Friday, December 4, 2015

Shooting Portraits

-->
From "Faces and Heels- Inside Independent Wrestling" See more here
 The majority of my work has always been of people and the majority of those people pictures have been portraits. The range has been quite large and I’ve shot all kinds of people. I hope the characteristic that is common to all those people in all those places is that the subjects in my portraits seem comfortable. They’re relaxed and appear at peace with themselves. But why? Why do they look like that? 
From"Pursuit of the Spirit"
In many ways, photography, in and of itself, is not that difficult. Learning to properly expose, compose, and print photographs can be mastered with moderate effort. Unfortunately, skill at those elements doesn’t guarantee that one’s pictures will be anything that people will want to look at, much less pay for. All the technological advancements that make photography “easy” can’t tell you what to point your camera at. It will never be able to tell you when to press the shutter button. And, in the case of portrait photography, it can’t tell you how to treat people in order to capture a successful image.

From "European Portraits" see more here
I think the single most important thing to accomplish when shooting portraits is remembering to talk to one’s subjects. A successful portrait is usually one where there is an element of trust developed between the photographer and the person in front of the camera. The sitter needs to feel that they won’t be taken advantage of or made to look ridiculous.  They need to know that they won’t be exploited or sensationalized. In some ways, they need to like the photographer. The most direct way to accomplish this, I think the most honest way, is to have a conversation.
Director of the Zippo Museum in Bradford, PA
I don’t mean to say that this is the only way to make a great portrait. In fact, there are easy examples of photographers who eschew this method and go to some lengths to do the opposite, bullying their subjects into submission as they create their vision of how someone should look. Annie Liebovitz immediately comes to mind and no one, least of all this photographer, would suggest she isn’t a great portraitist. But I think most of us don’t have the force of personality or the raw photographic talent to make this a realistic working method.
From "Day & Night" see more here
When I shoot someone, it’s important to me that when we’re done, they feel good about what just happened, not bludgeoned with demands that made them uncomfortable. It sounds stupid and a little needy, but I want people to like me. Liking me usually leads to trusting me and I find that if they do, the results in the portrait will be stronger.
From "Day & Night" see more here
Talking is the best way to reach this end point, but you have to remember to not allow the conversation to be your monolog. It’s much more important to ask questions and get the other person talking. If you’ve had a chance to do a little research on them, this will be much easier. How did they start their business? Why did they move to their current home? How has having children changed how they think of themselves? Ask them to tell you about how they spend their time on the weekend. Ask them to tell you about their favorite part of their job.
From "Tibet" see more here
None of those questions have one word answers. They’re all what documentary filmmakers refer to as open ended. They all require thought and explanation. They all make follow-up questions easier because they are relatively complex. The photographer can’t help but learn about the person they’re about to shoot a portrait of.
From "European Portraits" see more here
I admit that this is a fairly easy process for me. I’ve been doing it for so long, that I can’t remember whether it was ever difficult for me. I’m naturally a very curious person. I sincerely want to learn as much as I can about anyone I meet. Photography has proven to be the perfect tool to indulge my curiosity. Having a camera gives me permission to ask questions that in other circumstances might be considered too personal or even rude. It provides me with the perfect excuse to be nosy. It’s my skills at talking, not photography, that allow me to go into virtually any environment and come out of it with decent results. 
From "Out on Buford Highway" see more here
I’ve photographed people as widely varied as inmates in prison, neo-Nazi skinheads, Mormons at sacred sites in upstate New York, CEOs, janitors, patrons of rural pubs in Wales, workers in ethnic restaurants in suburban Atlanta, professional dominatrixes, African American rodeo cowboys, and tattoo artists. The thing common to them all is that I am genuinely interested in their stories and thoughts. I want to know why they do what they do, how they feel about their lives, what brings them joy, and what makes them feel sadness.
From "Out on Buford Highway" see more here
The other thing that often happens while talking to a person you’re about to photograph is more specific and technical than the issue of trust. While carrying on this conversation, I try to let one part of my brain stay aware of the visual conditions of the person and the location. I hopefully will get clues as to how to tell this person’s story. Is there a specific prop that I should show? Do they cover their mouth when they laugh, thus alerting me to the fact that they’re self-conscious of their teeth? Should I try to shoot them looking up at the camera because they have a tendency to show a double chin? Is there one corner of the room that will make for a more dynamic composition? While paying attention to our conversation, I’m also letting my eyes do visual reconnaissance. After all, making a great picture is why I’m there.
From "Disappearing Pub Culture" see more here
So what can you do if this whole process seems too difficult and you’re not naturally as gregarious as I am? I have a few suggestions that might help.

1.     In the beginning, keep your photography as simple as possible. This might mean shooting with the available light or with a simple one light set up. Make sure you’re completely familiar with your equipment. Don’t use that new or borrowed or rented camera with controls that can confuse you. At first you need to be able to concentrate on your relationship with your subject and not let the photography get in your way.

2.     Scout your location in advance. This can allow you to avoid struggling with the situation in front of you and distract you from the communication with your subject.

3.     Do some research on your subject. This prepares you with a few questions and will hopefully provide you with information that you’ll want to learn more about. You don’t need to know everything about them, just enough to give you the basis for the conversation.

4.     Pre-light the scene so the person doesn’t have to sit around waiting for you to wrestle with your gear. When I was shooting regularly for major magazines, I arrived at locations a minimum of two hours early to figure out where I was going to shoot and how I was going to light.

5.     Don’t forget to ask open-ended questions. “How do feel about. . .?” “Tell me about. . .” “What was it like when. . .?” “How do you go about. . .?” Almost everyone responds to someone who expresses a genuine interest in who they are and what they think. Make sure you’re that person for anyone who has taken the time to sit in front of you and your camera.

As with most things in photography, you’ll get better as you shoot more. Everything in this article is intended as starting points, not rules. With time and with effort, you’ll discover what works for you and how you can make the best pictures possible. The most important thing to discover is how to make your pictures- not mine or anyone else’s. Yours. That’s where the joy comes from.
From "Faces and Heels- Inside Independent Wrestling" see more here
 A shorter, edited version of this article was previously published on the blog Light Leaked

8 comments:

  1. HI, Thanks for sharing such wonderful tips. For a Portrait photographer these are really helpful.

    RTIbyRT

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Denis- I'm working on a new post about the choice of shooting with prime lenses vs zooms for portraiture. I hope you'll find that useful, too.

      Delete
  2. Replies
    1. Pablo- You're welcome! Thanks for the kind words.

      Delete
  3. Great to have a post like this... will you please share your knowledge with Akil Bennett Houston Best Wedding Photographer

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lisa- I'm happy to. Send Akil here to start a dialog. I'm glad you like this post.

      Best, F

      Delete
  4. Replies
    1. Susanna- Thanks! Stay tuned for more.

      Best, Forest

      Delete