Thursday, 21 April 2011

Surviving cancer

This is Nushi Khan-Levy. Nushi's body is cancer free after two operations, and today she had the last course of the chemotherapy which will help keep the cancer away. Nushi was interviewed about surviving cancer earlier this week for the Graceful Death film. I was fortunate to be asked to take some portrait images and I wanted to share some of the pictures here with my refections and some learning points.

It was a pleasure and an honour to meet Nushi: she was full of energy and spirit and a wicked sense of humour (since she lost all her hair people keep telling her what a nice shaped head she has: her husband and daughter were a little taken aback when she suggested she might donate her head to an artist to study if she died).

A busy and successful actress, Nushi hasn't really liked looking at herself in the mirror since she lost her hair. She tried a wig but just couldn't get on with it. In addition the steroids she needs to take make her face rather rounder than it was. Not having eyelashes is a pain (literally) as your eyes get quite gritty without their protective curtain. But every day she puts on her make-up and faces the world, driven largely by a desire to show her daughters that nothing is too difficult to be managed: the secret is not to give up or give in. 

In preparing for the session I had two main thoughts. I was very keen to take good pictures: this seemed too important to mess up. I decided that the key to a good portrait would be the interaction between me/the camera and the subject, and resolved to try to empathise with and really look at her and to tune into her energy levels and see where that led. My second thought before I got there was that I'd have liked to do some moody black and white images (maybe a cross between Richard Avedon and Sarah Moon) but that ambition didn't fit with who Nushi is. Her house is full of clean lines and light. She says that since the cancer lots of small worries have faded away and these bright, direct images seem to me to reflect that. My initial idea of rather fashion-led pictures seems a little insubstantial in comparison.

 The painting in the background in this picture is by Nushi's very talented sister. I was a little concerned that it might be too busy as a portrait background but think this works quite well.

The light in this image is I think acceptable. Ideally I would have liked to have had the lighter side of her face and body further from the camera rather than nearer to it as here. Something to work on for future sessions.

Overall I am pleased with the way the session went in photographic terms. I think that I have caught some sense of this remarable and very beautiful woman.

I think the first picture in particular shows her extraordinary combination of strength and honesty and vulnerability.

This is the first time I have tried to take portraits as part of a larger session including filming and an interview. It was difficult sometimes to catch and hold her attention as so many other things were happening. I think that the key to a good still portrait is to be able to get your subject's attention and hold it in the image, and I think my learning point for future sessions is to work at finding ways to make the most of quiet moments and to find ways to make more of them, without getting in the way of the main event, which is the interview and filming. Overall I am pleased with the pictures I got: I would have liked to have more to choose from. 

I also plan to continue to work towarsd more interesting light. In the event my almost trademark soft flattish light mostly works here. But I'd like to be a little more in control of it.

I thought I'd end the post with a picture showing her warmth and laughter.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The fish that fell to Earth

Last week's instruction for the Street Photography Now project was from photographer Paul Russell, who suggested we "Go somewhere you haven't been before - a dog show, a polo match...". Last weekend there was a kite festival on Streatham Common: it coincided with a glorious summer-like day and I thought I'd look by and see if I could find any interesting pictures. I had a pretty good day overall. Sadly it was such a busy week that I failed to put a picture into the pool (again) but I got some that I liked. The light was very intense which was problematic at times but gives a really nice three-dimensional effect to people and shapes. No one was hurt when the kite/balloon finally fell to earth. As well as the main scene I like the little boy and girl on the left hand side, being watched over by the green starey thing...

The festival demonstrated to my ignorant eyes what a range of kites are available. These are sports kites, which can be made to do the most amazing things, often to music.

The picture below reminds me a bit of Peter Dench's work.

The next two remind me of Joel Meyerowitz's  Central Park pictures. They're fairly typical park scenes, and I didn't take them for that reason, but looking at them on screen afterwards did make me wonder how often we unconsciously imitate or are influenced by others. How much does looking at other works help us to see more or differently ourselves?

Not quite as incongruous as a loo roll, but odd to see the carrier bag there nevertheless. Perhaps that should be our next OCA comp?

Almost as colourful as his kite.

Father and son. I liked the leisurely approach.

Looking away. I saw this dog from a way away and thought he looked interesting so I wandered over in his direction. I took the picture on instinct because I liked the shapes and light. But on looking at it on screen I think it's interesting how everyone is looking in different directions: the dog is looking at me, the men are looking at the mother and child, the woman is looking at the ground and the baby is staring off into space. I also like the little group in the middle distance that look like a grandfather taking a snap of his granddaughter.


Group scene. As the day went on the common got increasingly busy. I struggle with busy scenes: my natural instinct is to simplify and concentrate attention on a limited subject or set of shapes, and I find it hard to make a satisfying composition with lots of elements - to see the design in the bigger picture. That said, I am quite pleased with this one. It's not perfect - ideally I'd like a little more interest on the left hand side to balance the whole - but I think it gives a good sense of a busy scene without wholly losing the plot.

Slightly surreal. Not a perfect composition, but the scene was over in a few seconds so I didn't have time to rearrange. As well as the cow shape I like the little puppet boy on the bottom left. ; -)

The solitary spectator. My alter ego.

Saturday, 9 April 2011


Another spring flower. These pictures were taken almost exactly a year ago, at Kew. I was never been able to decide whether they work or not and haven't posted them until now. Last spring, as you may recall, was very windy, which made shooting close up images out of doors very tricky indeed. To get a reasonably fast shutter speed I stuck to f/8 and below, which wasn't sufficient to allow for full sharpness (let alone the problem of getting focus when they kept moving). Because the pictures are so minimal in terms of detail I think every thing that is included needs to work extra hard, so the lack of DOF does pull them back and is a fatal flaw. But I am interested in knowing what others think.

The picture above is probably my overall favourite - I really like the top left of the picture with the two petals shielding the core. If the line of the petal in the bottom right had been sharp I would have been very happy, but c'est la vie. Another reason for not posting this last year is that originally the bottom right petal was very white, which made it quite distracting. I knew I wanted a wash of soft pink just to take the edge off it but a few attempts with brushes and various other tools failed. I knew a gradient fill work but struggled with the tool. It's actually incredibly simple once you know how. This time, I sampled a pale pink from one of the upper petals and used the gradient toool to apply a soft wash to the front. Here is the original for comparison.

These are two leaf details. I liked the simple, almost abstract shapes they made. Again there's a lack of sharp focus - this time in the dark centre leaves. That said, I think they work quite well as a simple diptych.

Finally a detail from a plant that had lost its petals: a naked camellia, and the only one where I got good focus all the way through. Time for some more practice soon, I think...

Spring flowers

Last weekend I went for a lovely afternoon tea with good friends, in a lovely litle tea room in West Sussex (well worth a trip if you're nearby). The tea shop is in a converted cottage and was full of pretty things and great cakes. I took a few snaps while I was there. The first one above shows one of the table decorations. I've been meaning to try using textures for some time and this picture looked like a good candidate. The back wall was roughly textured but as it was out of focus it lacked a certain oomph. I feel that the texture just gives the eye something to fix on in what would otherwise have been a large expanse with limited visual interest. It's a very simple picture but overall I am pleased with it: it is pretty and delicately colourful and makes me feel happy.

Another table from the tea room, showing the former cottage door in the background. I liked the light shining through - it feels like spring is finally with us. The texture in the curtain and tablecloth seemed more than sufficient in this image and I was tempted to play around with it in any way. Overall I don't think it has quite the impact of the first image (maybe because the first is genuinely simple and sufficient in itself, but this seems to tell half a story and needs either more information or less) but I like it well enough.

Finally, having begun to experiment with texture layers I dug out a picture I took some time ago and which I felt need some work, but wasn't at the time sure what to do.

Again this is a very simple picture with few elements. I've always liked the combination of colours - pinks, creams and brown - and the composition, but the original has a fairly plain brown background made from a bedsheet and the light is soft and undramatic and it looked a little dull. I used a couple of texture layers on the background, using vivid light and overlay blending modes, and think it has given the background much more interest without distracting from the flowers. I used a multiply layer at reduced opacity to darken the jug down a little so that the flowers stand out more in comparison. I think the picture is significantly improved as a result of this work. 

I've enjoyed this experiment with textures. I find it very easy to overdo it them - I had to redo the last picture a few times as each time I returned it looked a bit heavy-handed. Originally I let some of the texture inpact on the flowers but that just didn't work. I look forward to further experiments on this front. The textures I used came from The Florabella Collection, which has a number of helpful tutorials for any who wants to try themselves. I have taken a number of texture images over the last year myself and will experiment with using some of those later also.