My National Photographic Portrait Prize photo

This year I was fortunate enough to be a finalist in the National Photographic Portrait Prize (NPPP), and I thought I might let you all take a peek behind the curtains at how the photo came to be.
Now clearly I’m setting myself up to fail a bit here, if you’ve come to this blog because you’re interested in the NPPP, then you’re probably relatively au fait with photography, and so will be pulling your hair out when I’m explaining why I went with a 56mm f1.2 lens…and for people who are regular readers of my blog, you’ll probably be saying ‘I don’t even know what f1.2 means, and I care even less about why you went with f5.6 for this photo. Just tell me how I can take a similar photo!!!’
But you’re all stuck at home and looking for distractions, and I managed to get an entry into a nationwide portrait competition using a 6yo APS-C camera, so you can all shut your pie-holes and read on…then complain bitterly in the comments section.


Now clearly, what I would love to say is ‘I had a clear vision for this photo. I wanted the rabbit to represent new life / innocence / modern cuisine, and I spent hours on the lighting setup at the studio I hired. Then I said to the model (who was was incredibly excited to be working with a photographer of my calibre) “Give me a look that is simultaneously; strong, vulnerable, stoic, protective and beguiling.” Then I nailed it in one shot, and my team of assistants packed away the gear while I lay on a chaise-lounge contemplating my brilliance’.
But the truth of the matter is that Katie (my wife) wanted a few headshots for a conference she was presenting at, so I set up my soft-box in the kitchen, and when I had finished I asked if the kids would pose for a few photos. Holly (my daughter) asked if she could go and get ‘Pebbles’ (her rabbit) and I thought that could be fun. So I took some photos of the two of them.

Holly and Pebbles

The tech stuff

The light – About 7 years ago I bought some second-hand flash gear. This included; an Alien B strobe, a soft-box, beauty dish, ring light and stands. I think I have probably used the beauty dish and ring light about 4 times in total since then…mainly because I just don’t seem to be able to make people look good with them.
But the soft-box I love! It always makes people look great, and I’ve found a setup that allows me to use a blank wall in our kitchen as the background.

The lens – When I made the move to Fuji four years ago, I used one of Zack Arias’ guides as to what to buy. In the end I went with; the 35mm f1.4 as my carry around lens and proxy ‘nifty-fifty’, the 50-140mm f2.8 to give me some zoom if I’m shooting weddings or anything I can’t get up and close and personal with, and the 10-24mm f4 for anything wide. These three lenses pretty much covered off every eventuality and would get me into and out of as much trouble as I could hope for as a photographer.
So the fact that I also purchased the 56mm f1.2, is very hard to justify! With enough light I’m never really going to need f1.2, and the 85mm focal distance is covered by the 50-140mm. So this really was a vanity purchase. I have always loved taking photos of people, and to have a lens that is almost exclusively designed for this purpose was too great a temptation. Plus, as a 40th birthday present to myself, it seemed a lot cheaper than the Porsche 911 I was also hankering for.
So any time I get to use this lens, there is a degree of ‘See?! I told you I needed it!’

The Fuji 56mm f1.2 on my trusty X-T1

The setup – I basically try to get the light as close to the subject as possible. Given that I’m shooting in my kitchen, and I can’t move the bench that people are sitting at, or the wall behind them, I find that getting the light as close as possible to them gives me the softest light on them, and the best fall-off of the light on the wall behind them. A better photographer would be able to quantify and explain this…but I did NOT win the yr 10 drama prize by being good at STEM!
The light is above and the left of the subject (from my perspective and is on about 60 degree angle. This is due to the hypotenuse of a triangle being relative to Gould’s Law of thermodynamics, and…nah…just kidding, I just like it being there.

In hindsight, it was probably a bit lower and a bit more front on for the actual shot.

Settings – f5.6 (because anything lower and it gets overexposed…and in this case, it also meant I got both Holly’s eyes and the rabbits eye nice and sharp!), ISO200 (because that’s as low as I can get it on X-T1 in RAW) and 1/180 because that’s as fast as I can go and still sync with the flash.

The pose

Having seen all of the finalists in this year’s NPPP I realise how lucky I was to make the cut. I get the distinct feeling that about 90% of them would have been great photos no matter what their subject had done. They have put time and effort into the story-telling part of their photo, and the subject is just completing it. Whereas my entire photo hangs off Holly’s expression. I do pride myself on being able to get people comfortable in front of the camera so that I can catch those candid little moments. But as I said earlier, this was not part of a grander plan, and I can only thank Holly for being such an amazing person to photograph.

The post-production

Any time I’m doing a workshop, or working with people who are new to photography, I see how blown away they are by what a little post-production can do. I’m also regularly dazzled by people who think that any sort of post-production is ‘cheating’.
So if you’re from the ‘post-production is cheating…in the olden days they just relied on what came out of the camera, blah, blah, blah’ school. Then rest assured that I shot this on some Agfa Scala 200x film and then spent time in my dark-room sniffing chemicals and adjusting my exposure times.
If you’re comfortable with a digital world, then I’ll tell you that I used a VSCO emulation of the Agfa scala 200x film in Lightroom and then played around with the colour temp, exposure, clarity etc

The joys of Lightroom

What’s next?

Now that I’ve supped from the NPPP cup and felt the thrill of having someone who isn’t directly related to you saying that they like one of your photos…I want more…MORE!
So I’m already planning a few more extravagant portraits shoots, and would definitely like to have a play with a camera with a bigger sensor to see what difference that really makes.
But with the current restrictions on travel and meeting people outside of my immediate household…it may be time to bust out the soft-box and demand the kids stand in front of it again!