CHAPTER ONE – THE CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT
“I don’t want to get into someone’s face with my camera. It feels weird to me. I much prefer to shoot them from far away, with a telescopic lens or something. I don’t want to invade their privacy. I think it’s better to take pictures of people when they don’t know you’re doing it. That’s how I would take travel portraits.”
– a traveler in Laos.
I’ve been playing this quote over in my mind time and again for a long time. In fact, I’ve thought about it every time I’ve made a portrait since I heard it back in October of 2011. What’s fascinating to me about that quote, about the rationale behind it, is that it runs totally counter to everything I believe in as a photographer. It runs counter to the way I work. But it’s not wrong – in fact, there are many obvious merits to conducting yourself in that manner.
I decided I would spend a little time discussing my own view on shooting portraits when I travel, how I got comfortable putting people in front of my lens, how I make people comfortable in front of the lens, my own views on the best way to approach someone at random, and how I work with people in a controlled environment, whether I know them or not.
Let’s go back to Laos.
From my observations and conversations with photographers I’ve met on the road, I believe that this attitude stems, in general, from a lack of confidence in shooting portraits of people. This isn’t a surprising thing – how many of us are really comfortable talking to strangers? How many of us are really comfortable talking to strangers when there is virtually zero chance that they’re going to understand what we’re saying to them, and vice versa? It’s much easier to sit back, watch the world unfold, and pick your photographic spots, for lack of a better term. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this approach. We’ve all seen beautiful images of people taken by photographers whom did not make their presence known or felt. I do it myself, and I do it frequently. Below are just a few examples of the sort of images that traveler was talking about.
What these frames have in common is that they do in fact feature people. But I wouldn’t necessarily call any of them a portrait. The subjects were largely unaware of my presence in each of the four cases. Now, don’t get me wrong – I like these frames, and I shoot this way all the time. In fact, shooting people in this manner is a great way to learn how to incorporate people into your pictures without the hassle of getting up close and person. However, a picture of a person is not the same as a portrait. So, how do we get from A to B? How to we transition from shooting pictures with people to shooting portraits?
Let’s step back for a moment. What is a portrait?
A portrait is generally considered to be a representation of a person in which their personality, disposition, likeness, and/or attitude is put on display. By definition, a portrait showcases engagement between the photographer/viewing audience and the subject. The subject is usually – but not always – photographed looking at the camera.
Photographers utilize a variety of portrait styles and techniques. Some are self-explanatory, like headshots, street portraits, and self-portraits. Others we’ll touch on in this guide – like the all-important environmental portrait.
A travel portfolio is not complete without images of the people that inhabit a place. If I’m going to North Korea, I want images of Kim Jong-Il riding an eagle while swinging a golf club. If I’m going to Cuba, I want pictures of Mark Cuban. A travel portfolio that isn’t packed with portraits is one that is incomplete, in my humble opinion. But how does a photographer go about breaking down the walls of timidity and insecurity? How does a photographer build his confidence behind the lens, and keep his subject engaged in front of it?
Get Comfortable At Home.
The key to getting comfortable behind the camera is patience and practice. When I started out I was awful nervous with someone in front of my camera; I often felt like I was going too slow, like I was wasting my subject’s time, like I didn’t even really know what I was doing. I worked my way through those problems by practicing. I practiced with people who would be forgiving and more than a little understanding – my friends and my family. I learned a few things about people back in those early days: I learned that most people enjoy having their photo taken (who doesn’t like attention? It’s flattering); most people will allow you however much time you need to get the photo you want (within reason… though there have been times when I have gone on and on long beyond reason); most people have never really had a real portrait made, and they’ll totally want to see your work.
If there’s no one around to shoot, try turning your camera on yourself. Test your own patience for a while. I frequently practice new techniques on myself before employing them in the field – that way I’m free to focus on craft and technique, and I don’t have to worry about working out the kinks with someone else in front of my camera.
Back to work with people.
Just remember that your subject will feed off of your energy. If you seem nervous behind the camera, there’s a good chance that they are going to be nervous too (unless your subject is a professional model or someone used to having a camera pointed in their direction for hours on end). Even if you are uncomfortable or nervous, it is to your benefit to hide it. Make a little small talk. Crack a few jokes. There is nothing more awkward than a quiet photographer. It seems like little more than common sense – talk to the people you’re taking pictures of – but it is rather common to see photographers get locked in on what they’re doing and forget about the people they’re doing it to. Make every shoot seem like an event, like you’re out to have a good time. Since you’re already in a controlled environment, make it your own. Throw on some music. Have a drink. Relax. Build a rapport with the person on the other end of your lens, and your images will benefit from it.
Take a break.
Whether you’re working with one person for a few minutes or a group of people over an extended period of time, don’t forget to take a break. Give the person you’re shooting a few moments to relax. Show them the images you’ve been making, and help them get excited about what’s to come. Ask for their input. Ask them if there’s anything they’d like to try. In my experience, an engaged subject is a happy subject is a willing subject. If their ideas are insane or silly, just roll with it. Your ideas probably seemed insane or silly when you first explained them. All these factors combined will help put your subject at ease, and they’ll help you to relax. It’s a bonus if you can actually make some decent pictures, but we’ll deal with that later.
Never underestimate the importance of the controlled environment – whether it’s a studio, your backyard, or a fantastic new location you’re visiting for the first time. When you control the environment, you control the variables – this is your opportunity to experiment, play around, hone your craft, and help you relax behind the camera.
Creating portraits is different from shooting people on the street. It’s different from street photography too, but that’s a whole other ballgame. It pays to be prepared, especially if you’re just getting your feet wet. When I set up a portrait session with someone, I go into that session with an idea of the style of photos I want to create, the light I want to use, and the environment I want my subject in. I even have an idea of the kind of poses I want my subjects to be in; believe it or not, most people have no idea what to do in front of the camera, and if you don’t push, pull, or prod them into the position you want them in, they’re likely to stand there looking at you with a dull expression on their face. If you’re a 16-year-old girl and you plan on washing out the colors and adding some faux film effects to your pix, you can probably pull this look off. For everyone else, it pays to plan ahead.
The bottom line: control your environment. A big part of control is preparation, which we’ll cover in-depth in the fourth part of this guide. Check back for that in a few days – I plan on including a full play-by-play of how I get ready for a location shoot.
Move quickly, and carry a light stick.
You can’t shoot portraits if you don’t have your gear handy. Toss your camera into a bag, and keep it in your car, on your handlebars, or in your backpack. Bring it out at family functions, dinner parties, picnics, wherever or whenever you’ll be around people that you’re comfortable with. Shoot these people, shoot them often, and work on your craft. Find a style that works for you, then try techniques that are new to you. If you keep your gear close, chances are that there will be someone nearby ready and willing to have their picture taken. Does it seem a little silly to break out your camera at a family dinner party? Cheesy? Dorky? Sure, but whatever. If you’re getting better, and you’re learning, and people are having fun, who cares? I’d rather feel a little silly and learn something new than not do anything at all.
In part four I’m going to help you build a compact, travel-friendly lighting rig that you can tote around with you anyplace you go. Believe it or not, when you’ve got a few pieces of equipment set up, when you look like you know what you are doing, people will generally give you a little latitude in terms of time and patience. It’s a neat trick, and it works.
You know what else makes people nervous? Your big, ungainly, awkwardly proportioned camera. Unless you’ve ever had a cinder block shoved in your face, you probably don’t know what it’s like to have a huge DSLR and a mammoth 70-200mm f/2.8 lens pointed at you. If you don’t know how to handle your rig, if your nervousness with someone in front of the camera comes to the fore, that’s only going to be magnified in your subject. One idea is to strip away the size variable – shoot with something smaller. Grab your little point and shoot camera or your cell phone and fire off a few frames. It’ll take the pressure off of everyone – we’re all used to having these things pointed at us, right? With that point and shoot or cell phone, you likely won’t be compelled to shoot 500 frames of the same person. You’ll chase the shot you’re after, and you’ll get it quickly.
I know you’re cringing now. You’re worried about image quality. You’re worried about looking silly shooting portraits of someone on your phone. You’re worried about the gathering dust on your expensive SLR. But an image of a bewildered, confused, and mildly annoyed subject is more worrisome. You need to be comfortable in order to shoot great portraits. Get comfortable any way you can.
A Portrait Session.
Both sets of grandparents were on their way over for dinner. I’ve been working on a family portrait project for well over a year now, and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get a clean, simple portrait of each of them. I knew I would only have enough time to grab them for a quick frame or two, so I did my prep work about an hour before they showed up. I set up one light in a softbox, dragged the rig outside, and put a chair under it. When my grandparents showed up, all I had to do was sit them down in the chair, one by one, and fire away. I controlled the environment. I controlled the variables.
So there I was, testing my mettle with my grandparents. I’ve shot them before, I know them pretty well, and I knew exactly what sort of image I wanted to get. I didn’t go to work and waver and waste time – I fired off three frames of each of the four of them – one to test the light and make any adjustments, then a vertical, then a tight horizontal shot. I didn’t even need to crop these frames, because I knew exactly what I wanted.
Could I have messed around and experimented with a bunch of different looks? Yeah, of course! But my primary goal was to get out of this shoot a clean, elegant, timeless portrait – if I had time left over, I could do a few other things. As it happened, the burgers came off the grill just as I clicked the shutter for the last time on my Oma, and this shoot was in the books. But because I knew exactly what I wanted to come away with – never underestimate the importance of your vision – I remained confident, I put my subjects at ease, and I got the job done. There’s always next time to try new things.
You need to try this. If you can’t pull off something under pressure with a member of your own family or one of your friends, how are you ever going to cope in the field, when you’re under the gun, your subject is disgruntled, running late, hates their hair and their shirt, and is going to give you exactly enough time for you to cough, clear your throat, and click the shutter three times?
Chapter One is in the books. In Chapter Two, we’re going to take our act out into the field. Stay tuned.