A portrait of an old man.


Ċensu – A portrait of an old man.

Ċensu – A portrait of an old man

 click to enlarge

Almost every morning for the past few years, while on my way to work, I often drove past this old man pulling a small cart up the road. I had always thought that he would make a good portrait but never really got round to asking him whether he would mind being photographed, as some of the elderly here in Malta, particularly ones having a rural background, may be somewhat superstitious about having their pictures taken. Legends and superstitions are still rather rife among the elderly.

Is this portrait, displaying very obvious face recognition of my subject, soul-stealing? Would this be perceived as violating a biblical commandment perhaps? I sympathise with such long-standing beliefs, but a portrait of this man had been on my photographic wish-list for quite some time now.

This character intrigued me. I have never seen anyone pull a wooden cart around – every day, invariably consistent and punctual. Certainly not in urban areas full of traffic! I also liked the way he is always faithful to his attire, very typical of a Maltese farmer; commonly a chequered flannel shirt rolled up to the elbows and a cotton handkerchief knotted around his head. This absorbs perspiration and keeps the head cool by reflecting the harsh sun rays. It is typically knotted at the forehead and the back of the head.  This head-wear resembles a bandana, although the latter is usually knotted only at the back and more popular with the younger generation, albeit worn for different purposes.

I was first tempted to arm myself with a good long zoom telephoto and sneak a shot or two, but in the end I decided to take a gamble and ask permission to snap a few frames.

So this morning I parked my car and waited. Sometime after 7.15 am, sure enough, my target prodded slowly towards me, pulling his cart.  I made my DSLR clearly visible and as he walked by seemingly unperturbed by the sight of my camera, I signalled good morning, followed by “Hmmm… would you mind if I took some pictures of you, sir?” He looked dumbfounded and replied, “…you actually want to take pictures of me? Seriously? Do you think I’m Sophia Loren?”  As he dropped down the cart with a thud, the old man walked towards me, grunting but nodding in acceptance. His loud haughty laugh embarrassed me.

With a 50mm f/1.4 I had to move in close, too close. The man struck a pose, looking directly and proudly at my lens. I rattled a few shots while telling him how photogenic he was. I eventually got him to smile.

After thanking him I showed him some of the images on the camera screen. To my delight, he asked me for a print, to which I will obviously oblige. As I walked back toward my car, in a rather carrying voice, he queried, “Hey, I’d like to know how you were so sure I’d look good on the ‘machine’ without your having even looked at it first!” I smiled back, without uttering a word.

He then gave me a pleasant smile. I could tell that the man appreciated our encounter.

The photograph – camera settings

This portrait was shot using a Nikon D300s, in aperture priority set at f/3.2. This large aperture threw the background out of focus and allowed for a fast shutter speed of 1/320s that froze the subject. Being overcast helped me control my shadows and allowed beautiful soft and even light.

My preferred metering setting for portraits is ‘centre-weighted’ as this setting gives the most importance to the light that is concentrated in a circular area at the centre of the frame. The corners are given much less importance and this suited me fine -since I intended to give the portrait sepia ‘vintage-style’ feel. I also applied a light vignette to the image afterwards in post-processing. I believe that this fading at the edges draws the eye to the main subject and prevents distractions that sometimes may be brought about by the background or other elements at the periphery.

Below is the ‘Old Man and his Cart’. I love the retro feel to it.

Old Man and his Cart

click to enlarge

I hope that you like these images and would be grateful for any comments you would like to share. I also uploaded the photos on my Flickr account: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chirrob/12910006053/  and http://www.flickr.com/photos/chirrob/12909105894/

Thank you.

About Robert Chircop