About Shooting, Scanning & Editing the Latest Portrait Session – Johnny Martyr Thought & Photography

by Johnny Martyr

Photography is all about blending the right light, lens, film and developer to convey the emotion you want to evoke.

One of my favorite combinations recently has been a sunny sight with my Leitz 50mm 1979 Summicron “Tiger Paw”, a Kodak Tri-X with box speed and an HC110b.

This is kind of an overly general claim and maybe even a little corny, but I really enjoyed most of my Leitz lenses with the Tri-X. I often choose the Tri-X over the higher-resolution TMAX because I like the grain and rich blacks that the Tri-X delivers. And behind a Leitz lens, the Tri-X seems to have that magical little quality I rarely see on my Nikkors.

When our friends booked Stephanie and I to take their annual family portrait, I discovered that the light was perfect for this combination. Just before the temperature drops and the leaves fall.

In bright October 10 a.m. light, and shade from the trees, I maxed out the shutter on my M6 TTL at 1/1000 and kept the aperture on my Cron 50 at around f4 or 5.6. I can shoot at 100 ISO but I’m not a fan of under-rating and pulling unnecessarily. This mid-aperture shot is very sharp but the grain remains soft without overdoing it with detail. To create a shallow depth of field, I stay closer to my subject and move the background further away.

If I had used the TMAX 100 for this session, I would have gotten a more tonal, even sharper image and probably used a shallower depth of field. The bokeh would be very cool, but the gray/sharp/fine grain and I think the skin detail, which is already a concern, would be very grainy and distracting.

I also usually use my 90 Summicron for portrait shots but keeping it wide and close feels just right for capturing small moments and views in this shallow river near our house.

Denise and her family have been friends with us for years and they are used to being photographed. This is a big advantage of the way I shoot. I’m bad at posing people and I don’t even like to talk much when I’m shooting. I often don’t listen to what people have to say! So I handle scheduling photo shoots but then on shoots, I mostly take candid shots and let Stephanie concentrate on posing people. I am so lucky to be given the opportunity to work like this!

My candidate really depends on our chemistry with the client and how much fun they have in a session. Models can pose and do whatever they’re in the mood for, but we all have to really have fun to look like us. And telling people to fake talk or fake laugh only goes so far. I also think it can detract from the experience for people to take their photos. I don’t want to be seen as a photographer making anyone pretend for the sake of photographic conventions.

So I tend to hang out and just watch everyone for a bit. I might take a few shots just to look and feel involved, so I’m not just standing there staring like a vine! But what I’m really doing is figuring out how people look when they’re turning in different directions and how I can fit them into the frame and around each other when they’re just interacting. Slowly, it turned into actual shots and I started getting the shots I was looking for. Sometimes when my wife is taking pictures of the son and father, for example, I might make the mother and daughter laugh at them, etc.

Or I might like a shot my wife has prepared and I’ll jump to that too.

We’ve been photographing Denise’s kids for so long that they look at me often even when I wish they hadn’t noticed me. Some photojournalists get frustrated when people see them. I used to be too, but now I accept it. At a wedding, the groom once told me he noticed when he looked at me I looked away a lot. I realized that I didn’t like how the client felt about it. I think if someone knows I point the camera at them and they smile at me, they’ll want me to take their picture. So I did.

It no longer matters if I manage to sneak up on someone and capture the interaction with the classic fly-on-the-wall perspective. After all, who wants to be an insect?! When I take a photo of someone who saw me taking their picture, I manage to have genuine interaction – with me. And because of that, the viewers too. If someone wants to debate whether it’s really documentary photography or photojournalism or whatever, that’s fine. But whatever it is, I let it happen because it’s natural. And for me, that philosophy is at the heart of the realism genre.

Denise’s son cut his toe on some rocks in the river, so I mainly worked with his daughter for the rest of the shoot. Once the leaves fell a few weeks later, my wife shot it again to make up for the truncated session. But I really enjoyed this photo of the river with its stunning leaf light and sparkling water.

Out of focus leaves and rocks, or any random pattern makes for interesting bokeh. But also, wooded areas often provide a nice catch of light when the sun is bright.

Trees and leaves block light in some areas while allowing it to peek into others. It’s like using a cookie on a installed lighting instrument. But as an available light photographer, I’m always looking around trying to align the moment and the space the light is coming in. In the shot below, I think the play between the bright and unlit areas is obvious.

I usually record at least two or three family sessions and have at least twenty reels to process at one time. Then, I combined all sessions in different development tanks together with my personal work. This way, if I happen to mess something up for whatever reason, I don’t ruin the whole shot. The more clients I shoot and the more film per session, the safer, more consistent, and better covers everything – something I don’t think many hobbyist film photographers take into account when they’re only burning a roll or two per month. I honestly believe that better shooting requires more shooting in general, not less shooting as many filmmakers would say.

After several years of trying different developers, I landed on the Kodak HC110b a few years ago and processed all my movies on it. This reduces the amount of computation needed for all types of film as I only shot about four stocks and processed each one in only two different ways – TMAX 100 at 100 or 400, Tri-X at 400 or 1600, TMAX P3200 at 6400 and Delta 3200 at 6400. The fewer variables a person has in film photography, the more consistent and accurate results can be honed.

I think I shot five or six rolls of 36 exposures 35mm Tri-X for Denise’s twenty minute family photo shoot and had it all developed and wrapped up in a few days. I spent the next week between life and work (photography isn’t my main job even though it feels like it sometimes!) scanning and editing.

As the weather dries and cools, my negativity warps more than in the dank Maryland summers. So I rewound the cut sleeve of the negative whenever I wasn’t scanning, to make it as flat as possible.

I scanned using an old Epson V500 that my father bought me when I was in high school in the late 1990’s. I borrowed it from him when I started studying photography in college and have never returned it. Whatever you think of a flatbed, let alone an old one, I’ve honed my work very rigorously on this particular machine and use it just as reflexively as my M6.

When I edit these photos, I lighten them until the highlights start to crop out and the mid tones are perfect. Then, I pulled the black levels to their toes on the histogram.

And I do a lot of dodging and burning. I think this is one of the keys to available light photography that not many people have., probably because of a commitment to rarely edit. But you can get the most beautiful light throughout the session and end up with a mediocre image. It’s the small changes in editing that make my vision come true. I avoid whites and sometimes in the middle of the eye then burn the blacks. It just helps them show up. Most people will have some shadow under their eyebrows and avoiding some of it is basically putting light where you don’t have it.

Another family portrait photographer commented on one of the theses photos I posted on Facebook. He said it had a good light catch. I wonder how much of what he saw was light and how much was dodged and burned.

I avoid highlighting on the face and soften blemishes by dodging too, if it bothers me. I make sure never to clog blemishes or smooth out any texture. I just want to soften things up a bit so it flatters what’s there, not takes away from it.

And something I like to do is burn out the shadows and avoid the highlights in the bokeh so that the shape of the aperture and bokeh are well defined.

I also cloned most of the dust, or any bits of lint and water stains that might have been on it. But I make it a point not to clone every imperfection while they are present. I left bits and pieces that I didn’t think could be taken from the photo. If someone looked around the frames, they might find them like little Easter eggs that reminded them; this is analog. I’ve also found that after I drop my edited Tiffs to Jpgs to finalize, the compression seems to bring up tiny spots that I don’t see while editing. And that’s okay. One of my personal missions is to differentiate what I do from sterile digital photography. I want my work to look handmade and natural.

To that end, I also like to include the natural black borders of the negatives in my scans and final edits. I love it when some of the sprocket holes go through! The border makes a nice print without a full bleed or room to crop if the border is not desired.

Often, when I talk about my scanning/editing techniques, people ask to see my “before” but I’m not your guy for that. I’m an artist/photographer first and a teacher/technician second. I’m happy to tell you about my process, but I won’t reveal unfinished work.

Thus one of the corrections to the statement that I lead this blog. I said, “Photography is all about combining the right light, lens, film and developer to convey the emotion you want to evoke.” But of course, it’s also about having an awesome subject, how do you work with it and then, how do you scan and edit! And print and display and the list goes on…

Thanks for reading, happy shooting!

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