Monday, November 20, 2006


As I've pushed myself more towards portraiture this year, I've noticed one common theme. The subjects can now talk back. They care if the picture looks good and they'll tell you if they don't like it. Flowers and mountains don't do that! So that adds some pressure into the whole experience for the photographer. But there is a more important aspect to this. The subjects also need to be engaged in the photo making process. A good portrait is a collaboration between the photographer and the subject. If the subject is bored, or worried that you don't know what you are doing, it'll come across in the picture. Too much fumbling around with the camera means that your subject is being ignored. I've found a couple of things that seems to work well for me, to make taking a person's picture go a bit more smoothly and really let me capture something of the subject. The first is using a prime lens. Getting rid of the zoom lens means just one less thing to fiddle around with. I can move myself and the camera if I want to change the composition, but I'm not zooming in and out while I'm taking the shot. The second thing is to set the camera up before getting the subject involved. Have the camera in the right mode, and the right ISO, right aperture, focus mostly set, memory cards formated and ready to go - everything ready to just meter, set exposure, focus and go. Quick and easy - and you look like you know what you are doing. Also, when it is all set up, you can then be talking with the subject, explaining what you are looking for and what you are trying to achieve. And that's the really important part - talking to the subject and perhaps more importantly, listening to the subject. Keeping that dialog going keeps them engaged and builds that connection that you want to see in the images. I try to get them to do most of the talking, get on to the topic of their favourite subject (which is usually themselves) and they'll forget about having their portrait taken, get animated, look alive and that's the time to capture expressions, gestures and anything that you really feel shows something about who they are. But when you see that gesture, or the way they touch their hair and you really think it is somehow 'them' don't be afraid to ask them to repeat it. Again. and again. and again! I almost always try to shoot portraits on a tripod, with a cable release now. This lets me get my head out from behind the camera so I can make eye contact and keep that dialog going. I'll make small suggestions for posing changes, shoot that, make another change and so on. All the time I'll try to be keeping that conversation going. When I do well at this, it shows in the picture. When I just hide behind the camera and mumble 'great', then the concern shows in the subject. The key seems to be to keep talking!