Alexander Laurent: Comparing Good Portraiture to a Waltz

All images and words by Alexander Laurent. Used with permission.

My name is Alexander Laurent, I’m an artist with my studio located in Downtown Los Angeles. I work in a number of different mediums, but lately it’s been black and white film photography. I prefer working in black and white. It forces the viewer to let the image take the lead. Color invokes subconscious emotions before you even register what it is you’re looking at. Red summons up anger. Yellow gives comfort and familiarity. Blue is soothing. An endless number of color combinations pre-register emotions in your brain. They dictate how you see the image before it’s even been processed. With black and white photos, there is no register. The image communicates only as much as you let it.

Like a waltz, each step of the viewer needs to be smooth, accurate and done with intent. Move too quickly, you’re left with a fleeting feeling and little to take away with you. Move with it, you begin to sense the emotion, see every detail, find every flaw. These beautiful and profound moments only occur when you are fully attentive and present. It’s why I love black and white photos. I want people to have an emotional response when they see my work. I don’t really care if you like the image, so long as you feel something when you see it. There’s a connection that’s created between myself and the sitter when taking a portrait. If I do my job right, I can convey that emotional connection to the viewer and let them in to a little piece of what I got to experience with that person. So much of that is lost in other facets of our lives. We live in an image-based society now. At every corner there’s a photo of someone trying to sell you something.

Everyone has a camera and is contributing to the giant diary of the human experience that is social media. It becomes hard to focus on imagery when we’re inundated with it on a regular basis. I hope people slow down when they see a black and white image, because they have to, or they’ll mis it. Nothing will jump out at you, you have to sit still and let it guide you. I hope that’s what people experience when looking at my images.

Jeff Rojas: On Photographing In the Studio And Not Giving Into the Trends (Premium Interview)

All images by Jeff Rojas. Used with permission.

Photographer Jeff Rojas has always been a modern photographer with a whole lot of class that isn’t seen in a lot of modern photographers. He carries himself professionally, shoots, educates, etc. Oh, and he’s a fantastic portrait photographer. Jeff has some interesting thoughts and thought processes when it comes to marketing oneself as a photographer.

So he we got a chance to speak about this and his reverence of Irving Penn.

You’ve been one of the more recent photographers that believes and tries to emphasize men as portrait subjects. And in all of your images you’ve got this sense of edgy elegance to the final product. This is pretty much a trademark of yours, something that genuinely says “This is a Jeff Rojas photo.” What makes you lean towards this style of imagery?

That’s very kind of you. Thank you. Honestly? I’m not 100% certain. I wish I could give you a concrete “this is why” answer, but I can’t. It just felt like me. Funny enough, like many other photographers these days, I didn’t go to school for photography and didn’t get a chance to study the greats.

A makeup artist I work with recommended I should see a gallery at the MET because the photographer’s work reminded her of me. I didn’t listen to a name… in fact, I just decided to go on a whim one day. That photographer turned out to be Irving Penn. Walking through his gallery made me feel oddly at home. To make things weirder, I started seeing a lot of similarities in our work. Let me also be clear to say that I’m not at that level YET by any means…but I felt an odd connection to his body of work.

What do you personally think makes for a great studio portrait?

Photography like any other art is subjective, but I believe it starts by capturing the essence of your subject in a way that engages the viewer.

When you first got started in portrait photography, what were you like back then vs now? What are some major milestones that you feel you conquered?

One of the biggest hurdles that I faced was finding my own style. I worked alongside another photographer for the better part of two years and it was difficult to develop my own identity – my own voice. Second to that was feeling like my work wasn’t good enough for “everyone else.” The truth of the matter is… the only person you should be worried about liking your images is the person paying for you to take them – not other photographers and not your friends.

What deems an image to be portfolio worthy for you personally? That is, when you’re done looking at all the images from your session and you’ve culled and edited, what determines whether or not an image makes it onto your website?

I had a little bit of an epiphany a couple of months ago where I sat down with an art director and a photo agent to critique my portfolio because I started to feel like my portfolio was a mishmash of miscellaneous shoots I’ve done over the last few years. Truth be told, it was. It felt like therapy. They both sat me down and said: “show what excites you.” If that doesn’t sound traditional, don’t worry. I didn’t get it at first either. Long story short, you ABSOLUTELY want to show the work that you want to be hired for… but you should also be excited by the work you’re creating. If you’re not showing that work, then it shows on your face when you present your book to someone. Be proud of what you create.

“Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is the one they would like to show to the world… Every so often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe. – Irving Penn”

Lots of photographers have talked about portraiture and a connection with the subjects that they photograph. Do any really memorable quotes really stick out at you and you feel have come to help define who you are as a photographer?

No…Although this is going to sound WEIRD. I think as an image-maker you have to fall in love with your subject in that particular moment in time. Nothing pervy. Just in the moment, capture that person for who they really are.

For you, what makes a black and white portrait effective? Of course, you need good content. But you’ve obviously already got that. But what often makes an image better when rendered in black and white?

Lighting is one of the most overlooked parts of black and white photography. It’s not about “convert to black and white” and you’re done. Quite the opposite really. You should have a thorough understanding of contrast and lighting in order to translate dimension in black and white since you can’t rely on color to do that for you.

How do you think men and women differ in the studio when being portrait subjects? Do you think that age plays a part of their personalities?

“A beautiful print is a thing in itself, not just a halfway house on the way to the page. – Irving Penn”

I think personality plays a factor more than age. As the old saying goes “age is just a number.” Some people love being in front of the camera, for others, it’s like pulling teeth. Regardless of gender, our job is to make each feel comfortable and evoke the best expression we can out of our clients.

You’ve never really been one to go with trends it seems. Instead, you’ve always been a photographer that really has some edge and definition in his own work. What are your clients typically like? Who are they? How do you think they differ from others (let’s say Peter Hurley)?

It’s funny that you say that… because although I’m aware of trends, I do my absolute best to carve my own path. For instance, HSS outdoors is a really big thing right now, as is Oliphant Backdrops. Two years ago, it was feathers and parachute dresses. Before that, it was lens baby and optical distortion. I don’t want to be one of those photographers. Let me be clear. I LOVE Oliphant backdrops and I use High Speed Sync, but I’m less concerned with what other photographers are doing and more concerned with what my client’s needs are.

Peter and I have different clients. Peter has a great portrait photography business focusing on actor and professional headshots and I’m actually shooting a lot more commercial work these days (commercial advertising). As such, it’s been a lot less formulaic than his work. Each client’s needs are different and my workflow to accomplish the assignment can vary from simple to complex. It really keeps things interesting.

What do you feel is more important: being someone that a client wants to work with, marketing, or your portfolio? Why? I think that you can agree with me that there are some absolutely terrible photographers out there that kill it at marketing and there are photographers with great portfolios but abysmal people skills.

Here’s the short answer: Create a marketable portfolio that makes clients want to work with you.

Here’s the long answer: “There is art in commerce and commerce in art.” Absolutely quote me on that. Why? Because it’s true. There are great photographers who cannot afford to pay rent and there are crappy photographers who make six and seven figures. Listen, how many photography institutions have closed in the last 5 years? How many companies in the photography industry have closed their doors? How many people have gone out of business? How many agencies have closed their doors?

It’s the reality we live in. I don’t believe in focusing on what you can’t control – you either adapt to the market or get eaten alive. That’s business. As a photographer you’re providing a product or service, you’re in the business of photography. I don’t care how great your skills are – if you don’t learn how to market them effectively, that’s your own fault. No one else’s.

Here’s an example. Joe runs a mechanic shop in New York City. Joe has been working on gas powered V8s his entire life. One day, everyone has switched over to electric and other alternative energy powered vehicles, but Joe didn’t take the time to learn how to work on those. Joe goes out of business.

I don’t blame the industry for evolving. I blame Joe for not investing the time to learn. That’s the brutal honest truth.

Stop complaining about having to learn how to market your business and do it.

“The severe portrait that is not the greatest joy in the world to the subject may be enormously interesting to the reader. – Irving Penn”

What are some things that you feel every studio photographer should always remember when they’re on set?

Have fun. Between the marketing, sales, accounting, operations, etc., it can be easy to forget why you started in the first place. You probably didn’t start for the money, you started because you had fun doing it. Don’t lose that.

Thibault Maestracci: Portraiture Inspired by Music

All images by Thibault Maestracci. Used with permission.

“I started my professional life as a sound engineer, and travel on tour with different French artists.” says photographer Thibault Maestracci. “I had free time during shows and begin to take my camera with me on tour and take pictures of all the team and artists during shows.” For Mr. Maestracci, he started to photograph and do things differently. He started to realize that photography and music and both linked via composition, editing, mixing and levels. This brought Mr. Maestracci to work on composing differently too.

If you think about it all, that’s very poetic and makes a whole lot of sense. There’s a bit of inspiration or just messing around. Then you look at and record what you’ve got. At another time, you adjust parts of the audio in the same way that you’d adjust parameters in Photoshop. Eventually, you come out with a finished product of some sort. Of course, the commodification of all this is much different now–as is the whole creation process. Anyone can take a great photo, but not everyone knows how to play power chords. Though to be fair, the music world had itself turned upside down with Hip Hop’s using recorded tracks and punk rockers not knowing what they were doing with their instruments in a garage and playing for their friends.

“That’s certainly why I take a lot of black and white pictures, for me black and white is a bit like a mono record,”Mr. Maestracci explains. “it’s simple, and your eyes focus on contrast. We can tell a story different than in color.”

Of course, Mr. Maestracci finds inspiration in music. To shoot these images, he used his Sony a7 II with an old Asahi Takumar 85mm lens. He also used one continuous light with an umbrella. Mr. Maestracci very much enjoys using vintage and modern gear together because he believes that it gives him a unique look.

How to Work With Portrait Photography Subjects Who Aren’t Models

There are tons of tutorials on the web that teach you how to photograph people who are models; but not a whole lot for those that want to get into it and work with portrait subjects. A lot of this month’s content is around studio photography and ranges from those offered at beginners and advanced photographers alike. With that said, a large number of photographers (such as those who shoot street photography) have been considering getting into things like studio portraiture. Why? It makes them money. But the problem is that many people know how to find moment and photograph them, but they don’t know what to do with a canvas that’s right in front of them. It’s the idea of creating vs capturing. So how do you photograph portrait subjects that aren’t model when you’re just trying to get into studio portraiture.

Good Intentions

Bronica ETRS, 75mm f2.8, Kodak Tri-X 400. Flash placed off camera left.

I’m going to emphasize this point before all the others. You should have good intentions. There are way too many photographers who take to Instagram to simply exploit people and gain followers simply by showing off images of barely clothed, beautiful women. Don’t be one of those. Let your work actually stand for itself. For that to happen, you have to have a holistically good idea and intent all around not just for you, but for your subject. You have to listen to them. If someone says no, then both of you need to respect those decisions. Everyone on set should have respect for one another. When you’re starting out, that can typically mean just you and your subject.

“A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.”
— Annie Leibovitz

So with that said, make it sort of like a new friendship or relationship–except that you’re doing this for an artistic collaboration of some sort. In fact, GET THAT THROUGH YOUR HEAD. This is an artistic collaboration. Start off a bit more conservative and as you both gain trust in one another, you can work towards more ideas.

“I trust you.” is the absolute best thing that a photographer can hear.

Curating a Moodboard

Now that you’re creating images vs capturing them, you’ll need to gain some sort of inspiration. Lots of photographers draw inspiration from a number of key sources including:

  • Paintings: charcoal drawings are what I’m going after these days personally. But other photographers love drawing influence from great painters.
  • Movies: Spielberg movies, Lynch, Tarantino, and many others can give influence to photographs.
  • Other photographers: Come on, why would you not try to mimic the looks Avedon did?

Once you’ve got ideas, it’s very smart of you to organize them in one place to show off to your subject. These are often called a moodboard. For convenience, I typically put this stuff on Pinterest. Many photographers don’t understand why you’d want to create a moodboard when you’ve got the idea in your head, but think about it this way. If you’re cooking a meal, you’d want to have all the ingredients ready up front. If you don’t have them, then you need to stop what you’re doing when cooking to get more of them. Similarly, you’d need to stop what you’re doing to explore more ideas in the middle of a shoot. That wastes both of your times.

Having the ideas, feels, and moods altogether and ready means things go smoother. It’s prep-work sort of like having all the props of a set ready beforehand.

“A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.”
— Edward Steichen

The Sit Down Chat and Plan

When I used to shoot headshots, I often did a sit down chat with someone. Sometimes it involved a bit of alcohol to loosen the subject up and other times it involved coffee or tea. I asked them a number of questions so that I can formulate an idea. Here are some of those questions:

  • What’s your intention for this shoot?
  • What are you looking for out of the images?
  • What are the uses?
  • Where will you be showcasing them?
  • Define who you are in a one minute dialogue.
  • What are you thinking about wardrobe wise for this?

Sometimes it’s a great idea to have all this figured out beforehand.

Listening to Your Subject

While you’re doing the sit down chat and plan, you’re listening to your subject and formulating ideas. Essentially, put together connections of some sort. For example, if you’re at Comic Con shooting studio style with a backdrop then you can ask someone about who they’re cosplaying as, get their character to come out for the camera, and photograph that. But it takes listening. Otherwise, you can figure out quite a bit based on what they’re telling you about said character.

Going Through Their Wardrobe With Them

Go through a subject’s wardrobe with them. Hopefully, they’ve brought a few outfit variations to work with or you’re doing to convenient thing of bringing a portable studio to their place. Some folks have a favorite t-shirt while other people want to be photographed to look as professional as possible. All of this ties into exactly what we talked about earlier on: what are the uses, who are they, and what are they thinking wardrobe wise.

Be sure to work with contrasting colors. For example, a light skinned subject wearing red and being photographed against a red wall means that essentially the entire image will blend into one another tonality-wise. It’s tough to get away with that even in black and white. When you’re working with studio lights and flashes, gels can help with this a bit by creating some different tones in the scene.

Starting Off the Shoot and Progression

You’ve probably realized at this point in the article that we’re only now getting to the shoot. Indeed, shooting is perhaps the shortest part of the entire process of collaboration with or photographing a subject of some sort.

Now that your subject is in front of you, consult your Pinterest moodboard and figure out how you want to proceed. Then work on posing your subject. To do this, use hand signals and cues. Don’t touch your subject unless you’ve got permission from them to do so. A good idea is to work with your portrait subject by having a starting pose. When the flash goes off, have them reshuffle the pose just a bit. And be specific about that: say just a bit.

Sometimes, this idea doesn’t work.

Pro Tip: For harder light, make the light source smaller than the area of the subject that you’re photographing. This was shot with an 18 inch beauty dish. A six foot umbrella would have given off much softer light because it covers a larger area of the scene.

Talking to them and getting them to tell a story

The idea of having someone switch up their poses sometimes doesn’t always work simply because some folks aren’t very aware of how their body looks on camera. Additionally, constant posing and instructing can sometimes throw off the mood and flow of a shoot. So the other alternative or approach is to sit someone down in an interesting chair of some sort. It can be a bar stool, a kitchen table chair, etc. Then have them sit in an unconventional way.

After all that, just start talking to them and interviewing them. Come up with questions that will get them thinking and tell them to ignore the camera. If you’re trying to get smiles out of them, ask them something that will get them excited. It will make genuine emotions and feelings come out. Start capturing certain genuine emotions.

Now, go out there and shoot.

Four Super Sharp Black and White Film Emulsions Worthy of a Good Lens

Film photography is highly valued for the certain sense of softness it can deliver vs digital. But under the right circumstances, black and white film can be used to create and capture photos that are incredibly sharp. In fact, they can easily rival what digital is capable of. Believe it or not, lots of the methods that one uses for digital photography to make a sharp photo can easily be applied to film. So if you’re looking to get some of the sharpest photos you’ve ever shot, check out these four fantastic film emulsions.

Continue reading…

How Closely Does Fujifilm Acros Compare To the Digital Film Simulation?

This is a syndicated blog post from our premium publication La Noir Image. Subscribe for as little as $15 for access and free presets; $40/year gets you all that and a tutorial video coming soon; $100/year gets this and a portfolio critique with Chris.

One question that lots of photographers who have shot film wonder about is how closely Fujifilm’s film simulations closely mimic the look of film. Considering how Fujifilm created Acros, it would make a whole lot of sense that their digital simulation would be the closest thing possible to the film, right? Well, that depends on a number of different situations.Fujifilm Neopan Acros can take on different looks based on how you shot it and how you develop it. For example, Rodinal may make it look one way vs another developer. Then you’ll need to consider how the images were obviously shot, how you’re lighting them, etc. To get a better idea though, we’ve been using Acros 100 in a number of situations plus we looked at one digital preset to see how it performed vs Fujifilm’s option.

Continue reading…

How to Use Fujifilm Acros in a Studio Setting (Digital and Film) (Premium)

Fujifilm Acros 100 is a very fine grain film that works absolutely swimmingly in the studio due to not only the fine grain but also just because it’s capable of rendering some very sharp and detailed images. Due to its truly versatile look, it can also be used in a variety of ways. Its slow ISO 100 speed means that it’s best for certain applications such as landscapes and portraiture. But then when you consider the versatility that digital photography offers and Fujifilm’s Acros setting, you get almost endless options with what’s possible when working with the film and the simulation in a studio.Here’s how to make the most of it.

Creating Low Contrast and High Contrast Light

Photo by Anthony Thurston – https://anthonythurston.com

As you read this article, keep this tidbit in mind: Acros will do what you tell it to do. If you’re a computer programmer or you’ve studied coding language, you’ll completely understand this.

Generally speaking, when working in a studio a lot of photographers tend to want to create high contrast lighting. High contrast lighting works in a very interesting way that puts a major emphasis on blacks. The science behind it: the deeper the blacks are in a photo, the sharper it will appear when looking at the image as a whole. The reason for this has to do with the fact that the brain and eyes tend to simply ignore the blacks and go for the brighter colors.

Think about shiny things…no, really…

Because of this there is usually a whole lot of blacks and deep shadows to make the eye focus on certain areas. In black and white, this can become more complicated because you’re sometimes incorporating a number of different colors. This is why the greats often try to keep their portraits to three main colors:

Fujifilm Acros 100

  • The skin tone
  • The background
  • The clothing

And that’s all.

To create higher contrast lighting, it’s best to underexpose your photo a bit. So if you’re working with an off-camera flash, you should shoot at the maximum flash sync speed. This tends to kill all the ambient light in the scene without letting shutter curtain clipping happen. Then you simply meter your flash to the aperture and the ISO and work from there. Considering Acros’ ability to go medium contrast, high contrast, or low contrast it’s all just about what you do to make the scene work. In that way, it’s a true creator’s film!

Well, it’s not all THAT simple; but we’re going to get more into blending different lighting types in a bit.

Let’s talk about light modifiers. There’s a special rule that goes something like:

  • The larger and closer the light modifier is in relation to the subject, the softer the light will be. The further and smaller the light modifier is in relation to the subject, the harder the light will be.

So what that means is that you’re probably going to want to use a light modifier that is specular and not incredibly larger than your subject. A six foot umbrella: probably not needed. A 48 inch octabank? Yeah, that can work!

Blending Light Types

Off-camera flash blended with ambient light

We talked about the rule of lighting a little bit when it comes to shutter speeds, but let me go deeper into it.

When a flash and flash output is added to a scene, the following happens:

  • Shutter speed ends up controlling the ambient light in the scene
  • Aperture controls flash. If the flash is set manually then you need to meter the flash to the aperture. The more stopped down you are, the less flash output will affect the scene. But in TTL, the flash reads the ISO and the aperture and makes a decision based on that.
  • ISO controls overall sensitivity
  • Flash output comes from the flash. I typically recommend that you work with manual flashes.

So in theory, the slower your shutter speed is the more you’ll be able to get from the ambient light in the scene. Indeed, that’s correct but then you need to consider flash duration–which can often cut down on how much ambient light is in the scene. Before you buy a flash, you’ll want to check this. But the faster your shutter speed is, the less ambient light will affect your exposure.

Fujifilm GFX 50s Acros. Ambient Light

To get that high contrast Fujifilm Acros look that we’re talking about, aim for a faster shutter speed, a lower ISO setting and metering your flash and diffuser to your aperture. Then shoot and figure it out from there. Sometimes you may even want to increase the power of the flash.

Working with Color Channels to Get More from Certain Areas

Now that we’ve talked about a number of the things that you can do in the studio, let’s talk about digital post-production. Once you’ve set your image to the Acros camera profile, you can work with various Acros filters. For example, the green filter tends to kill blue light and daylight. Red tends to sometimes make skin look brighter and healthier.

But if you want even more, then Adobe Lightroom and Capture One let you tweak specific color channels. You’ll be able to increase brightness to get more from a specific area. With that said, don’t expect a color image to look exactly how you’d want it to be when rendering in black and white. Instead you’ll need to do some tweaking.

One example: the photo adobe shows little separation between his jacket and the background. But in color, there’s tons of it.

Happy shooting folks!

How Closely Does Fujifilm Acros Compare To the Digital Film Simulation?

One question that lots of photographers who have shot film wonder about is how closely Fujifilm’s film simulations closely mimic the look of film. Considering how Fujifilm created Acros, it would make a whole lot of sense that their digital simulation would be the closest thing possible to the film, right? Well, that depends on a number of different situations.Fujifilm Neopan Acros can take on different looks based on how you shot it and how you develop it. For example, Rodinal may make it look one way vs another developer. Then you’ll need to consider how the images were obviously shot, how you’re lighting them, etc. To get a better idea though, we’ve been using Acros 100 in a number of situations plus we looked at one digital preset to see how it performed vs Fujifilm’s option.

Acros 100: Landscapes

Fujifilm GFX 50S Acros Simulation

The above photo was shot with the new Fujifilm GFX 50S. The Acros simulation was shot and later on in Lightroom I ensured that that camera profile was applied. In this photo, there are no Graduated ND filters applied.

Minolta a7 Sony 35mm f1.4 Acros 100.

Lomography developed the images above and below from Fujifilm Acros 100 shot at and developed for 100. They’re shot on 35mm film look pretty close but not totally so. Still though, it’s tough to state that this isn’t the closest thing to Acros film. Fujifilm does a fantastic job with their emulsion rendition but another factor could also surely be the lenses. The new 110mm f4 from Fujifilm is pretty contrasty and the optics are far newer than the Sony A mount lens. With that said, it’s a bit hard to compare seeing that Fujifilm doesn’t make a full frame 35mm sensor and their medium format camera isn’t even 645.

Minolta a7 Sony 35mm f1.4 Acros 100.

Acros 100: Studio Portraits

Fujifilm Acros 100

In the studio is where I feel the comparison between Fujifilm Acros 100 and the GFX 50s became more interesting. In a studio setting, you’re truly making your own lighting. Often times a photographer will not care about any sort of ambient lighting because it’s all supplemented by a flash. To that end, the images are typically more high contrast depending on how the photographer lit them. The image above and below were lit in the exact same ways.

Fujifilm GFX 50S Acros

What you’ll see is that both images are very sharp. Acros 100, the emulsion proper, has a bit of grain but not really. The Fujifilm GFX 50S though looks very clean and digital. However, the 6×9 format photo also looks very clean.

Digital Presets vs Fujifilm’s Emulsions Simulation

X100F Acros Simulation

Now lastly, we’re looking at how the Acros camera simulation compares to something like Capture One Film styles. It’s close, but the shadows in the Capture One Film Styles simulation are deeper–perhaps designed to make the film look more high contrast in the lighting type.

Capture One Film Style Acros Simulation