Portraiture | Sophie & The Birds

My daughter Sophie is a daily inspiration to me, her maturity, creativeness, gentle nature, kindness, affection, understanding and empathy towards the world we live in, the list could go on and as corny as it may sound I feel truly blessed every day. She is my muse and the reason I chose her for the heart of these images.


Sophie – Birds – Nature – Earthy – Woods – Trees – Fine Art – Composite – Warm – Brown – Green – Cream – Red – Muted Colours – Angel –  Gentle – Connection – Innocence

I’m always referring back to the work of Brooke Shaden, and before I began the planning for this image I was stuck. I had a bare skeleton of an idea that I was going to photograph Sophie and I wanted a connection with birds but I didn’t know how to approach it. After a couple of days trying to force an idea out of my head I grabbed Brooke’s book when I was leaving the house and whilst sat waiting in the car for my daughter I recapped the inspiration sections.

If you find yourself uninspired, never see it as a flaw. We all go through down periods where inspiration does not flow very naturally. That does not mean that it will never flow again; it simply means that a change is coming in how you view inspiration, and that is always a good thing. If you feel uninspired, try something new: find a new technique to test out, or challenge a friend to create an image with you.

Brooke Shaden

I needed to break my routine, I wasn’t going to be able to come up with something new if I’m sat at home staring at my computer screen waiting for the Epiphany to arrive. What I did know was that I was going to include birds and Sophie so this was my starting point. It would also mean approaching a new technique, photographing a bird outside to then composite it into an image with Sophie which will be taken in the studio. Two different lighting situations that would need to work together.



Nikon D850

Sigma 50mm & Nikon 70-200 2.8

Manfrotto Tripod


Bird Food




Nikon D850 & Sigma 50mm – I chose this lens because it’s fantastically sharp and I wanted to get the best possible quality image of the bird.

In the second image on the view finder you can see the red areas, I was manually focusing with an aperture of F10 using the focus peaking option, with this it highlights all the areas that will be in focus. I did it this way because I wanted to make sure that if a bird was flying to the table then I would be able to get some images of it in flight.

The grand complexity of my vague plan was to basically stake out my bird table until I got a good photo of a bird. With that I was going to composite it into an image with Sophie. A grey dove was what I was hoping for, there was one that I had seen visit my garden on the odd occasion and this was what I pictured Soph holding because grey / white doves have a ‘angelic reputation’.

Full of positivity I crumbled a few slices of Hovis onto the bird table, went and made myself a bowl of coffee and took perch on my chair in stealth mode ready to capture the hoards of birds that were going to land on the bird table.

… not quite how the day went.

After nearly 4 hours I was freezing, uncomfortable, had only used 5 images on my SD card and not even drank my coffee because every time I moved an inch the birds that were showing interest in landing on the bird table and creeping closer on the branches would fly away!

I decided to have a go at compositing one of these birds into an image that I’d previously taken of Sophie… just to challenge my editing skills more but good practise nonetheless.

Soph bird PRINT (sml)

This wasn’t a quick edit, overall I’ve spent a couple of weeks working with it, changing the colour of her dress and the tones, hue/saturation layers as well as dodge & burn and adding texture to get the bird to blend in with the rest of the image.

There is something about it that I actually really like, but there are annoyances as well. I like the way Soph is sitting, her gentle but intense gaze, her hair tumbling down to one side, but I don’t like the position of her right arm because it looks like it comes from the hair and it makes your eye follow that line down the centre of the image.



I referred back to the posing workshops that I attended as this was covered in Sue Bryce’s workshop in London, and Lara Jades at the NEC Photography Show. Triangles within posing were referred to in both workshops, I have drawn triangles on these images by Lara Jade to demonstrate:

Triangle Posing


It is flattering, creates shape and interest in the pose if you create a triangle or diamond with the body. You need to be conscious of where the hands are because that is where the eye will be drawn to. If hands are near the face there is a connection with the face, if they are on the waist it will enhance that area, if they are pointing out the frame that is where they eye will go. So hand and arm placement is important and I feel this is what lets this image of Sophie down and something that I overlooked on the shoot. Although, there is still a triangle created with her left arm there’s still an issue with the bird which I can’t put my finger on, I think it’s the shadows on Sophie’s hand so will need to try to rectify that. I tried to edit this to resemble an old painting as well as taking inspiration from this image by Paul Alpakin.



Even though the image with Sophie and the blackbird was just going to be an experiment because I hadn’t photographed Sophie specifically for this composite, the more I played with it the more I became attached to it. I wanted it to look more like an old painting that’s why I added texture and grain and used the muted colour palette. I think it still needs a few tweaks, but I’ve ordered a print in lustre but also in Giclee paper which is cotton rag, a very textured paper to see what it looks like before I finish the edit.


Following some advice from my bird loving course leader karen 😀 I went and bought dried mealworms, fatballs and sunflower seeds yesterday afternoon ready for a new approach today because they obviously weren’t too fussed on Hovis crumbs yesterday.


I decided to opt for a further back position as well, perhaps I was too close yesterday which was scaring them away and for this I set my camera up on the tripod with the 70 – 200mm 2.8 lens.

This was more successful today, there wasn’t loads of landings but I had a few blackbirds, crows … and a robin! No dove yet though, but perseverance is the key and apparently it takes a few weeks for the word to get around on the bird street that there is food being laid out for them. Also as soon as I started pressing the shutter as they were flying to the table they were deciding mid-flight to not land, so it might take them a little while to get used to the sound of my shutter and that it’s not something that’s going to harm them.


I set up the same as yesterday with the same food, same position and camera set up. There was a little robin that was really hesitant at first but then seemed to get used to the sound of my shutter……..and eventually it posed for me… and smiled!!

Smiling Robin

I was made up with this image and knew that it was my winner for that day. Now I could move on to planning how to photograph Sophie to fit with this bird.


The weird part of this which I still haven’t got me head around was that I could envisage Soph holding this robin in a dark woodland scene holding onto some delicate branches. I then went on the hunt for some branches that I could use, I didn’t find anything in my garden that suited, or in the garden centre and in defeat I called into LIDL to grab some food and they had exactly what I was looking for!! They even looked like my drawing!! My jaw dropped when I seen them and I must have looked like I’d seen a ghost if anyone was in the store when I was stood there eyes bulging. Anyway, I bought as many as I could carry, not really knowing how many I’d need, it’s better to have too many than too little.

Before I brought Soph in I made sure the scene was set up and that my lighting was as close to the natural light the robin was photographed in.


Compositing a daylight image with a studio image and make it look convincing. Using the catchlight in the Robins eye as a reference I moved my studio strobe around until I created the same catchlight in the dolls eyes.

Baby catchlight

Once I was happy with the light I brought Soph in, the difficult part was getting her hand in a position that would align with how the bird was standing, it was actually quite awkward and there wasn’t many variations we could come up with.

I chose this one for the composite:


I struggled with the shadows under the Blackbird on the previous image with Sophie so I decided to make a fake bird that she could hold in the position where the robin was going to be and then I could steal the shadows so that it looked more realistic.

I fashioned this together in the space of a few minutes, it didn’t need to look pretty it just needed to serve a purpose.


hello pretty bird!


Turned out there isn’t actually many shadows cast with this lighting set up but I took what I could and used that.


After many hours of making adjustments using curves, hue/saturation, textured layers, dodge & burn this was the result:

Sophie Robin FINAL

Sophie Robin FINAL-2.jpg

I really like this image, I prefer it to the Blackbird one for technical reasons, I photographed Sophie with careful consideration to how the robin was lit and therefore they have matched really well and I was able to create the shadows better.

Although I prefer the Robin image for the technical details I am quite drawn to the Blackbird image, her gaze is somewhat hypnotising and draws me in.

I think the two images could work together if hung side by side, the colours compliment each other as well as their differences, but I feel the blackbird one should be hung separately. I’m quite interested to get this printed and once hung see how others interpret it that aren’t actually connected to Sophie. Does it only draw me in because it’s my daughter? I can see so much in that image, I see my little girl when she was a tiny with short curly hair and glued to my every move, I see her now as she is, a beautiful soul who amazing me everyday with her thoughts and achievements and then I see her in the future, growing into a woman … and oh my goodness I’m flooded with emotion. Is this why I’m drawn to it so much? On the other hand my husband isn’t keen on it, whether it’s because he always prefers modern to vintage styles he prefers the image with the Robin, says it’s more like the Sophie he knows and he prefers the style of the image and colours, interestingly it’s going to read differently depending on the viewer. When comparing the two images, the semiotics are very different, Sophie with the blackbird could be referred to as quite an intense portrait and your gaze is taken straight to her eyes even though she is holding a bird, her eyes are gripping. Whereas Sophie with the Robin is a much more relaxed portrait, and you aren’t drawn to one particular area, instead I feel that your gaze moves around, she’s looking at the robin and your eyes follow her gaze to it and then round the image back to her eyes.

After I created these images I came across work by Gemmy Woud-Binnendijk in an article online (https://mymodernmet.com/gemmy-woud-binnendijk-fine-art-photography/) Photographer Shoots Exquisite Portraits to Look Exactly Like Old Masters’ Oil Paintings.


This stunning image was a re-creation of Meisje_met_de_parelGirl with a Pearl Earring (1665) by Johannes Vermeer.

The model has done a great job to mirror the expression and the posture of the model including clothing and the lighting is near perfect, the catch lights in the eyes are at a 45 degree angle to the left showing the position and direction of the light.



I really love these images, although in the first one with the crow I do think that it’s obvious that it’s a composite because the shadows under the crow don’t match the shadows on the girl. In the second one with the red breasted bird it is a much more convincing image, perhaps these were stuffed birds or perhaps the photographer made a better job of the composite. Which would compare similarly with my experience, in the image with Sophie with the blackbird I don’t think the composite looks as ‘real’ as the one with her and the robin. Overall the photographer has re-created some stunning versions of old masters paintings and within these paintings, although intricate in scenes, the models gaze is interrogating and strong.

This has been an interesting project for me, when creating composites I’m always so focused on the smallest technical details, lighting, composition, depth of field etc but this has revealed that if it’s a portrait then the gaze has the ultimate importance.

Portraits tell stories; they are interpretations of their sitters, visual narratives for which we assume sitters and painters are, in varying degrees, responsible. In that sense they are representations of both the sitter’s and painter’s representation. Additionally, since art history has been going on for a long time, they come to us framed with interpretations, representations, and self representations of art historians. The stories that constitute the physiognomic species are woven of four different strands of commentary:

a) On the sitter’s social, political and/or professional status, and on his or her character, personality, ‘inner being’, moral quality and state of mind (mood and emotion (‘gliaffetti’);

b) On the painters characterisation and the means by which he produces it;

c) On the sitters pose and the appearance as the medium of characterisation;

d) On the archival data that provide the information used to confirm or fill out interpretations of a), b) and c) – historical information (or speculation) about the lives, behaviour and practises of sitters and painters.

(Berger 2000)

Jan_Six_-_Rembrandt (1)


The shrewd, worldly-wise look in his eye-he was thirty six at the time-makes him seem much older than his years. His attitude is unaffected, as free and natural as possible. He has just come in from the street and, entering his friend’s studio, is taking off his gloves and cape. Thus Rembrandt observed him, and thus revealed his innermost being.

Berger (2000)

This physiognomic narrative has been constructed using the information described in a), b), c) and d). And as detailed as this is, it’s just an educated opinion on the narrative.

Duczman’s portraits remind me greatly of paintings from Rembrandt, each similar in the rich earthy tones, lighting and use of accessories to help create a narrative.

Fascinated with the theory behind the power of the gaze I researched further into the work of Rembrandt.

Rembrandt’s textural agency: A shared perspective in visual art and science


This interdisciplinary paper hypothesizes that Rembrandt developed new painterly techniques — novel to the early modern period — in order to engage and direct the gaze of the observer. Though these methods were not based on scientific evidence at the time, we show that they nonetheless are consistent with a contemporary understanding of human vision. Here we propose that artists in the late ‘early modern’ period developed the technique of textural agency — involving selective variation in image detail — to guide the observer’s eye and thereby influence the viewing experience. The paper begins by establishing the well-known use of textural agency among modern portrait artists, before considering the possibility that Rembrandt developed these techniques in his late portraits in reaction to his Italian contemporaries. A final section brings the argument full circle, with the presentation of laboratory evidence that Rembrandt’s techniques indeed guide the modern viewer’s eye in the way we propose.

(DiPaola, S., Riebe, C., & Enns, J. (2010). Rembrandt’s textural agency: A shared perspective in visual art and science. Leonardo 43(2), 145-151)

This journal looks at the work of Rembrandt, his techniques and how they changed throughout his career and discusses possible reasons for this happening. It details how the human eye processes information regarding colour and shape and the connection between our mind and how this knowledge has been used by artists who exploit it in their work. In the work associated with the 20th century, the painters brush strokes were done in such a way to direct your gaze.

Screenshot 2019-05-28 at 11.46.03


John Howard Sanden, a well known portrait artist, describes his intent:

‘the increased textural and color detail rendered in the sitter’s left eye and eyebrow are intended to move the viewer’s gaze to these locations, thus helping to draw attention to the intelligent, yet playful personality characteristics of the sitter’


This article goes into great detail of human vision and experiments of the texture-gaze hypothesis. Although a bit further than I wanted to delve, it revisits the point which consistently states how using artistic techniques the artist has the tools to emphasize certain character traits of the sitter. In paintings this was done with the angle, colour and intensity of the brush strokes, in Photography this can be done with a wide aperture lens, focusing on the eyes for example while everything else falls out of focus gradually, thus creating an intended focal point for the viewer. In post-production the ‘centre of focus’ can be enhanced more, using Photoshop tools such as dodge & burn, contrast, curves layers etc.

Sophie Bird 20x16 PRINT sml

When creating the portraits of Sophie my narrative was based around her and birds, I wanted to create a connection between them and show their innocence and gentle nature. This initial idea has led me down a meandering path of discovery, looking at the theory behind the gaze but also at the emotional impact within portraiture. They are more than a mere digital capture and have developed their own stories depending on the eyes that view them.




Berger, H. (2000). Fictions of the pose. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, p.87.

Berger, H. (2000). Fictions of the pose. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, p.88.

DiPaola, S., Riebe, C., & Enns, J. (2010). Rembrandt’s textural agency: A shared perspective in visual art and science. Leonardo 43(2), 145-151.


Photographer Shoots Exquisite Portraits to Look Exactly Like Old Masters’ Oil Paintings