient ‘open shade’ lighting.
  • ‘Shape’ the ambient lighting with reflectors
  • Supplement natural lighting with on-camera flash
  • Supplement natural lighting with off-camera flash

Reflectors have the advantage of simplicity, but require an assistant to hold them. Flash will allow me to work single-handed but adds complexity to the system.

I did some experimenting with lenses and framing. I want to throw the backgrounds out of focus, with the twin objectives of isolating the subject and ‘smoothing out’ creases in the backdrops. I also discovered that 7x5ft is not large when photographing a standing adult, so I will work on waist-up or head-and-shoulders images. My lens of choice is a Pentax 85mm f/2, which was my favourite when used with Pentax ME-Supers in my film days. It is manual focus and has no electronic linkages, so it can only be used at full aperture.

At this point, my (long-suffering) wife arrived home from an airport run and I grabbed her as a test subject without an opportunity to finish lunch (“Sorry Jan, but the light is fading fast”). Both of these images are taken with the 85mm; in my case using a tripod, self-timer and pre-focusing.

Getting in a little closer (and tweaking  in Lightroom during post-processing) produced this result, which is the sort of thing that I am looking for.


If the concept works, I can see this as a long-term project, taking the ‘studio’ on holiday or genuinely into ‘the street’ and approaching strangers for images. I will submit for tutor feedback based on a preliminary set of family images, with the intention of re-working and selecting from a wider range at assessment time.


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