The quick and the red

The wonderful investigator and campaigner Heather Brooke collared me at an event last week – could I do a quick portrait while we were both there?

The obvious answer (I’m a huge HB fan) was yes, of course. The slower thought was: great portraits are not a quick business, generally.

You need time to find a great setting and composition. Time to think about light. And most of all, time to get into the right mode and mood (mostly for the subject, but also for the photographer). But it doesn’t always work like that.

If you’ve got one minute, you’ve got one minute. And the crowd were rushing past us, and the moment might not come again – basically, it had to be now, and right first time.

The lighting was pretty good though; held in a huge white tent on a sunny day, the venue provided what was essentially a huge softbox of diffuse light, though the outer area was a bit too bright and squinty for my liking.

We gave it a go anyway, using the tent wall as a neutral background. It was lit so brightly that we almost had a studio-looking backdrop – it was ok, but a bit dull. (And that light really was a bit too bright for relaxed eyes.)

What I’m looking for to make a portrait interesting (other than capturing the subject’s personality – that’s always first and foremost), is some variation in light intensity. And right next to us was just the place to find it: a doorway. Doorways are great. Although people inside the tent would say it was fairly light in there, the difference between it and the exterior was profound. Enough to give me what I wanted – meaningful tonal contrast with no distracting features in the background.

So, point to remember #1: try a doorway portrait.

I got another lesson when I came to the processing and upload bit. No arty retouching here: it wouldn’t be the right fit for a portrait of a campaigner for openness and honesty, even if it were needed. Which in Heather’s case, it very much isn’t. Got that?

No, the interesting point in the workflow was what happened when I uploaded it to Flickr (in this case to host a protected version of the shot for approval). That wonderful hair colour was dimmed down – not much, but enough to lose some of the impact. I checked carefully: the colours were great in Photoshop, but not on Flickr. I looked into the colour profile – it was AdobeRGB rather than sRGB. Flickr messes around with colour profiles when uploading (see a more detailed discussion about it here). Turned out I’d got the colour profile wrong for the upload. I shoot in RAW, process in an AdobeRGB colour space (also best for printing), but hadn’t been converting to sRGB for the benefit of Flickr.

16,000 images on Flickr and I now find this out. 16,000. Gulp. (Digging deep into my stock of openness in posting this, by the way. It’s all about ongoing learning, I guess…)

I’d suspected something might be going on with colour profiles (Twitter avatars display the same colour-dimming, perhaps even more noticeably) but hadn’t bitten the bullet and changed the way I work. I have now. A quick tweak to my custom short-cut keystroke for image saving, and the conversion now just happens. From now on my Flickr images will all be a tiny bit more striking.

Thanks, Heather. Looks great here.