The Modern Portrait Photographer

The editorial shooter must combine color, movement, and selective focus techniques while still trying to communicate the essence of their subjects. This is not to say that a conventionally produced portrait is somehow undesirable. But if you want your work to look fresh you need to keep up with the trends. While I approach each people photography assignment with flight cases full of equipment, a medium format camera, and plenty of Fuji Velvia roll film, you can create dynamic images with

practically any equipment. Here are a few tips for capturing people on film using exciting new techniques.

1. Change Your Light Source. As we all know, photography is allabout light. With the advent of the portable softbox in the early 1980s, photographershave gotten used to bringing soft, controllable studio lighting to any location. Photographing people in their work or home setting became easier, yet the preponderance of softboxes has led to a boring sameness in a lot of people photography. In order to break out of the softbox and umbrella mold, a lot of photographers have resorted to a most unglamorous form of lighting--direct light. Instead of just blasting away with an on-camera flash, a lot of shooters are using bare-bulb light heads; flash heads with grids, snoots, and barn doors; and even the funky ringlight.

2. Use Color.
While traditional portrait techniques have often called for muted, elegant painted backdrops, today photographers feel compelled to introduce dynamic color. I always travel with a complete pack of gel filters. In order to really have the color pop in the background you’ll need to ensure that you’re lighting a dark area. If there’s too much ambient light the gelled light head won’t be saturated enough. Introducing big pools of color through lighting is a great technique, but you can also find existing backdrops and use them. You can often perch my subjects in out-of-the-way corners of factories just to take advantage of some bright red machine part or a hot yellow control panel. In some cases an entire room is painted a strong color, and shoot your subject totally bathed in the color.

3. Keep It Moving.

The ideal of a sharp, crisp, well-exposed portrait has become a thing of the past for many photographers. Blurry, fuzzy images that would have been rejected by editors 20 years ago are all the rage. Selective focus images, where the head is sharp but the rest of the body is thrown way out of focus, are easy to accomplish by swinging out the back of a 4x5 view camera or using tilt and shift 35mm and medium format lenses. Motion blurring, sometimes of the background only but often of the entire scene, has become common.
You can often use a studio flash for foreground lighting and then let the ambient lighting of the background work into the rest of the scene. With a handheld medium format camera I usually shoot at f/16 with a 1 or 2 sec exposure. This gives you the crisp portrait in the foreground and the slightly blurry background. I like this effect a lot. For 35mm users this is called slow synch. Remember, aperture controls flash coverage while shutter speed handles the ambient exposure.

4. Use The Golden Rule.

The golden rule is this: Respect your subject and his or her feelings. You can take lots of amazing images where the people really don't look great. In many cases magazines will run the photos, which may make you look bad. You're not looking to please the subject only, but you also don’t want to terrorize people with your "vision" of how they should look. While a fisheye lens 10" from that CEO’s nose may make for a dramatic photo, it will also make for a grotesque distortion of his or her features. You should rather find a compromise that satisfies your artistic vision and makes the subject look good.
Whether you’re shooting portraits for your own amusement, for friends and family, or for a fee, there comes a time when you need to look at things differently. Everyone falls into ruts, and even the best photographers often need a stiff kick in the rump to incorporate some fresh ideas into their work. The key is to keep your eyes open and take some chances.

5. Develop An Artistic Eye.
It’s always important to be observant when you’re an image creator. You may not much into taking pictures of scenery, but you will probably remember an interesting locale for eventual use as a location shoot with people.
A setting may be as mundane as an empty parking lot or as exotic as the gleaming Stuttgart airport. It’s all about your eye as an artist. Think your best portrait of a particular individual is up against a white wall? Go for it. Think the best setting is the roof of the tallest building in town? Why not? I’m usually guilty of dragging clients all over to use the one perfect location. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but you’ll never infuse your portraits with a sense of life unless you try something new.

6. Shift Focus.
By focus I don’t mean camera focus. I mean the focus of the image. In most cases the subject is perfectly centered in the image, with a proportional amount of background. The classic portrait has been a subject staring directly into the camera or slightly off-camera. Grade school portraits recently shot still looks almost exactly like they were shot in the ’60s.
Of course you would be horrified if the school photographer had decided to be a cutting-edge editorial photographer and shoot a panoramic image with my son stuck in the corner. Likewise you would be equally disappointed if your child seemed unaware that they were being photographed; Captured in an animated conversation with some off-camera observer.

For editorial and advertising photography, many of these things lead to a more effective image. Shifting the focus of the image from the subject to the environment can be really interesting. You can try pushing your subject to one end of the frame and include more of the environment. Usually, as long as the image is crisp enough the Art Director or editor can always crop out the extraneous material. Usually what happens is the image looks so "right" that it runs as intended. Another great way to shift the focus of a portrait is to have the subject interacting with an off-camera person. I often position an Art Director or assistant off-camera, then have the subject strike up a conversation. This way You can get a little bit of spontaneity into what would otherwise be a pretty typical posed portrait.

7. Fill It!

You’ve got to be a master of "fill flash" to make it today. Punching up a scene by incorporating carefully controlled studio-type lighting outdoors has become something of a visual cliche. Although it can be severely overused, the daylight, with fill-flash technique still can create some powerful images.

In order to do this right you’ll need some sort of high-powered flash unit. You can start out with Vivitar on-camera flash units. While they may do the trick when aimed directly at the person, they may not have enough punch to do it into an umbrella or softbox. Using high-speed film won’t solve the problem, since your exposure for the ambient (daylight) light source will be too high for flash synch. I’ve found that with moderate speed film like Fuji Provia (EI 100) you need at least 400 ws of power. I always bring my Studio battery-powered kit with me, which I use with 1600 ws heads.

Exposure is critical, as is the direction of the ambient light source. If you’ve got direct sunlight right on your subject’s face, no amount of additional flash will help. Putting the sun directly behind your subject is one solution, but then you’re stuck with that backlit look. I like to find some naturally occurring shade, like the shadow of a building or a tree, or to simply create my own shadow with a large black card.

If your only flash is an on-camera unit, fear not. You can create some really terrific fill-flash shots by positioning the subject in between the sun and my camera. By shooting from within the shadow cast by the subject you ensure that no direct sunlight hits the lens, and you've created a dramatic backlit portrait. Without a source of light in front of the subject I also have a total silhouette. On-camera flash works great, since the harshness of the direct flash is muted by the overall correct exposure of the rest of the scene. You can accomplish this effect even better with a large collapsible silver reflector, but I like the portability of the on-camera flash.

The Old Made New--Fresnel’s Spotlight Comeback!

Any kind of portrait is only as good as the light falling on your subject and his or her surroundings. You can mix things up by using a combination of ambient light, flash diffused with softboxes and direct light from flash heads or focusing Fresnel spotlights.
While you can do a decent job with inexpensive flood lights from the hardware store, if you really want to create, you need light sources that are easily controllable. Even devices as simple as the age-old barn doors can make a standard light head extremely controllable. I like a mix of barn doors, grid spots, and snoots to control the light output of my flash heads.

Since good lighting is also about where not to put light, you’ll want to have a few gobos around. Gobo today is a fancy word for black foamcore. I have a bunch of beat up pieces of black foamcore that I take on every shoot. With foamcore, a few light stands, and some black gaffer tape you can tame any wild light source.**