Petzval Test #3: High Key Portrait

Last week (the previous post) for my portraiture class I did a low key portrait demo of a male subject using the Lomography Petzval Lens.  This week as a demo for the class, I did a simple high key portrait of Nikki Smith who is both a student and a fashion model.  Her light skin and almost ethereal look made me want to do a portrait to bring that out and a demo for a high key assignment was the perfect excuse.

It is a delight to work with experienced models; simple suggestions get translated into “looks” and moves easily and quickly so you just have to be there to catch it as it happens in front of you.  Nikki was a pleasure to work with.  We were on a tight schedule since I had borrowed her from another class she is in and needed to cut her loose as quickly as possible.  Her skill made that work.

I shot with the same brass-barreled Petzval lens that has been the subject of the last few posts.  If anything was going to help with that look it was this lens.  Because of the closeness and brightness of the lights, even with the power cut to minimum, I had to use the f8 Waterhouse Stop and that made it very difficult to see through the viewfinder.  Memo to self, “Remember to focus with NO tab and then insert the tab for the shot…”

The lighting was a simple “clamshell” style, but this time (since I had not demonstrated it before) I used a 22” Beauty Dish for the main light. Each of the types of modifiers (softbox, umbrella, beauty dish, etc.) yield a slightly different lighting effect based on the different ways they project the light forward toward the subject and their size relative to the subject.  The dish was placed in the position for a standard “Butterfly/Paramount” light style but brought down a little to keep the nose shadow to a bare minimum.  A reflector was placed low in front of her, angled upward, to bounce spill from the key light upward to fill in the shadows a bit.  I wanted the shot to be slightly overexposed to lay the groundwork for the effect I had in mind. So, with the lights at minimum power giving an exposure a little under f11, I used the f8 waterhouse stop giving me about a ½ to ¾ stops overexposure.

Nikki light plot

The hallway window into the studio had to be blocked.   But once again I had Jair to help and he had it all dealt with before I even turned to ask for it.  Where was he when I was shooting for a living?  He probably hadn’t been born yet but for younger shooters out there looking for a great assistant, this guy ought to be on your short list.

To make sure the background was blown out white, it was lit with two lights to yield an exposure reading two stops brighter than the highlight reading for the face (or in this case, about f22).

I couldn’t believe it, just like last week I was plagued with some battery problems but rather than fight it I just swapped bodies and went on with the demo.  The shot below has very little editing other than the white vignette.  Nikki’s face required ZERO retouching and the only thing I did was clean up the reflector’s reflection in her eyes which was too hot.  Remember it is purposefully overexposed.

Portrait of Nikki Smith with Lomogaphy 85mm Petzval lens on Canon 5D MkII.

Portrait of Nikki Smith with Lomogaphy 85mm Petzval lens on Canon 5D MkII.  This has had the white vignette added but is otherwise simply brought through the RAW converter as is.

One thing to note here that goes toward making the shot look more “old timey” than a normal studio shot is her eyes.  Because the key light was set to such a low setting, as was the modeling light, the pupils of her eyes are larger than in normal modern studio shots.  With strobes and lights set higher, the subject’s eyes normally “stop down” to much smaller black dots, which is often a “tell” that the shot was done in a bright studio.  Here the darker studio environment allowed them to dilate more.

This was close to what I was after but not quite “there” yet.  However it made me think of another old-time “look” that was the result of using Rodenstock’s famous “Imagon” lens.  Imagons were popular around the turn of the last century.  They used a front disk with central opening and a halo of smaller openings around it to create an interesting halation-glow type diffusion surrounding a central more focused area.

So I decided to simulate something similar to that look.    (I’m working on creating the proper Imagon styled disks for the Petzval to see if I can shoot it directly.)  The actual effect is changed depending on the aperture and the design of the disk but this is close to a common look.

Imagon simulation plus toning similar to a salt print.

Imagon simulation plus toning similar to a salt print.

Although most of that period’s portraits were monochrome with a tone resulting from the type of chemicals and emulsion in use, I decided that for my shot I wanted the barest hint of color to help bring this old time shot somewhat up to date so I very slightly (about 10%) blended the original color back into it.

So that was this week’s efforts. My thoughts on the Petzval are coalescing into this:  it is a beautiful lens when it’s trademark “look” is what you need to tell your photo’s story.  It also is very cool for traditional portrait looks.  So I think for portraiture and some fine art uses it is a very interesting bit of optics and I’m very glad I have it.  But it is not a lens to use for everything or to try to shoehorn every vision into its constraints.

It is also not an easy lens to use.  Trying to focus with the aperture disks in place is quite difficult.  From a tripod you can focus without the tab then insert it to shoot, but handholding it and focusing, especially in low light, is quite difficult — at least for me.

I am anxious to make a typical Imagon style disk and see how this lens looks with that.  And then to compare it to using the Imagon disk on a normal modern lens.  Meantime…  It has been so blazingly hot I’ve not gone out to do any location shooting but hopefully it will cool off soon and make it more pleasant out.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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