The Serious Jester

Soccer coach, bar owner, and world citizen Nigel Chisholm

Village Jester owner Nigel Chisholm may have been jesting when he commented on a photo I posted on Facebook: “I want Dean to make me look that good.”

I explained that I don’t make anyone look good – I just know when to open the shutter. He suggested I open the shutter for him, and I liked the idea. I’ve gotten very comfortable making headshots and portraits in my studio, but I need to practice environmental photography, so why not start in one of my favorite environments: a bar.

I experimented with short lighting, broad lighting, color, black and white, high contrast, low contrast. I was surprised at how big a difference the size of the image made. The higher contrast images looked better when the image was small, but far too dramatic when the image was large.

I came into the session with two goals: 1) compose images that show/suggest the environment but keep Nigel as the point of interest, and 2) try to capture a serious expression.

The first goal is self-evident, as that is the goal of environmental portraiture, but why a serious expression? Quite simply, a serious expression seems more interesting than a smile. When we see a photograph of a smiling person, we’re less inclined to wonder what’s going on in the person’s mind. Naturally, if we were making images to promote the bar, we’d be all smiles. But I want to learn how to make photos that stand on their own as interesting documents.

I don't object to a smiling face, but I think a serious portrait holds the viewer's attention a little bit longer. Unless the viewer is studying all the booze labels in the background...

Managing Ambient, Fill, Key, and Accent lights reminded me that I’ve learned a lot about lighting, but I still don’t know what I like. Some of the lessons from this session include:

  1. I need a softbox or two to better control spill. I used a shoot-through umbrella for key light, but the spaces were too tight to prevent spill onto the background.
  2. I need more practice with my super-wide lens. None of the images made with my 11-16 were usable. I either need to learn how to make distortion work for me, or learn how to conceal it.
  3. I need to experiment with contrast ratios in my lighting set-ups. Nearly all of the photos looked more dramatic when I boosted the contrast during post-processing. In color, the higher contrast versions look better at small sizes and the lower contrast versions look better at large sizes. In black and white, the higher contrast versions look a little better – to my eye – at any size.

All that said, I think I’m off to a good start, and I’m grateful to Nigel for his patience and comradeship during the shoot. There are a lot of interesting spaces I didn’t use at The Village Jester that could make it an excellent second studio!

For a small, online profile picture, I'd recommend boosting the contrast a little. This is a crop of the first image above. The contrast boost makes the brighter side of Nigel's face visible even when the image is very small. As you can see, at larger sizes it seems a little self-consciously dramatic.

Techno-Fun: Nikon D300, Nikon 17-55 f/2.8, Nikon SB-800, Nikon SB-600, umbrellas, snoots, grids, diffuser domes, and who knows what all. I was at a bar, you know.


Filed under Lighting, Portraiture

2 responses to “The Serious Jester

  1. Diana Kelly

    I love the first one of Nigel. Great image, Dean. You are too good.

  2. Myrna Cambianica

    he looks good to me … would like to see more of that tattoo tho!

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