Long Exposure Portraits

Posted on September 14, 2012


The procedure itself caused the subject to focus his whole life in the moment rather than hurrying on past it: during the considerable period of the exposure the subject as it were grew into the picture, in the sharpest contrast with appearances in a snapshot…

This is a quotation from Walter Benjamin’s Essay A Short History of Photography published in 1931 (Benjamin). Benjamin is referring to the effect of long exposures on the subject of a portrait. He refers also to comments made by the painter Emil Orlik, who was a contemporary originating from Prague. Orlik suggested that early photographic portraits had an expressive coherence due to length of time the subject had to remain still. Benjamin refers to the work of David Octavius Hill the Scottish painter and photographer as being exemplary in this regard. Hill used the Calotype process.

On reading this I began to wonder. Were Benjamin and Orlik correct about the effects of asking the subject to remain still for a long period. Does such a procedure really result in ‘expressive coherence’. For my next assignment I thought I would tackle this question head on by making a series of portraits which will be aimed at testing this hypothesis. The same set up will be used for each of the portraits to enable comparison. I have not fully defined the scope of this work yet and it will evolve over time. To begin with I plan a series of self portraits. I will use the same set up (lighting, background, etc) for each portrait but will vary the  way I pose. To begin with I plan to explore the following alternatives:

  1. Normal short duration portrait frontal neutral expression
  2. Normal short duration portrait frontal smiling
  3. Normal short duration portrait frontal reading
  4. Normal short duration portrait averted gaze neutral expression
  5. Long exposure portrait frontal neutral expression
  6. Long exposure portrait frontal smiling
  7. Long exposure portrait frontal reading
  8. Long exposure portrait averted gaze  ( this was David Octavius Hill’s technique)

I will also introduce variations of the pose with my body/head supported (as was the case for DOH long exposures) and not supported. If the work is successful in the self portraits I plan to encourage a few other willing volunteers so that I can broaden the base of my research and add more meat to the assignment.

For the long exposures I hope to use a pinhole camera – this is also my way of simulating the relatively crude equipment available to DOH in the mid 1800’s. I am not sure if this will be possible but I have begun testing. Here is an early test shot made with a Hasselblad 503CM with a Skink Pinhole attachment (f/192, 73mm) shot on Ilford Hp5 (ISO 400). It is a 6 minute exposure. There is much wrong with this photograph but I have learned from the process.

Self portrait with pinhole camera – 6 minute exposure

The following observations for improvement are immediately apparent:

  1. 6 minutes is too long, my facial expression is blurred out! I will need to use lights and I plan to use the modelling lights on my Elinchrom Quadra portable studio lights for this purpose. I need to keep the exposures to around the same as Hill used – more research on this is needed.
  2. The background is distracting I need to use a curtain or plain background behind.
  3. I need to make sure that my clothing contrasts with the selected background and that my face is the lightest element of the portrait – it is the face I am interested in.
  4. The framing was off (I have had to crop). I need to set up the camera with an 80mm lens first than install the pinhole attachment.
  5. I need to set the exposure for the face rather than a general reading. Ambient reading at the face level is the technique to deploy. I used an iPhone app for this photo.
  6. I am not sure about the book….could be a distraction.
  7. The table works well for the supported poses. I will also need to devise a standing pose set up.

Much to do. Not sure if it will work but as an assignment it follows on from other work I have done which has been aimed at looking at ways to capture portraits where the subject is distracted from self conscious posing….