Taking on a long-term photography challenge is a great way to improve your photography skills, and for Advanced Graduate Deb Signorelli, it has also been an opportunity to spend quality time with her teenage son, Ben.
At the start of the year, Deb jumped on board our Project p52 with the intention of taking one portrait a week of Ben. And as the weeks have passed, we’ve found ourselves waiting with baited breath each week for the next installment of her incredible ‘Portraits of Ben’ series.
These portraits are a true collaboration between mother and son, and in this gorgeous feature, Deb shares her process with us.
I’d been wanting to do a daily or weekly photography project for some time.
In early 2017, I completed a 21 day challenge and thoroughly enjoyed it – I’d only recently mastered my DSLR camera in manual mode and felt more confident in my photography.
I’ve loved photography for a very long time and really enjoyed learning the art and processing (film and dark room) of black and white in high school. I’ve always had a camera (point and shoot) and used to go through rolls and rolls of film.
I remember the excitement of dropping off the film and waiting impatiently to go and pick it up sometimes weeks later (no instant gratification in the late 70’s & 80’s!) I loved looking through them and remembering what I’d shot (even the blurry ones!).
Later, I used my DSLR for a number of years in auto mode before finally learning how to use it properly.
My confidence grew once I found Click Love Grow. I completed the Advanced Photography Course in mid 2020, and this gave me a boost to keep learning and exploring my photography.
Related: How To Shoot In Manual Mode
I was inspired by some very clever and creative photographers to join a 52 week Portrait Project challenge (#the52portraitproject) at the end of 2020. Click Love grow were running their p52 as well so that clinched it for me.
I was in! So I decided to run a 365 challenge at the same time, starting both on January 1st.
I really wanted to focus my 52 portrait project on one subject.
Ben is my youngest of 3 boys and will be turning 18 this year, so he’s in his last year of school completing year 12. I really wanted to focus on his last year of ‘childhood’ and capture his growth into adulthood, including all the changes, ups and downs and the little things. One week he bought a new jacket, he loved it so much and was so happy to get it that we used a shot of him in it as our photo for that week.
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I say ‘we’ because it really is a collaboration. I sat with him and told him what I wanted to do, that it was a photo a week for the whole year, that it was a commitment and if he agreed then he was committed. He didn’t really have to think about it for very long and was happy to agree. Ben was really willing and helpful when I was doing the Advanced Course when I needed a model, he’s always been supportive, enthusiastic and photogenic, he’s a very willing subject.
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Planning for each week has depended entirely on how busy the week’s been and what’s happened during the week. If there’s an event then I’ll get a shot of him in the activity. Sometimes it really is just a quick decision (capturing a moment) – these are the special ones, the ones that melt my heart, or I’ll ask Ben if he has any ideas. I really want to capture Ben’s personality.
This was a moment shot in his room where he spends a lot of his time.
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In week 3 he was going to a wedding and got all dressed up.
In week 10, he was performing with the school at the Art Gallery which was an amazing experience.
I spend time scrolling on IG, FB and Pinterest looking for inspiration trying to be creative without too much imitating.
I really loved portraits I was seeing with facial highlights – stars, flowers, glitter etc. But none of these really suited 17yo Ben. I’d been thinking of doing something with the dried tiny leaves that had been swirling around the front garden.
Ben was so patient; he sat for about an hour while I glued each of the leaves onto his face with glue stick! He has such an expressive face and I wanted to capture real contemplation, this is what we came up with.
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Often the photo is of him wearing what he has on. At other times I’ll ask him to wear something specific, or he’ll choose to wear something special. I’m aiming to keep the portraits authentic to show who he is.
Our first portrait was very simple, unstyled and unplanned, sitting in the family room facing the light.
In week 2 he was outside with his skateboard wearing one of his favourite t-shirts. The t-shirt contrasted beautifully with the wood on the pergola so his t-shirt was the inspiration.
I love shooting in natural light, and once we have a concept it’s all about the light: front; back; hard; soft; muted – whatever I can find it.
In Week 19, we used window light in his room, and week 8 was taken in the front doorway.
Ben had a mate over and I said I wanted to get a contrast shot, sun and shadow. I had in my head that I wanted sharp contrast so geometric shapes, nothing soft. The boys came up with the idea of cutting random shapes from paper and I shot the shadows left in the paper.
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In week 16, we embraced the gorgeous backlight in the playground.
And then in week 21, we used the backlight from his bedroom window.
I also wanted to develop my skills and try some effects.
In week 6 we did a double exposure. I did this in Photoshop with 2 shots (which I learned from Emma Davis in the CLG Photoshop course). In week 23, I tried some macro.
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As the weeks go by I find myself thinking more about feelings and how to interpret them, looking back on the weeks reflecting on where we’ve been and where to go next. Week 31 was an emotional week and I wanted to try to capture it, the mixture of joy and sorrow and reflecting on these feelings.
My favourites so far have been weeks 29 and 30.
In week 29 it was cold and rained a lot. I wanted to capture water running down Ben’s face and I really wanted rain water.
He could have stood in the shower but the light would have been artificial, so he agreed to stand out in the cold rain in a t-shirt. He really embraced it and the shot I used was him standing under an overflowing gutter. He was soaked, and amused (it was quite funny).
In week 30 I bought a cheap large mirror from the hardware store. I really wanted to shoot a mirror reflection and I love how it turned out!
We tried loads of different angles and poses. It was pure luck that the wind was blowing, and blew his hair in the right direction. He wasn’t sure about the intense gaze but I loved it! He thought he looked too serious, but once I showed him the edited version he changed his mind and was a bit blown away by it!
I use shoot in RAW, and use Lightroom for editing, usually using presets, either ones I’ve made myself, or purchased.
I convert all my portraits to black and white in Lightroom and decide at this time which looks better.
Well, we have 20 weeks to go. I can’t believe we’ve managed to capture 32 portraits so far!
I’ve learned to be patient and confident in my choices of pose, settings and cropping & editing, and trust in my ability.
I’m always learning and am thoroughly enjoying experimenting. Ben and I have always had a very close relationship and he’s really enjoyed the process so far. He also loves sharing his portraits with his friends.
At the end my plan is to print all the portraits in book form for him.
Related: 20 People And Couple Poses
Much love to Deb for sharing your amazing portraits of Ben and your wonderful words and tips for fellow photographers! Ifyou want to see more of Deb’s work, check her out here.
If you’re already shooting in manual mode and ready to level up your technical mastery and push your creative boundaries, our Advanced Photography Course is for you! We’re opening seats soon with a special early bird price and BONUS Lightroom training so you can expertly edit those exquisite images we’re going to teach you how to shoot! Join the wait list and we’ll email you the moment we go on sale!