Saturday, September 17, 2016

To Zoom or Not to Zoom- Portraits with Primes

(A slightly different version of this post originally appeared on the Sigma lens site. You can see it here.)

As a photographer who specializes in environmental portraiture, lens selection is critical to the look of my work. Much of the time I choose to shoot with prime lenses. Let me explain why I made that decision for one of my projects.

In 2014, I was given an artist residency at The Hambidge Center for Arts and Sciences in Rabun, Georgia.  For two weeks that year and again in 2015 and 2016, I was given a cabin tucked away in the mountains, dinner prepared for me four nights a week, and encouragement to do whatever I wanted. I had driven through the area around Hambidge a number of times when my wife and I had gone to the Great Smokie Mountains of North Carolina from our home in Atlanta on camping trips. We often stopped at flea markets along the way and the faces I saw at these rural stops struck me. There was an extraordinary range of types and ages and looks. I knew there was a project here waiting for me to photograph. That idea became American Flea.
Mary-Lynn Starkey runs a small flea market near Franklin, NC with her husband Roger. They told me they decided to open their store because they needed some way to get rid of the stuff they had accumulated by going to auction. 
 For me, shooting portraits takes time, primarily because I need to talk to my subjects to get them to relax and trust me. The flea market portraits were no different- in fact, talking to people became an integral part of the process. Many of the vendors and customers will tell you that making money or finding bargains isn’t the thing they enjoy most about the experience. What they really love is the chance to meet and talk to the people they encounter. I found that everyone had a story and they wanted to share it with me.
Charles Brank, AKA Chuck B, sells his woodcarvings at the Franklin Flea and Craft Market in Franklin, NC.
When I work in this way, I think of portraiture as an active process. I’m not a passive observer as when I’m doing a story that requires a more candid approach. I’m actively engaged with my subjects when we’re talking before I start photographing and as the shooting begins, that engagement continues. I set up strobes and I rarely work from a tripod.
Peggy Hines, Randy Hines, and Randy’s mother, Christine Duncan sell odds and ends at the Woodpecker Wood Works Flea Market in Franklin, NC.
Primes, that is non-zoom lenses, were perfect for this style. I don’t want to hang back, zooming in and out to alter my compositions. I want to be actively moving around the space, closer, farther away, higher, lower. I sometimes think of myself dancing when I shoot like this. It’s a metaphoric dance as I try to elicit the best expression or pose from someone, but it almost becomes a literal dance as I change the scene in my viewfinder. The focal lengths of 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm are perfect for showing the environments that are so important to this work. I may even try a 20mm for some of them when I’m in particularly tight spaces and want to see even more if the environment in the frame.
Dodie Allen was helping a friend out by working in his vegetable stand at Uncle Bill’s Flea Market in Whittier, NC.
 All the photographs in this post were taken with a Nikon D600. The lenses were The Sigma Art Series primes specifically 24mm f1.4 DG | Art, 35mm f1.4 DG | Art, and 50mm f1.4 DG | Art Series. All were lit using an Elinchrom ELB with a 17 inch silver beauty dish. Most were shot utilizing Hi-Sync technology which let me synchronize my Nikon at speeds up to 1/4000 of a second. Stay tuned to my blog (or better yet subscribe to it) for an upcoming post that explains Hi-Sync in detail.

You can see more from American Flea on my web site.


  1. Wonderful portraits! Interesting to read how you are literally changing the scenes with each lens, and that you switch your lenses frequently to be sure to get not only the best shot of the person you're photographing, but also to fully capture the environment. Great advice, makes the image so much more real!

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