Long Exposure Portraits – Update

Posted on December 16, 2012


In my last post on this project, here,  I had outlined an approach for making pairs of portrait photographs of a group of Rotary colleagues where the exposures in each were to be around 45 seconds and the diptych presentation would allow the viewer to compare the two poses. The idea was to explore Walter Benjamin’s idea that the early daguerreotype portraits are ‘expressively coherent’ because the long exposures inhibited conscious self presentation by the subject. I was aiming to use a series of poses emulating portraits made by David Octavius Hill in the mid 1800s. The portraits were to be made in contemporary style in colour, using Kodak Portra film. The style of portrait diptych I had planned as as in the example below:

Long Exposure Portraits with headstand-2

My first step was to do some tests using the Kodak Portra 160 film with the lighting set up and exposures I was planning. I was concerned about the impact of reciprocity on exposure times and also wanted to see how the film responded in terms of possible colour shifts arising from long exposures – the film is not really recommended for exposures longer than one second. I used my film 35mm film for these tests for the sake of economy. The results were very conclusive but in a very negative way. The reciprocity characteristics of the film are pretty good. It seemed that I needed to allow around  1  stop extra for exposures of 20 seconds or so. The major problem however was the colour shifts which occurred. In the mid tones there was a marked shift towards blue and in the highlights towards magenta…..not a simple shift of one colour! Frankly the results were poor and it seemed ridiculous to shoot in film and then spend huge amounts of digital post processing time sorting out the colour balance. One of the ideas of this project was that it was to be largely film based. Here is an example comparing exposures of different lengths. The colour shift is very apparent.

Comparison of half second and 45 second exposures

Kodak Portra 160 long exposure test – same lighting for both images. Allowance of about 1.5 stops for reciprocity

As a result of my tests I decided to move to black and white film. This also had a major advantage in terms of economy. The cost of a sheet of colour negative 4×5 film plus development is around £8 whereas black and white film developed by myself was going to cost me closer to £2 per sheet. It clearly avoided the colour shift problems and reciprocity curves are well known.

The second issue which arose from my testing was that I became uncertain as to whether the blurry images which resulted from the long exposures would really allow the viewer to explore the detailed nuances of a subjects gaze during a long exposure. My equipment for keeping the subject still is fairly rudimentary – in the early days of portrait photography sometimes the subjects were literally strapped in place – so the images were much more blurred than I had hoped. This set me thinking about how I might approach the issue in a different way.

I have now decided to examine the effect of the long exposure on the gaze of a portrait subject in a different way. At the beginning of the portrait session, I tell the subject that I want them to assume a pose which they are to hold for around 45 seconds.  I ask them to look into the lens of the camera throughout. At the start of the 45  seconds, I make an image and at the end I make a second image. My idea was to present the two photographs as a diptych to enable to the viewer to compare the two poses and to consider, albeit perhaps not explicitly, whether they are expressively coherent. I also thought that I needed to get closer into the face to enable comparisons to be made more easily. My idea was to focus in on the eyes and mouth of the subjects as these are the features which we look at when we are reading someone’s face. By using a 210mm lens at around f/11 on my 4×5 camera I am able to keep the eyes and mouth in sharp focus and throw the remainder of the face a little out of focus.

The idea of presenting a diptych I got from reviewing Bettina Von Zwehl’s work. She undertook one study, Atemwege 2009-2010, in which she made two portrait of each subject. In the first portrait the subject was inhaling and in the second exhaling. These images can be seen on Von Zwehl’s website here.

I have now completed four diptych’s in this style and I think the approach has some potential.What I have found is that in the first pose when I look into the eyes of the subject I get the feeling they are looking at me. However, in the second portrait taken 45 seconds later they seem to be looking beyond me, either staring into space or at something in the distance. Their expression has more of a sense of absence about it. My other main observation is that despite my request that the subjects do not smile, in some cases for the first portrait there is a hint of a smile. By the second portrait however this smile has gone and the face has relaxed. I can see how in a very long exposure the expression of the subject becomes very fixed and the subject may appear to be looking into the distance giving the impression that they are lost in thought. My subjects confirmed that to maintain the pose they generally had to think of something and keep their mind on that and that their eyes felt like they were glazing over. My overall impression is that Benjamin’s idea of ‘expressive cohesion’ is correct although in the resulting pose the subject will appear somewhat vacant and will not be engaging with the viewer. Others will form their own view on this.

Here are four of the diptych’s. At first glance the two portraits look the same but on closer examination it is clear that this is not the case. This I hope will intrigue the viewer and will encourage him/her to look deeper into the subjects expressions.

John reversed-2




Mike Diptych-2


Austin Diptych-2


I have struggled to match the exposures of the two images in the diptych. With film there are many more dimensions to getting this right. The initial exposure is at the same settings but because I am using a combination of continuous lights and ambient light there is a possibility that the ambient can vary. I did not want to use flash for this project as I wanted the actual exposures to be quite long, around 1/15 second. This enabled me to say with justification to the sitters that I needed them to keep still. The second variable is the development of the sheets. I was uncertain whether developing 4×5 sheets in a small tank would provide a consistent even development across the sheet. The fact is that it does not absolutely. For a single image this does not matter, but for a diptych is could be problematic. I have had to discard one set of portraits for this reason. The third dimension is the scanning process. The levels for each image have to be set independently….this presents a challenge when trying to ensure that the shape of the curve is very similar. It will not of course be identical as the photographs were taken at different times and the actual play of light on the subject and the background varies slightly.

I plan to continue with this series so that I can get the maximum number of diptych’s from which to make my final selection. I have another 10 subjects lined up and overall I will probably select 8-10 diptych pairs.

I have also taken the opportunity during the portrait sittings with my Rotary Colleagues to make a portrait of each of them ‘In the Style of David Octavius Hill’. I am not sure if I will submit this work as part of my OCA Advanced studies but it has provided me with more experience at using my 4×5 camera, more film to practice developing and a reward for my subjects (I presented each with a mounted print). Here are the six images I have done so far. I have toned them (digitally in sepia to give them a vintage feel). They were mounted in an off white window mount.

Members of Burnham Beeches Rotary

Members of Burnham Beeches Rotary