I recently participated in a photography contest called PDX Squared in Portland, Oregon. 100 photographers were assigned to a random location in town and had 24 hours to shoot, edit, and submit their entries. There were a number of categories in the contest, including portrait, documentary, series, and nature. I thought it would be a fun challenge to collaborate with a couple models while focusing on the portrait and series categories. This contest took me WAY out of my comfort zone in so many ways. It’s easy to shoot the photos I already know how to shoot. It’s easy to go to my favorite park with the nice soft light that happens at around 7pm. It’s easy to look at the world the same way I always do. What’s not easy is to put myself in a situation where I can fail. However, it’s absolutely necessary for growth as an artist. This contest was just what I needed to push myself in a new direction.
My friend Madeline agreed to model for one of the two portrait shoots I did for the PDX Squared contest. After figuring out schedules, we decided to do the portrait shoot at night, which is something I can’t say I’ve done before. It’s my first instinct to pick a time that has good light (golden hour, anyone?). But the truth is, life happens 24 hours a day and there are photos to be made during all 24 hours. How about the blue hour?
The photo above is one of my favorites from this shoot. A lot of people are using neon signs as a light source for portraits these days. That’s happening here too, but there’s more going on than that. The entire scene is bathed in a blue tint, which is partly due to my camera settings/editing, and also partly due to the time of day the photo was taken. I love all the lights in the background; I feel like the car moving in the other direction is saying something. Also, Madeline’s expression is perfect here. She looks like she’s contemplating a very important decision.
Scenes From a Movie Without a Script
To back up a bit, I hadn’t decided beforehand if I would submit photos from this shoot specifically to the portrait or to the series category (you couldn’t submit photos to multiple categories). I thought it would be better to complete both shoots and then decide which one fit a category better during the editing process. In retrospect, I should have made the choice before actually shooting. But this is what I did at this moment as a photographer. These days, I’m creating single images I‘m proud of. I’m able to focus more on composition, posing, and interacting with a subject and forget about my camera settings. But after receiving some helpful feedback from the contest judges, I realize my next big hurdle as a photographer is the art of storytelling through multiple images.
Although I didn’t create a story board for my series, I did work with Madeline a lot on image aesthetics, attire, and styling by creating mood boards on Pinterest. I also wanted the concept of “letting go” (of a person, a vice, a situation, etc..) to be a theme for this shoot. I had to get out of my comfort zone and let go a lot for this contest, so I thought it would make a good visual theme as well.
After shooting for a bit next to the neon light, we walked around and found a quiet spot where we stayed for a long time. I was drawn to the wall color and an overhead light that was providing some great accents. I added a gelled flash off to the side to boost the light and the shoot really started to flow.
It’s great to work with models who have better posing ideas than my own.
The photo above is quite sad, in a good way. If you look very carefully, you can see a second ghost-like face right next to her face. This is a technique I’ve been playing with for months now. I deliberately move the camera as I take the photo, which adds a ghost-like dimension to a photo.
She lost the jacket for the next few photos:
The lighting in this one is so cool. I absolutely love the split light with two distinct colors and the shadows created from her hair. I also love how you know she is making eye contact, but you can’t really see her eyes. You just know.
I thought it might be good to get some photos without the prison-like window in the composition, so we moved around the corner to a larger section of blank wall. I did not include these photos in my series submission because of the color changes, but I want to share them here because I like what’s happening on their own.
I like it when your eyes have to strain to see what’s going on in the shadows.
On the Move
A big portion of our mood board included images that conveyed a lot of motion. They had a blurred/sharp look to them. There were street lights and other elements that were blurry while the model was in sharp focus. This technique is sort of like the “sad” photo mentioned above, but this time Madeline was also moving in addition to camera movement. My first step for this technique was to find some colorful ambient lights on the street:
Here’s an example of a slow shutter speed while panning the camera:
Now that I had that layer of the image figured out, I set up a light to illuminate Madeline. I added a blue gel to match the mood of the scene. Things seemed good until I realized my camera would not focus to save its life. The background lights were creating havoc with my auto-focus and there was little to no ambient light falling on her. I resorted to manually focusing and having her walk over her focus mark, which was a small twig I placed on the ground. I had a lot of out of focus pictures, but I got some gems.
Here’s that first photo again because who has time for scrolling?
These last two photos make me want to listen to the soundtrack to the movie Drive. You know the moment during the opening credits when the song “Nightcall” begins and a chill goes up your spine?
You can’t take these photos during golden hour.
Although I didn’t place in the series category, I did have a blast participating in the PDX Squared 2019 photography contest. I hope to incorporate what I’ve learned into future photo shoots. It wasn’t easy, but it was rewarding to step outside of my comfort zone and create something new. I’ve identified some weak spots that I need to work on after going through judging, and I’m already thinking of how I would shoot my next series of images. Special thanks to Madeline for working with me on this shoot.