A Portrait of a Grand Lady

Lupita, in the doorway of her home in Cueramaro, December 7, 2012

Lupita and Rey are back in Cueramaro for the first time in two years. I came down in the bus from Morelia last Friday and saw a couple of days of back-to-back family fiestas. It was good to see everyone and be part of the fun.

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But that is only how I got into the subject of this post. With Lupita in the house in Cueramaro and a new camera, it was time to update our photos of her. Apart from the usual pictures of her with family and friends, we haven’t tried to take a portrait in — maybe five years.

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So, with Rey’s help and encouragement, we set up in the doorway of the house in the afternoon light. The location allows a mix of reflected light from the open door and shadow. Lupita sat in a comfortable chair in front of me and I sat in a folding chair and took the portrait handheld. The light level was low on the shadow side of her face, but with the camera’s anti-shake and careful handling I was able to get good photos even at a 1/20 second and f/5.6. They aren’t tack sharp — it would have been nice to have a tripod available, but that will come in time…

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Portraits of people you know can be difficult. On one hand, you want to do something flattering and on the other you want to make a picture that gives some honest character to someone you understand quite well. The tension between the two is not easy to navigate because they are not the same thing.

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I also felt some push to use black and white or toning for this portrait. The lighting was a bit difficult for good color without flash.  It results in a relatively contrasty color that is hard to balance without losing clear highlights or detail in the shadows. On-camera flash at this relatively close distance creates a flat quality that just wasn’t what I wanted. It also shows some difference in color between the first shot with flash and the following pictures in natural light. But, when I tried black and white and added some tone, the details carried well.

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Of course, the original photo from the camera is still color, so I use post-processing outside of the camera to make it into black and white. That way I have an infinite number of ways I could balance the rendition. It is a lot like being able to change filters on the lens to achieve different effects after you have taken the photograph. But, I never touch the original after I take it out of the camera. Each one of these is a copy with a list of alterations that allows me to change it later without losing the original material.

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Which one of these portraits is the best? Perhaps the first one, but to me the entire series has more value than any one photograph. Each picture shows a little different angle on her character. And with her years, there is a lot to cover.

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