Alan Johnson

For my second character portrait sitting I invited Alan Johnson to take a break from the political campaign trail and to come into the college for a coffee. Alan is currently campaigning on behalf of The Labour Party to return to Parliament as the MP for Hull West and Hessle.

I was not sure how I wanted these photographs to look, so I trawled the internet looking at other photographs of politicians and found a few that I liked of Winston Churchill but nothing really struck me. I then read a few biographies and interviews to see if that would give me a clue. When I read that Alan Johnson had once been in a band and loved to play the guitar I thought that using a guitar as a prop would be a good way to make him feel relaxed and give him something to do while I photographed his facial expressions.

I initially used two backlight reflectors with coloured gels on a white to give a colourful bright background and one lamp with a beauty dish in order to light my subject. I wanted it to look as though he was in the spotlight on a stage.

I asked him to sit on a stool with the guitar while we chatted and I took a few shots. These photos were ok, in hindsight I think I could have used a reflector to lighten the right side of his face but I quite like the shadowy contrast.

I then tried a few shots without the the coloured gels on the background. I preferred this for some close ups and managed to capture a few different facial expressions.

Finally I used a faintly patterned background that is a little like wallpaper. Alan came across as a gentle man who was very interested in us personally and I felt that this background was a little bit softer. We also took the guitar away and replaced it with a mug of coffee. I particularly like the look of concern in the last photograph in this series as he was talking to my colleague Anete about something.


My Self-Portrait

For my self-portrait assignment, once I had stopped sulking about having to take photographs of myself, I took inspiration from David Hockney’s, cubist inspired, photograph of his mother.

I think I need more practice in the studio so that is where I wanted to take the self-portrait. I set four lights up, two to light up a white background and another two to light my face and shoulders. I didn’t want the photos to be restricted by a tripod so I left that behind and asked a friend to hand hold my camera that had my 18-200mm lens attached. I had already set it to 100ISO, F8 and 125sec.

I sat in position and directed my friend to take photographs of my whole head and shoulders and then individual features. She was kind enough to oblige and only take photos as I directed.

When we had finished I downloaded the photos into Lightroom, resisted the urge to edit out all of the features I don’t like and used the ‘Open as layers in Photoshop’ function. Then I turned off all of the layers in order to turn them back on again in turn, resizing, repositioning and re-ordering the layers as I wanted. This is my final image.

Alison Robinson Self Portrait
Self-Portrait Cubist Style


I also took inspiration from Indris Kahn and the typology work we have been doing and edited my self-portrait together in that style too.

Again I used the ‘Open as layers in Photoshop’ function but this time chose one image as my background and turned all the other layers off. I then turned on one layer, resized and lined it up before turning it off and turning on the next layer. I did this for all layers, doing my best to line each one up with the background image, particularly around one of the eyes.

When I was satisfied that all the layers were lined up as I wanted, I adjusted the opacity of each layer so that layers at the top of the pile were more opaque than those at the bottom.

This is my final image and my preferred self-portrait.

Alison Robinson Self Portrait
Self Portrait Layered Style


I have to say that I don’t think either of the images are particularly flattering but they do emphasise the idea that I am a complicated human being with many many sides to me. I think the second version suits me better as it is a lot softer and I am an old softy really.

As far as exploring my character, I think these illustrate how serious I am a lot of the time and how seriously I take photography. Although maybe I also struggle to smile and think about taking photos at the same time!

Character Portraits in Practice Part 1

For my first character portrait I invited Sarah Follon, a freelance theatre stage manager to come into the studio between performances.

Being a stage manager, she almost always wears black so I wanted to take images against a black background but as she is also a lot of fun, I didn’t want to lose her into the background and make the image too ‘moody’.

I set up four studio lights, a key light  and a fill light, set at 45 degrees to the front of the subject and two strip lights set at 45 degrees behind the subject. We were fairly close so I set the key light and the camera to f8. The two strip lights at the back were set slightly higher in order to give a bright highlight around Sarah’s shoulders and separate her from the background. Sarah’s job means that she is hidden during a performance and I wanted to put her in the spotlight.

At first I sat Sarah on a chair where she sat quite stiffly and properly, posing for her portrait.

Sarah Follon-13 Sarah Follon-28

I asked Sarah to kneel behind and lean on a box that was in the studio, than I asked her about her work at various theatres and the show Bouncers that she is currently working on. She relaxed a lot more and began to get much more expressive with her hands especially when she was telling me about a play she had seen recently where the curtain had got stuck and looked like it was going to fall down part way through the performance!


I gave Sarah some direction in terms of poses to try but mostly I tried to make it more of an chat between friends and keep her so distracted in what we were talking about that she would take less notice of the flashing lights.

Sarah laughed a lot throughout the shoot and I think I captured this fun aspect of her character quite well.

These though are my favourite images.

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