An Approach to Portraits – Chapter 2

It’s been a while since I last worked on the portrait guide. The last update was in late July. Yikes. But we’re always better late than never, so here we go with part two.

After writing the first chapter I was slammed for not providing in-depth analysis on how to capture a good portrait. It seems as if suggesting “go out and practice…” isn’t the sort of advice some people are looking for. This time around I’m going to break down my though process with regards to a few specific images. So, yah. Be careful what you wish for. Today we’re focusing on couples and group shots; adding extra people to a scene makes it much tougher to come away with evocative images.

I’ve written at length of my preference for shooting on location versus shooting in the studio. There’s nothing wrong with shooting in a studio, and some shots are easier to accomplish in a totally controlled environment. Yet by and large, I believe that I can do 90% of the things I would ever do in a studio while on location, while I would never be able to do most things I do on location in a studio. Confused? Hang in there.

Engagement sessions are a prime example of shooting on location versus shooting in the studio. While some e-sessions can benefit from that totally controlled environment, by and large it’s easier to work with couples somewhere that makes them comfortable. Most couples you’ll shoot in your career will have next to no modeling experience, and putting them in front of a black or grey background and telling them to pose can often result in disaster (awkward smiles, strange expressions, raised eyebrows). It’s better to find a place where people can relax and be themselves. It’s all about capturing them together, right? But that means introducing a new variable into the mix; the weather.

The Weather

Yeah, that’s right. The weather. You can never be 100% sure what you’re going to get when you step outside. You can’t control the rain, snow, or tornado (it can happen). You can’t control the cloud cover, and you can’t control the intensity of the sun. All you can do is hope that the natural conditions mesh well with the couple you’re shooting, and the look you’re going for. Sure, you can try and overpower Mother Nature by going strober-kill and using 55 lights on any given scene, but that’s going to make for a long day – and it’s probably not what your couple is expecting. I work most efficiently when I’m shooting under natural light. When I’m working efficiently, I’m working quickly. When I’m working quickly, I’m making my clients happy. Again, if they’re not professional models, they’re not going to be used to someone dicking around with a light for 10 minutes between each press of the shutter. I mix things up; I make sure that my shot list leans heavily to the side of natural light, with a few key flash set-ups mixed in for good measure. If the weather works against me, I can get flash heavy. When it cooperates, like it did on this sensational shoot with Brad and Lindsey, I can focus all my attention on the couple.

The Portraits

Time to break these down.

When I’m shooting people who aren’t used to being in front of the camera I know that the toughest part of my job is going to be to getting them relaxed so that the photos we put together look natural. I start these shoots by talking the couple through my plan for the day – when they know what to expect, they don’t have to worry about what’s coming next. I make sure that we’re always talking, and that no one is standing around wondering what to do next. That’s what happened here; Brad and Lindsey were talking to one another while I was setting up. I had put them into a position I thought would look nice, and gave them enough time to forget about it. When I could tell they were comfortable, I started firing away.

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Once I knew they were relaxed and that we were ready to go, I knew they would probably be comfortable in taking direction. Most people ask me to tell them what I want them to do, but if someone isn’t relaxed in front of the camera, it doesn’t matter how hard I work at posing them. That’s why I always wait a bit before working on more intimate images.

Oh, these first three images were shot under natural light; breaking their focus with flash wasn’t something I wanted to do at this point. Not when we were staring on a roll.

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With light this silky smooth I wasn’t even tempted to break out the lights – not while we were working against the corn backdrop at least. I didn’t have to spend time thinking about the conditions for once; I could focus all my attention on the couple, and the images we wanted to craft.

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One of the keys to this sort of photography is never asking your subjects to do things that they normally wouldn’t do – or that you wouldn’t find comfortable yourself. These aren’t fashion models today – they’re real people, and I’m shooting their engagement photos. There are inherent expectations associated with this type of photography, and posing people in strange or foreign positions is only going to make your job harder (and it’s probably going to look silly). Keep it simple, and keep it natural.

I meet plenty of photographers who are hesitant to give direction. Why? It only makes your job easier in the end. “Hold hands and walk toward the bar…” is a direction. It’s a simple one, but it gives our couple something to do. Would this have been as affective if they were turned around and staring at me? Probably not.

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“Go dance with one another” is direction too. Simple? Of course! That’s the point. The worst thing that can happen is that the image doesn’t look right, so you try again. Asking your couple to do things like this has the added benefit of lightening the mood; if they’re really bad dancers (and I’m not saying these guys were at all!) everyone will have a laugh.

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And don’t forget one of the reasons you decided to shoot on location in the first place: the environment. Use it. Make it work for you. Why would I trot anyone out to a remote location if I didn’t have an idea for what I wanted to do when we got there? You can bet that this frame was near the top of my shoot itinerary for the day.

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So, yeah. The environment. Use it as frequently as you can. Don’t limit it to the background; have your subjects engage with that background. Give them something to do so they’re not constantly wondering what to touch or where to look.

I’ve shot at this old barn a few times. I love it because it’s beautiful, but also because it offers endless opportunities to get my subjects involved in their own images. Again, when you’re not shooting people with a ton of experience in front of the camera, it helps to keep them occupied with something other than the camera.

Maybe you’ve noticed something in common with the images I’ve shared here; none of them feature our couple looking at the camera. Not that there’s anything wrong with looking at the camera, of course – but when your subjects are engaged in one another like this, what’s the point of breaking them out of it to stare at the camera and smile?

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However, every now and then you want your subjects to stare at the camera and smile. You still want them nice and relaxed; let them have a little fun before you get into the typical portrait stuff. That way they may even give you a genuine smile or two, and not a half-cocked fake one that leaves them looking like they’re about to sprint for the bathroom and do bad things. Clients rarely like looking at photos like that. The toughest part of your job is making people happy, and making people smile. Get good at it. Learn how to tell the difference between a fake smile and a real smile, and never settle for anything other than authenticity.

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What about props? Props are huge – I can’t tell you the last time I saw an engagement shoot where the photographer didn’t have a chalkboard, balloons, or some fancy blanket handy. I’m cool with props; they give your subjects something to focus on that isn’t the camera. Yet I prefer props that are connected to the people I’m shooting: maybe it’s the travel photographer in me, but I live for a good environmental portrait.

If that prop just so happens to be one of the cutest puppies the world has ever seen, well, you’re golden. Concentrate on getting your subjects in focus, and you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Play off the residual happiness (it’s a puppy – come on!) and keep firing even when your fuzzy prop exits stage left.

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Contrary to popular belief, shoots don’t have to last all day, either. I’ve written about the (many) times I’ve worn out my subjects and or clients; I’ll probably never forget the six-hour session I had with musician Greg James Hanford a few years back (and he’ll probably never hire my snap-happy ass ever again). Sometimes less is more. If you have a plan, if you execute that plan, and you come away happy with an image, why not end on a high note?

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Then there are those times that all the planning in the world doesn’t help. I had tried for months to get a great environmental portrait of my cousin. I had shot her and her boys numerous times, but nothing ever seemed quite right. I tested their mettle one afternoon by putting them through the ringer on a poorly conceived family photoshoot (I think I deleted three hours of work the second we were done) where we tried numerous looks and setups. Frustrated, I started packing up my gear. The boys, dead tired after posing for such a long time, jumped into their mom’s arms to be carried up the stairs. I had my camera in hand, and a light on somewhere. Good thing that I did.

Lesson? Be ready. Sometimes the images come to you.

That wraps Chapter 2.

– flash

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