On Shooting, Scanning & Editing a Recent Portrait Session – The Thoughts & Photography of Johnny Martyr

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by Johnny Martyr

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

One of my recent favorite combinations is a bright scene with my 1979 Leitz 50mm “Tiger Paw” Summicron, Kodak Tri-X at box speed and HC110b.

It’s sort of an over generalized claim and is perhaps even a bit cliché but I just really enjoy most of my Leitz lenses with Tri-X. I often choose Tri-X over the higher resolving TMAX because I love the grain and rich blacks that Tri-X brings. And behind Leitz lenses, Tri-X just seems to have little magical qualities that I don’t see as often with my Nikkors.

When our friends booked Stephanie and I to take their annual family portraits, I found that the light was perfect for this combination. It was just before the temperature dropped and leaves fell.

In the bright 10am October light, and tree shade, I maxed out the shutter on my M6 TTL at 1/1000th and kept the aperture on my 50 Cron around f4 or 5.6. I could have shot at 100 ISO but I’m not a fan of under rating and pulling if it’s not necessary. These middle aperture portraits were super sharp but kept the grain features soft without excessive detail. To create a shallow depth of field I stayed closer to my subjects and kept the background far away.

If I’d used TMAX 100 for this session, I’d have more tonal, even sharper images and may have used a more shallow depth of field. The bokeh would have been very cool but any greyer/sharper/finer grain and I think the skin details, which were already of some concern, would have been overwhelmingly harsh and distracting.

I would also usually use my 90 Summicron for a portrait shoot but staying wide and close felt right for capturing little moments and scenes in this shallow creek near our home.

Denise and her family have been friends of ours for years and they are used to having their photos taken. This is a big advantage to the way that I shoot. I am terrible at posing people and I don’t even like to talk much while I’m shooting. I often don’t even listen to what people are saying! So I handle scheduling photo sessions but then at the shoot, I mostly pick up the candids and let Stephanie concentrate on posing people. I’m super lucky to be afforded the opportunity to work like this!

My candids are really dependent on our chemistry with clients and how much fun they are having at a session. Models can pose and perform no matter what their mood might be but the rest of us need to genuinely have fun in order to look like we are. And telling people to fake talk or fake laugh only goes so far. I also think it can cheapen people’s experience of getting their photos taken. I don’t want to be seen as a photographer who makes anyone act fake for the sake of photography conventions.

So I tend to hang out and just watch everyone for a bit. I may take some shots just to look and feel engaged, so I’m not just standing around staring like a creeper! But what I’m really doing is figuring out how people look as they turn in different ways and how I can put them into the frame and around each other as they are just interacting. Slowly, this turned into actual shooting and I started getting the shots I was looking for. Sometimes as my wife is photographing the son and father, for example, I may snap the mother and daughter laughing at them etc.

Or I may just like the shot my wife has set up and I’ll jump in on that image too.

We’ve been photographing Denise’s kids for a very long time so they often look at me even when I’m hoping that they aren’t paying attention to me. Some photojournalists get frustrated when people look at them. I used to also, but now I embrace it. At a wedding once, the groom mentioned to me that he noticed when he looked my way, I often turned away. I realized that I didn’t like how that probably felt to clients. I figure that if someone knows I’m pointing a camera at them and they smile at me, they must want me to take their photo. So I do.

It’s no longer a matter if I successfully snuck up on someone and captured an interaction with a classic fly-on-the-wall perspective. Who aspires to be an insect anyway?! When I take a photo of someone looking at me taking their photo, I’ve successfully gotten a genuine interaction – with me. And therefore, the viewer too. If someone wants to argue if that’s really documentary photography or photojournalism or whatever, that’s fine. But whatever it is, I allow it to happen because it’s natural. And to me, that philosophy is at the heart of realism genres.

Denise’s son cut his toe on some rocks in the creek so I mainly worked with her daughter for the remainder of the shoot. Once the leaves fell a few weeks later, my wife shot them again to make up for the truncated session. But I really enjoyed these creek photos with their amazing leaf light and glittering water.

Out of focus leaves and stones, or any kind of randomized pattern makes for interesting bokeh. But also, wooded areas often provide great catch light when the sun is bright.

Trees and leaves block light in some areas while letting it peek through to others. It is kind of like using cookies on set-up lighting instruments. But as an available light photographer, I’m always looking around trying to align moments and those spaces where the light comes through. In the shot below, I think the play between lit and unlit areas is particularly evident.

I usually shoot at least two or three family sessions and have at least twenty rolls to process in one go. Then, I mix all the sessions up in different developing tanks along with my personal work. This way, if I happen to mess anything up for whatever reason, I don’t ruin an entire shoot. The more clients I shoot and more film per session, the safer, more consistent and better covered everything is – something that I don’t think a lot of hobbyist film photographers consider when they only burn a roll or two per month. I honestly believe that shooting better requires shooting more in general, not shooting less as many film shooters will tell you.

After a few years of trying different developers, I landed on Kodak HC110b years ago and process all my films in it. This reduces the calculations needed for any type of film because I only shoot about four stocks and process each one only two different ways each – TMAX 100 at either 100 or 400, Tri-X at either 400 or 1600, TMAX P3200 at 6400 and Delta 3200 at 6400. The fewer variables one can have in film photography, the more consistent and accurate the results can be honed.

I think I shot five or six rolls of 36 exposure 35mm Tri-X for Denise’s twenty minute family photo session and had everything developed and sleeved within a couple of days. I spent the next week between life and work (photography is not my main job though it sometimes feels like it!) scanning and editing.

As the weather dries and cools, my negatives curl more than they do in humid Maryland summers. So I reverse rolled the sleeves of cut negatives whenever I wasn’t scanning, to make them as flat as possible.

I scan using an ancient Epson V500 that my dad bought when I was in high school in the late 1990’s. I borrowed it from him when I started getting with photography in college and never returned it. Whatever you think about flatbeds, much less old ones, I’ve honed my work very tightly on this particular machine and use it as reflexively as my M6.

When I edited these photos, I brightened them until the highlights just began to clip and the mid tones were perfect. Then, I pulled the black levels to their toes on the histogram.

And I did a lot of dodging and burning. I think this is one of the keys to available light photography that many people don’t get, perhaps due to a commitment to sparse editing. But you can have the most beautiful light throughout a session yet wind up with mediocrity images. It’s those little tweaks in editing that make my vision materialize. I dodge whites and sometimes mids in the eyes then burn the blacks. This just helps them pop. Most people will have some shadow below their brow and dodging some of that away essentially puts light where you didn’t have it.

Another family portrait photographer commented on one of these photos that I posted on Facebook. She said it had great catch light. I wondered how much of what she had seen was light and how much was dodging and burning.

I dodge highlights on faces and soften blemishes by dodging too, if they’re distracting. I make it a point never to clone out blemishes or smooth any textures though. I just like to soften things slightly so that it flatters what is there, not eliminating it.

And something I love doing is burning the shadows and dodging the highlights in the bokeh so that the aperture and bokeh shapes are well-defined.

I also clone out most of the dust, or little fibers and water spots that a negative might have on it. But I make it a point not to clone out every imperfection when they are present. I leave bits that I don’t find to take away from the photo. If someone is looking around the frame they might find them like little Easter eggs that remind them; this is an analogue. I also find that after I drop my edited Tiffs to Jpgs for finalizing, the compression seems to turn up little specks that I didn’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 handcrafted and natural.

To that end, I also like to include the naturally occurring black borders of the negatives in my scans and final edits. I love it when some sprocket holes creep in! The border makes for a nice print without 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 “befores” but I’m just 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’m not going to put unfinished work out into the world.

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

Thanks for reading, happy shooting!

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