As photographer I was 17 years old when I started getting paid for work. My subject interest has always been people. It’s always amazed me that so many photographers could not see the attraction of portrait photography. I’ve known local photographers who would go out every weekend to photograph a sunrise and share images on the popular internet platform, ‘flickr’ then other photographers would be in raptures discussing a landscape or seascape image, the angles, the cloud formation, the rocks, in the sea motion. Although I love interesting landscapes, my passion has always been for portraiture. I could not understand why the same photographers did not discuss an interesting face, the posture or movement of a person. I love portraiture because I know that a photograph can convey a mood or a hard to pinpoint emotion, a glance or a certain look and that these are moments which can be so easily influenced by the non-verbal exchange between the subject and the photographer.
Photographing people has many challenges. A landscape will never question the accuracy of its appearance or get nervous as you set up your camera. The seascape will never have an opinion about the image you took of it. People on the other hand are very engaged in the end product. I have learnt that so many people simply do not like the way they look and no matter how accurate your image capture is they could be disappointed. I once photographed a friend and jokingly (I hope) when she saw the picture she said “… if that’s how you think I look then we can’t be friends!” Yet taking a portrait can enable someone to see the amazing person they are and perhaps to see themselves from another point of view.
As a portrait photographer I find myself constantly looking at the interest and uniqueness in people’s faces and how they present themselves. A few years ago, I was driving to the beach at South Shields on the North East coast. Riding a push bike, going in the opposite direction, was a man dressed all in black. He had a long beard and reminded me of images of Rasputin. After a brief hesitation I turned my car around and asked him if he would allow me to photograph him. It turns out he had been living on the street and the local council had recently put him into a house on a street with mainly older people as his neighbours.
I asked him to sit by his window so used natural light which fell across the left of his face casting the right of his face in to shadow. The result was an image of a man who was complex, private and with hard stories to tell about his life. The wonderful thing was he clearly did not regularly chat to anyone. As we talked, he completely forgot about my camera as I continued to take pictures, he told me about his life and the changes that had led him to living on the street. In doing this he expressed so much emotion and mood changes, it taught me how important it is to take your time with portraiture when being creative.
I took the black and white images back to Gordon to say thank you and am pleased to report that one year later he was working and rebuilding his life. I am certainly not suggesting that our brief photography session had anything to with that, but I did capture part of his journey as he arose like a phoenix back into the world.
When I am working on an organised shoot, a wedding, an event shoot or with a company that wants head shots for their website or print material, I am able to employ the many lessons learned with photographing people over the years. People in front of a camera continually surprise me. At an organised shoot, the subject might not stand out from the crowd in terms of clothing or style, but with the right support they can come alive and light up the space and provide wonderful images.
I’ve put together a few great tips to help you to build a brief relationship with someone to get the best image of them.
- I use good lighting to produce a flattering picture, whether soft, natural or professionally set.
- I try to separate male and female subjects when I am organising a shoot so that my lighting set up only has to change once.
- I never refer to the equipment or try to impress people with technical talk. I chat about things like the weather or their journey to my location.
- I never ask them to ‘do something interesting’ (yes, some people have actually said that).
- I always smile and aim to be supportive and positive, never look confused or unhappy with what I am doing no matter what is going wrong.
- I always comment positively about the subject’s appearance.
- I try to make contact “is it ok to just remove this fluff from your shoulder?” Socially acceptable touch is very calming and reassuring, make this gentle and non-judgmental. Always ask!
- I always say, “my first few shots are just getting settings right so just relax don’t try to pose”. You can then say “these look great already this is going to be good”.
- I give positioning direction but keep it simple, e.g. “can you look at this point on the wall” or “straight at the light” or “straight at the camera”. One problem that often occurs when a subject is asked to look in a particular direction is that the angle brings their eye to the edge of the profile shot, giving me a view of a white eyeball. I keep a watchful eye (no pun intended) out for this and always correct the tilt of the head.
- I always ask “can you drop you chin slightly?”. People always want to hide their neck.
- I sometimes like to keep my subject stationary and move my own position to capture the right angle.
- I always ask my subject if they have a favourite side of their face? Perhaps they have a blemish or issue about their appearance that concerns them. I do not use photoshop to remove permanent marks / moles etc. they make up the interest of the portrait, but I do use photoshop to remove temporary marks like cold sores etc.
- I ask (mostly women) in advance of the shoot, to avoid wearing too much makeup and ensure the product does not contain a metallic base which will reflect.
- I try to avoid queues at corporate photography shoots. There is rarely enough time to really settle a subject, but it can really help if you avoid a line of people, one or a maximum of two at a time can work well.
- I have learnt that photographing small children can be wonderful and best if you can get down to their height or eye level and be playful. With older children and young teenagers, you can tease a little bit, ask them if their mother is really their big sister and develop a rapport. You are on your way to a great child shoot.
I do hope this has been of interest. Please use my contact page if you would like to learn more about portrait photography perhaps by joining a class or by being part of the event photography group.