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Creating a Richard Avedon Inspired Portrait with Film

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I think every modern portrait photographer owes something to Richard Avedon. In the second half of the 20th century, he dominated the field. With an eye catching style, he reached out of the field of fashion photography affecting the way we see art photography and documentary work forever. In this tutorial, we'll make photos inspired by his work using similar methods.

Avedon is known best for his portraits of famous people and his portraits of average Americans. In the music world alone, he photographed dozens of top artists, many so famous they only need one name: Dylan, Cher, Barbara, Janis, Björk, John, Paul, George and Ringo.

On the other side, he took to the road photographing regular Americans with the same beauty and drama he used with stars. My particular favorite is his series on called In The American West, where he captured drifters, farmers, rural children and more, all on an iconic white background.

My Subject: Elaina McCormick

I found my subject in my usual way. I put an open call out on social media to see who wanted to pose for me. Elaina McCormick answered. She's a member of the local (to me) band, Shoot Out The Lights. They have a country-rock feel. Elaina plays keyboard and does vocals.


During the day, you might find her at the local Badin High School teaching the Badin Rocks! Band. A music program based around rock music instead of the typical marching band/classical stuff.

Shoot Out The Lights has an album available on iTunes, and they're reportedly working on another one.

The Equipment

Avedon used two main formats throughout his career. Early on, he used a medium format camera that created 6x6cm negatives. Later, he started using a large format 8x10 Deardorff camera, creating 8x10 inch negatives. I'm splitting the different, and using a 4x5 large format camera. Mine is a Speed Graphic.


Here's the other equipment I brought along from the shoot:

  • Sturdy tripod for the heavy camera
  • Three light stands
  • Two Vivitar 285 hotshoe flashes
  • One Impact 100w/s monolight
  • A silver lined umbrella
  • A background stand
  • A roll of 5-foot-wide grey paper
  • A lightmeter
  • A DSLR for test shots because 4x5 film is too expensive to waste because a light was positioned six inches too high.

Backdrop Stands and Backdrops

As editor of Phototuts+, I'm familiar with most of our tutorials. And in the four years we've been around, I don't think we've ever talked about backdrop stands. I plan to fix that now.

Backdrop stands are pretty simple pieces of equipment. When you buy one, it will come with three parts. You'll get two matching stands, these will typically look and behave exactly like light stands. The third part is a cross beam that attaches to the top of each stand creating a rod to hang things from, like a shower curtain rod

My attempt at an artsy photo of my backdrop and backdrop stand!
My attempt at an artsy photo of my backdrop and backdrop stand!


You'll typically use two types of backdrops with a backdrop stand. The first is cloth. It seems like every portrait taken from 1970 to 1990 was taken in front of the cloth backdrop. That being said, you can buy solid colors and the patterns made now look different from those of the past. They don't have to be cheesy. They come in different widths, and cost anywhere from $30 for a 6-foot-wide cheap solid back backdrop to several hundred dollars for more elaborate patterns in bigger 12-foot-wide sections.

The second type of backdrop is a roll of paper. You can get these is a huge array of different colors. Most of the time, they come in solid colors and not patterns. These are rolled down and can be used both as a regular backdrop and as a seamless backdrop. You simply keep unrolling it until hits the ground. Give your subject enough to stand on and there you have it. Expect to spent around $40 for a 5-foot-wide roll.

Cloth backdrops are typically used when you want the backdrop to have a pattern or texture to it. The one notable exception being black. Achieving a solid black backdrop with cloth is easier than with paper. If you take good care of them, they last forever. They also come 12-foot-wide sections, something all but unheard of with a paper backdrop.

Paper backdrops best when you want the backdrop to be one solid color or when you want a simple gradient. Because paper backdrops are naturally flat, unlike cloth, they are easy to light evenly. Paper backgrounds are reusable, however, when using them as a seamless, they often get damaged. The damage part is then cut off. The roll of paper is much longer than any amount you'd need in one shoot, so even cutting off 10 feet will still leave you with enough for next time.

Now, you know everything you ever wanted to know about backdrop stands and backdrops. I thought Avedon's classic solid white and textured grey backdrops warranted a discussion on the matter.


The most critical part of the lighting for this portrait was the background. I chose to use a light grey background because I find white background too hard to keep clean. Grey can be overexposed so it appears white. It also hides light marks and smudges.

I used my two Vivitar 285s to light the background. I had they on either side of it about 4 feet from the edge. They were pointed at the background at a 45 degree angle. This was to minimize any direct bounce. I didn't want my subject backlit. I had them set on half power.


My third light was a simple arrangement with my monolight with an umbrella attached. Although, Avedon often worked with natural light and reflectors, I thought the umbrella would give a more classic look than the softbox.

I left my light off to the model's left because her hair style covered some of the right side of her face. For some of the shots, I had the light pointing down at 45 degrees, but I we also used a hat in some of the shots. For those, I lowered the light to 20 degrees or so. I had this light set on 1/4 power.

The Camera Settings

Using a 4x5 camera is not easy. There are a lot of steps, and skipping one can mean coming up with a completely blank negative. I'll go over exact steps later, but coming from a full frame DSLR background, you're going to have to do some thinking before dive into a photo session with a large format camera. First, you'll have to think about lensing.

The Lens

The equation for working out what lens to use is harder than you might think. Focal lengths get crazy when you switch formats. For example, a 90mm is a short telephoto when working with full frame cameras, but on a 4x5 a 90mm lens is a wide angle. This doesn't even get into the world of 8x10.

Reportedly, Avedon used a 360mm lens for many of his portraits. In terms of 4x5, that equates to a 180mm lens. In full frame, it equates to a 52mm lens. However, I don't have a 180mm lens. My choices were between a 127mm and a 210mm, roughly a 35mm and 60mm in terms of full frame.


I went with the 60mm lens because, after all, this is a portrait. I might as well use the traditional short telephoto for it. My second reason for choosing the longer lens is because I wanted my relatively narrow 5-foot-wide background to fill the frame. The longer lens let me put more distance between the background and the camera.


The aperture was my biggest challenge. Avedon usually used very tight apertures to get the most depth of field from his images. Keep in mind that depth of field is affected by sensor or film size. All other elements being equal, a bigger sensor means less depth of field.

I chose an aperture of f/8. This is far to open to get my entire subject in focus, but it was the best I could, given the light output from my flashes. I could have pulled another stop out, but I didn't want to worry about recycle times with my hotshoe flashes. This was a stupid concern because it takes a long time do all the operations on a 4x5 between shots.

My depth of field at my working distance was just 4 inches of acceptable focus. This is the same depth of field you'd get working with a full frame DSLR at f/2 under the same conditions.

This was not necessarily a mistake. As you'll see, the images looked fine, but a discerning eye will notice that the technique does not match Avedons.

ISO and Shutter Speed

My ISO was dictated by the film I brought with me. I used Ilford Delta 100, a ISO 100 speed film. I'm making an 11x14 print, so I wanted fine grain for good detail.

The shutter speed I chose was 1/125. This was chosen rather arbitrarily. The leaf shutters on large format lenses allow you to sync at any shutter speed. There's no worry about it being too fast. I just chose a speed that was fast enough to cancel out any ambient light in the room.

I Had Six Shots

Unlike 35mm film or medium format film, each frame of 4x5 stands essentially stands alone. On 35mm film, you have 24 or 36 frames. If you're going to shoot, you might as well use a whole roll. With medium format, you usually have 12 frames per roll.


Large format cameras use film holders. They are double-sided (each one holds two sheets of film). Even the cheapest film is over $1 per sheet. If you subject blinks during the shot, that's a dollar wasted.

So for this shoot, I brought three holders, that's six shots. It really makes you think about what you want and how to get it.

The Shoot

The shoot went very smoothly. Instead of doing a series of shots, and then changing the pose or outfit, I took one shot. The first two were definitely warm-ups: her in a black shirt, that's it.

Then we tried some sunglasses and scarf in the hair. Next was a shot with a hat and a smile. Finally, we wrapped up with two images of her holding her keyboard.

Some extremely rough proofs of all the images. These are photos of the negatives taken on my light table and then inverted in Photoshop.
Some extremely rough proofs of all the images. These are photos of the negatives taken on my light table and then inverted in Photoshop.

I went slow. I paid close attention to the details. I had her try several subtly different poses before I took each shot. Then I just had her hold the pose, while I waited with my finger on the button. I waited until it looked right, then fired the shot with no warning. I've found that counting down encourages blinking.

The Step-by-Step of the 4x5

I mentioned that shooting with a 4x5 takes a lot concentration. Here are the steps required to shoot.

  • Set the camera up on the tripod
  • Cock the shutter
  • Open the shutter with the viewing button to lock it open
  • Compose the shot
  • Use a loupe to critically focus on the ground glass
  • Close the shutter (very important)
  • Cock the shutter
  • Insert a film holder without jarring the camera out of place
  • Remove the darkslide
  • Take the photo
  • Replace the darkslide
  • Remove the film holder

After you do it many times, it becomes second nature. I have not done it enough time and I've shot over 100 images on 4x5.

Developing the Film

There are many ways to develop film. You can use a variety of chemicals, so much so that whole steps can be added or eliminated. I won't waste time describing my chemical process except to say that it is very simple.

What I do want to mention is that sheet film required different equipment than roll film. Roll film is typically wound on to reels and placed in tanks to be developed. However, the most accessible and simple way to develop sheet film is to do it in trays, much like photographic paper.

The main issue hear being that tray developing must be done in complete darkness. I set up my series of trays in my darkroom and handle the film directly with my hands. This is the most basic way to develop the film.

I work right-to-left. From the right: water, developer, water, fixer, I leave the room to wash, then the final tray is for Photo-Flo.
I work right-to-left. From the right: water, developer, water, fixer, I leave the room to wash, then the final tray is for Photo-Flo.

Doing one or two sheets at a time in this fashion is relatively easy. Six, I have decided, is too many. You have to constantly shuffle the film around in the chemicals. This means that sheets will often touch the bottom of the tray and get scratches. The fiction between the sheets can also harm the emulsion.

I didn't end up with any major scratches, but I did end up with a few dots here and there. This is especially annoying on a white background.

Other than this small issue, the development process is pretty straightforward.

Printing Tests

After I got a look at the negatives, I decided on one to print. I liked the eye contact, the focus was dead on, the expression was good, and I liked the general composition. I especially like the head placement, which played well to the rule of thirds.

The two main elements you're controlling when you're doing black and white printing are the brightness and the contrast. Brightness is controlled by the amount of time you expose the paper to the light of the image, more time makes a darker image. Contrast is typically controlled using variable contrast paper and colored contrast filters.

Test Strip One

My filters run from 1 to 5, in half step increments. I knew that the film I was using usually like a 3 or 3.5 filter. However, I was worried that background might not stay completely white, so I jumped to a 4.5 filter.


Obviously, this is too contrasty. Notice the graduated step showing the different times I exposed each section to the light. The top has the most exposure.

Test Strip Two

I did another test strip using a 3.5 filter. Notice my time marks on the side, 30 seconds on the bottom to 70 seconds at the top. I don't usually mark prints like this, but it helps demonstrate the point.


Keep in mind that exposure times in the darkroom work just like shutter speeds. Think in terms of doubling or halving the time. Moving from 10 seconds to 20 seconds is one stop. Moving from 110 seconds to 120 seconds is about a tenth of stop.

Use big jumps in time to center in on your target range, then do a test strip covering one to two stops to fine tune.

I decided to use a 70 second exposure.

Test Print One

This is a small portion of the print at a straight 70 second exposure. I noticed several areas need to be dodged and burned. Most importantly, the shoulder that was blending into the background needed a big burn. The other area of concern was under her eye. I wanted to dodge the shadow a bit.


Test Print Two

The dodging would be pretty easy. I knew I could take a guess at the time and be ok. The dodging was more critical. So I did another test print at 100 seconds to show me what a 30 second dodge would achieve.


The area around the shoulder looks much better, but actually a little too dark. I just wanted to complete the shape of the shoulder, not bring in a ton of detail. I opted for a 20 second burn instead of a 30.

Dealing with Flaws

Through my tests, I had identified some flaws. In my case, black spots were showing up on my white background. In this case, dust would not cause this to happen. It was caused by "chips" in the emulsion. In the darkroom, light turns paper black. White areas of the photos are represented by dark area, which block light, on the negative.

You can see the small black spec in the upper right portion of the this image.
You can see the small black spec in the upper right portion of the this image.

I don't know of any easy way to fix these spots. My solution was to try lay small scraps of black cardboard over where I thought they would appear in the print. This would effectively dodge them out. It was a huge pain in the butt, and relatively unsuccessful. I still have a few spots here and there, but I did eliminate some.

The Final Print

Here's the final print. The edges aren't perfect, and there are still some small black dots. I did a 20 second burn to the right shoulder, and roughly a 15 second dodge under the eye.


I hope this gives you a glimpse into the world of Richard Avedon's work, and film photography. It's so much more technical than digital photography. There are just so many things that can go wrong, things you don't even realize went wrong until you're back at home!

If you have any questions or comments, please hit me up in the comments sections below!

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