Environmental Portrait

So the 52 week photo challenge that I began as one of this year’s goals has proven to be… um… challenging. It’s not that the assignments are too difficult. It’s the time thing. You would think that with seven days in the week that there would be plenty of time to conceive of an idea, plan it and then execute it. Especially something as interesting as an environmental portrait. That has not proven to be the case. But that was part of the reason for taking on the challenge. I know I need to spend more time with my camera in my hand and having a project with timeline helps me. Mostly.

Since I have missed some weeks, I know look for opportunities to complete assignments, even though they are well past due. This weeks, shot, from way back in week 10, is an example.

Yesterday I visited Historic Brattonsville in York County, SC, a historic home site and “living museum”. I responded to an appeal for photographers in the area that would be willing to shoot there and share images with them for their use in promoting the site. One of their largest annual events is coming up, and I thought a visit beforehand to familiarize myself with the grounds – and to take some shots in a “calmer” setting – would be beneficial.

There’s a lot to see and experience at Brattonsville. Among other areas, I found myself spending a fair amount of time at the blacksmith area. Two men worked an old forge and hammered metal just like so many others have done for a few hundred years.

The most visually interesting place was the forge itself. I became intrigued by the flying sparks and the fact that these men worked directly over them, coaxing the heat into the metal they were working. It was a typically warm June day, and the working environment did little to add to their comfort.

The Process

They were shaded from the sun by a small roof, but the area behind them was bright. Obviously, it was more important to create an exposure that allowed us to see them clearly, even though it meant that the area behind them would be over exposed.

I also wanted to be able to see those sparks in the image, and to capture their movement. That meant shooting so that men themselves created a darker background behind them. Shooting from any other angle meant that the sparks simply disappeared into the wash of that lighter, overexposed area outside of the blacksmith’s roof. That also meant a slower shutter speed than normal to catch the “blur” of the moving sparks.

Environmental Portrait of Blacksmiths at Historic Brattonsville
Blacksmiths at Historic Brattonsville

Technical Details:

  • Nikon D7100
  • Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 Di VC USD G2
  • 42mm
  • 1/30 @ f/5.6
  • ISO 400

I suppose that in the strictest of terms, this picture isn’t really a portrait. It is a candid. However, the men were fully aware that I was taking pictures and seemed to purposefully hold their positions and poses longer than necessary. Their engagement in the process moves this beyond a candid snapshot to an environmental portrait.

Challenges and things to continue working on: 

At the risk of beating the dead horse, I will mention again that time is the biggest challenge. As for environmental portraits and this particular image, the area that required the most work was finding an exposure that allowed us to see them men in the dark shade of that roof, and see the brighter sparks at the same time. Candidly, it took a little work in post-processing to bring them out of the shadows. I then desaturated the entire image to compensate for some of the side effects of that shadow removal. It might be interesting to return and experiment with some fill flash.

The takeaway: 

I enjoy this process; finding someone in their element and capturing both them and the story of who they are and what they do. This is a genre that I think I would like to explore more in the future. In fact, I’ve already talked to a neighbor with some amazing vintage earthmoving equipment, and the gentlemen who runs a cluttered, but fascinating, shoe repair shop. Both of these would make for an excellent environmental portrait, I would think.

Now, on to the next assignment!

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