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Angels and Divas

Michael Gilbert uses his arsenal of Tamron lens to capture fine-art portraits of women.

By Jenn Gidman
Images by Michael Gilbert

Michael Gilbert started out his photography career taking portraits of women, so it's not surprising he remains fascinated with where he can take this type of photo. From this fascination emerged his "Angels and Divas" series, a compilation of different photos he's taken—not linked together in any particular thematic way, but joined by the technique he employs when he creates each one.

"I'm not necessarily trying to capture any kind of realism," he explains. "In fact, I'm probably as far away from the realistic point of view as I can possibly be. It's a man's point of view on a woman; a woman's point of view on a woman is different. And it's not even just men and women anymore—there are all of these categories and subcategories, and each category sees an individual as a different person. You can be seen through a variety of different metaphorical lenses: a mother, a sister, a significant other, a co-worker. There's also an inverted version of yourself you see, like when you look into a mirror."

With an arsenal of Tamron lenses at his disposal—including the Tamron SP 24-70mm VC, SP 150-600mm VC, the SP 70-200mm VC, the SP 15-30mm VC wide-angle, and the SP 45mm and 85mm VC prime lenses—Michael is able to achieve a variety of images that allow him to achieve new creative heights with each portrait session. "Plus, in addition to the super-sharp images I get, many of these new Tamron lenses have rubber O-rings with a seal, which is important to me, as many of my images are taken in the water. It's a big deal for the way I shoot."

When he sits down with his subjects, the first question Michael asks is: What do you want this picture for? They usually want an image that captures them at that particular point in time, but is it a photo for their significant other? Is it something they want to leave their kids? From there, he tries to create a one-of-a-kind image that's his vision of the person based on what she's told him about herself.

Read on for insight into how Michael captured each of these women with a variety of Tamron lenses. 

One of the things I always tell my students: Your output is the sum total of your intake. Let me explain. I have a vast array of great photographers I've studied over the years, and when you have a backlog in mind of all of these wonderful images, they stick in your mind. They all get bunched together, and then when you output, that sum total of your input emerges.

For example, one of the very first images I fell in love with when I was 18 years old was by New York photographer Edward Steichen. He did a photo in 1926 of Gloria Swanson, and when I first saw it, I'd never seen anything like that, especially at that time, when pictures tended to be phony and overposed. I always remembered that photo.

Fast-forward to years later, when I took a series of photos of a young woman. As part of that series, I placed a veil over her and took the image you see here with the Tamron 85mm lens. It was a cloudy day, which meant the light was flat. She was in a pool, and the pool was blue, so as she stood up in the pool and I put the veil over her face, the background and all of the tonal ranges carried all of the blue over from the pool. Although the veil is black, the overtones of the entire image were black and blue, which added a warmth to her skin. I also used the 85's maximum F/1.8 aperture—her lips, nose, and eyes were pretty much going to be sharp on the same plane, while everything else faded off.

© Michael Gilbert

After I took the image, something about it haunted me. It seemed…familiar. I looked up Stieglitz and realized it wasn't anything he had captured that had inspired me. Then I looked up Steichen, and bang! I recognized the shot. The original photo was something I had had in my head for years, and my brain was somehow able to connect the dots to bring it back to life. It's like I tell my students: Default to the classics; you don't always have to shoot outside of the box.

And I think my version, because it had some color—Steichen would've been proud to have inspired that. It's funny, too, because Tamron came out with that 85mm prime lens, which is kind of the equivalent of the focal length of the old camera that Steichen would have used.

if you see a lot of pretty pictures of water, especially in landscape photos, the photographers will often put their camera on a tripod and use really slow shutter speeds to make the water look gorgeous and lacey and romantic. Water has other qualities I've explored and like to showcase, so I do the opposite.

That's where I came up with a group of images I call my freeze-frame series, a motion series incorporating hair and water that I use on a regular basis. To achieve this signature look, I usually use a shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second. And having a lens I can shoot wide open at F/2.8, like the 24-70 I used here, allows me to be able to crank that shutter speed up really high.

© Michael Gilbert

I didn't want any real depth-of-field in this type of image. I just wanted that plane in focus, from where I was standing about 4 feet away from the subject, up to my neck in the water. (Sometimes I'll lie across the side of the pool for an image like this, but that can get uncomfortable). Plus, when I'm right next to her in the water, the communication between us is better. All I have to do is tell her to put all her hair forward, then flick her head back, at which point I'll press the shutter button.

The woman in the patriotic sunglasses is also part of my freeze-frame series. The difference with this one is that it was taken with the 70-200 lens. The reason I used that lens is because she was behind the water, and I didn't want anything to be in focus (there's a wall and all of this other stuff behind her in the pool). With 70-200 lens, I can zoom in all the way at about 1/4000 of a second, once again able to freeze the water so it becomes a line again.

© Michael Gilbert

For years, I've been waiting for a wide-angle lens from Tamron. Before I got my hands on the new 15-30 lens, I had another wide-angle lens, but it suffered from what wide-angle lenses often suffer from: a lot of distortion around the edges. When you're a landscape photographer, if a tree is a little distorted, that's OK. But with a portrait, I don't want that distortion. So using the wide-angle lens for portraiture became limiting for me, unless I put my subject in the dead center of the photo.

© Michael Gilbert

Then Tamron came out with the 15-30. I found there was minimal distortion in the corners, remarkably different than that of any other wide-angle lens I'd used. For this image, I was on a bridge shooting down at the 15mm end on my subject, who was swimming underneath the bridge. It was around 2 p.m., with shadow at the very bottom end of the frame. As she was coming under the bridge, I pressed the shutter button when she was in that lower section, and it slightly distorted the back part of her legs, which makes her look a little longer than she really is (she's about 5 feet 4 inches in real life). It wasn't a happy accident—I did it on purpose. Having a lens like this allows me to do a lot more wide-angle portraiture than I've ever done before.

A very famous woman who's crazy about dogs, especially her own, commissioned me for a portrait. But there was one thing she made clear: She didn't want anyone to know it was her in the portrait, which she wanted taken with her dog, Princess.

About a week after we talked, I found a '50s-style polka-dot dress at a flea market, and while I couldn't find a matching polka-dot hat, I did find a black-and-white striped hat. We headed outside her house along the beach at 5:30 in the morning on the day of the shoot, me with my 70-200 lens and her with her dog. She kept saying, "Promise me—no face!" I told her, "Just walk with your dog, keep your face pointed down so all I see is the hat, and all I'll capture is your outlined shape and form." I took about 10 photos and that was all I needed.

© Michael Gilbert

I only made one change to the final image: The dog's tail was originally between its legs, so I took the tail, brought it up, and added a bit more of a pompom on the end. It turned out to be the portrait she loved, but it's also an artistic photo that other people could put on their own wall, because no one knows who it is. Maybe upon one of our demises, I can reveal the person in that photo.

To see more of Michael Gilbert's work, go to www.facebook.com/MichaelGilbertFineArtPhotography.