I have been thinking about the portraits I have photographed lately…portraits of people that is. I have been taking portraits of other things for my entire photographic career- mammals, wildflowers, milkweed pods, boats, tractors, birds- you name it. I didn’t really think about these pictures as portraits, they were just close pictures of stuff. I did eventually realize that all these images had some similarities photographically- tight compositions, pretty soft light, just enough depth of field, eye level perspective- and I knew that I always reached for the same kind of lens- a medium to long telephoto depending on how close I could safely get to my subject. But I didn’t really think about these pictures much more than that.
When I started my farm book project I started to take serious pictures of people. Farms, I quickly figured out, were where farmers hung out and a book about a farm had to have pictures of farmers. Years ago I had done a book on Ecuador and took pictures of Ecuadorians but they were pretty crude which is a nice way to say they weren’t very good. I took them from a distance, never interacted with the person and shot mostly in the spur of the moment. Serviceable but nothing special.
Then this year I started a new book on lobstering and started taking a lot of pictures of people associated with lobster fishing. Finally it dawned on me that the lens and light and technical aspects of my portrait photography weren’t nearly as important as the approach I took. And I mean that quite literally. My approach- how I presented myself and how I came up to the person (the angle I took)- in large part determined how successful I would be taking the pictures. Let me explain.
Everyone thinks that you take pictures of people by sneaking around, finding a potential target and then when there is an opening, firing off a few quick shots and then looking away pretending you are not there. This is the exactly wrong approach to take. Your subjects are not prey and you are not the predator-photographer. You may get a few shots but there will always be major flaws and chances are the expression and posture you capture is going to at best borderline and more likely dreadful. You are not a spy trying to get a picture of a secret agent, you are a person trying to get a picture of another person so behave accordingly.
The secret of getting great portraits is to spend a little time with you subject, establish a relationship even if it is fleeting You do this by smiling and making eyecontact, acting humbly and moving quietly, in other words, fitting in. Don’t approach your subject with the camera up to your eye,it is very off putting and even threatening and very unfriendly. You don’t have to speak their language you just have to hang out, nod and smile, pantomime greetings or compliments, just be nice. To the person you are trying to photograph you come off as nonthreatening and therefore not worth paying attention to. And as you continue to hang out you will start to blend in, become part of the scene. this is when you can start to think about taking some pictures because now you are just that guy or gal hanging out, not some weirdo or some unusual freak.
Now as you are blending in you are not just relaxing. You are instead looking around and analyzing the scene trying to figure out the best angles and where the best light and background are. You are also deciding on which lens to use and what the aperture and shutter speed is going to be. How much depth of field do you want? is the subject moving or still? Am I going to move in close with a wide angle lens or not so close and use a short zoom lens? This all has to be preset before you start taking pictures because you won’t have time to do it when the picture presents itself. If you have your subject wait as you change lenses, etc., you will get a very posed and ‘lifeless’ expression.
When you are ready to take a picture approach your subject from that best angle with the best background and light. When you are in position, wait for the right moment and take your shots. If you approach from a bad angle the one chance you get to take the picture (some people only give you a few seconds- time for a quick burst of shots) will be worthless because the background and light are bad. If you approach your subject from the best angle the moment you get to shoot will give you the best chance at getting your shot.
I can’t emphasize these two ‘rules’ enough- 1. Establish a relationship and blend in and 2. Approach from the best angle. Both of these things require one thing- time! You can’t get a great portrait if you are in a rush and you try to just grab a shot. I see these kinds of shots all the time in my critiques during my workshops. I make the same comments I always do- ‘background is a bit distracting, expression is less than friendly’ and I get the same story as a response- ‘just walking by…turned quickly…got the shot…moved on.’ There is no speed prize in photography. There is only reward for doing things right. Besides, wouldn’t you rather have a couple of great shots instead of lots and lots of mediocre ones? So take your time, think about what you are doing, be considerate and friendly and your portraits will be much improved. Plus, you will have made a connection with someone. It’s better this way. Trust me.
Okay, now for the technical side of things. I use my 24-120mm lens for most of my portraits. The long side of this lens allows me to be a couple of steps away from my subject and get a nice shoulder to head shot. If I want to show more of the environment my subject is in then I can take a step closer and zoom to the wide side of the lens. That is an important sentence to think about. To take a strong environmental portrait you not only have to zoom wider to show the environment but you also have to get closer to fill your frame with your subject. If you don’t get closer, your subject just shrinks in the frame and the impact is lost in the composition.
If I want to take just a part of of my subject, say the hands, I change lenses and go even wider. yes that is right, I go wider. The temptation is to step back and zoom long and do a tight composition but if you do that you lose all the context of what you are photographing. I step in, often just a foot or two away, and use my 12-24mm lens (effectively a 18-36mm lens). With this lens I can fill up the frame with the hands but include enough of the background to provide the context of what the hands are doing. This is what I did to take the shot I include below of the farmer’s hands fixing the knotter on the hay baler. I was leaning in and only about 14 inches away from the hands when I took the shot yet you can still see the background grass, a lot of the machinery and part of a body. With a longer telephoto none of those things would have been in the shot.
My camera settings are all automatic- autofocus, autoexposure, matrix metering. This is because I want to concentrate on my subject-what are they doing now? what are they going to be doing next? are they comfortable or ill at ease and what expression is going to be the best? There is no time to focus your lens, or to pick a shutter speed. You are moving in to get your shot, taking it and then moving back and turning invisible again until you are ready to photograph again.
When you do push the shutter, shoot a fast cluster of shots, say 4-8. this will give you the chance when you are processing the pictures to pick the very best one. The subtleties of gesture and expression are very important and by taking a fast series you will be able to capture the nuances that will give you your best picture.
Remember, this is not a studio shot where you can linger and consider every little detail, this is on the go and you have to let the camera focus (put the autofocus bracket on the subject’s head) and figure out the exposure (use matrix or evaluative metering and pick a middle f-stop, f8 or f11). When everything is good, you move in slowly but directly, take your shots and then retreat. If you move in and linger you will be in the way and your subject will either get annoyed or angry. Either way, that will be the last picture you will take there.
Let your camera take care of the technical side of things and you work on the artistic side of things. It’s a great way to work and your pictures will be great!