Portraiture Without a Shutter!?!

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I've been doing a few portraits with my LF camera, using a 300mm barrel lens with polaroid (52) as well as film. I'm discovering now how much I miss the luxury of short shutter speeds I got with shuttered lenses! Since I'm using a barrel lens I have to get exposures down to 1-2 seconds, which makes capturing spontaneous expressions practically impossible! What is the best method of creating portraits, given this limitation? It's a completely different kind of experience for a sitter to be aware and be able to move (though he/she shouldn't) and think DURING an exposure. Much more pressure... I know, for instance Avedon coaches his subjects it a way to produce the objective/constructed reality/fiction expression that he wants to create, but I haven't found much in the way of reading or guidance on how to go about this... My normal method is to simply build rapport with a sitter, and capture (with a fast shutter speed) a brief expression that embodies something about what I think about the sitter, but that becomes much more difficult when I have to ask the subject to sit still for seconds at a time. How should I approach this?

-- Josh Wand (josh@joshwand.com), April 13, 2000


You might try to make your hand work faster. I can get about a 1/2 second exposure using my hand as a shutter. Faster may be possible. Your hand's movement should be as discreet as possible. Sometimes sitters won't even know an exposure was just made. The opposite approach is to count the seconds to help the sitter concentrate and be still. I encourage sitters to look out the window and think about their kids or soemthing else they can concentrate on. Be sure the sitter sees fine prints taken with the same lens camera etc and how beautiful they are so they can relax and not worry about the picture. I tell sitters I don't care what they look like and ask them to compose their face in a relaxing concentrated way. A barrell lens definelty changes portraiture, but I think the challenges lead to quietly dramatic results.

-- Jimryder (jimryder12@aol.com), April 14, 2000.

Josh: Do you have room on your lensboard for a Packard shutter? That shutter was pretty much standard for the old portrait cameras. It operates at about 1/25 sec. or you can do longer exposures by opening and closing it with the bulb. Also, you might mount the lens in front of a Number 4 Ilex.

-- Doug Paramore (dougmary@alanet.com), April 14, 2000.

I'll be getting a Packard in about two weeks, but even then I'll have to manufacture a device to mount it in front of the front standard: it's a tele lens, and the rear diameter is 3 1/4", far too big for the smaller Packards I could fit inside. The smallest Packard that fits the lens is a 6" model.

In the meantime, I'm going to experiment with shorter times and open flash. The most significant change I'll make is to stop working with Polaroids--that way I can concentrate less on getting the exposure perfect and concentrate on the subject. I'll fix any exposure errors when I print.

-- Josh Wand (josh@joshwand.com), April 14, 2000.

I think most of the portraiture that was done with the "hat trick" shutter ran to a couple second's exposure. And the stilted look of a lot of old portraits probably was due to the photog's admonition to "hold still and watch the birdie."

Even so, you might have more control if you went to a slower Polaroid, like Type 54 (ASA 100) or type 55 p/n (50 for the print, 32 for the neg)

Going open flash is probably a good idea, if you can keep the room light dim enough so it doesn't mess up your setup. Or maybe you want it to. Once again, a slower film would give you more time to work in.

By the way, does your lens have a filter slot between the elements? If so, that's a place where you could fit a home made slide for a shutter. Most of the old process type lenses had such a slot. Some times it's behind a rotating ring.

-- Tony Brent (ajbrent@mich.com), April 15, 2000.


I've been reading your posts for awhile now. You know what I think? I think you ought to find a way to scrape together enough money for a lens in a shutter. Your packard idea is only sort of going to work. Mounting a packard in front of a lens is a huge pain in the ass.

You can get a pretty good 300 mm lens in a shutter for not too much money if you shop around and you don't worry about it being modern. Old Tessars are pretty common and they work great. Protraits in the studio do not demand the kind of lens quality that the Sierra Club calendar shooters favor.

Using a packard or your hat works fine with slow film and small apertures in the field. In the studio, I really think you should do yourself a favor and start using a flash in a dark room or get a shutter. That's something pretty hard for a notorious cheapskate like me to say, too. Good luck with your shooting.

-- Erik Ryberg (ryberg@seanet.com), April 15, 2000.

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