portraits

informal / candid portraits on the street – applying what you know

New York City abounds with characters – interesting and colorful people. This is one of those constants if you’re out on the streets in NYC, especially when taking photos or busy with a photo session … or as in this case, during one of the individual photography workshops in NYC. This man approached us to sell his artwork … and we ended up taking a few photos of him. With a few quick, automatic steps, the informal portrait is improved.

I’m one of those people, who, if tourists in Times Square give me their cameras, I will also pose them and correct a few things. Adjust an awkward pose. Hide shopping bags. Any quick fixes that will immediately improve even a camera phone snapshot.

Similarly here, I immediately asked him to go to this doorway a few yards away – the gold trim and black of the facade would perfectly match the dark suit and warm tones of this flower and his skin. Working in this doorway also meant we had shade – no struggle with hard sunlight. The pose is all his! He immediately went to this pose.

If you look at the 4 images in the entire sequence, you will notice the first image he had his left hand out in the sun. I asked him to drop his hand a bit so that he was entirely in the shade. Then another 3 quick photos, as I adjust my composition slightly to pull in more of the blue sky reflection. I knew the blue tones would balance the warmer tones to the bottom of the frame.

All of these micro-decisions to adjust an informal portrait, are done in a few seconds. Decisively, but gently. This is all done with the idea of elevating a random snapshot into an informal portrait that could hopefully stand on its own as an interesting photo of an interesting character we met out on the street.

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photographing portraits with a personal connection

One of the portraits I’ve taken over the years that I am most proud of, is this of my friend Petra Herrmann. This photograph, for me, shows her strength as well as vulnerability.

I’d mention her sense of humor, and her warmth and kindness .. but she’d just tell me to fuck off. So there’s that. But it’s true. She’s a remarkable person and friend … and I am glad she’s going to be around much, much longer.

Petra is a well-known boudoir photographer in Kansas City, who also co-maintains the The Business of Boudoir site. Somewhere late in 2014, Petra was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even though she is still going through the second round of chemo, the good news is that it looks like she is bouncing back from it, with the prognosis very good.

This photo was taken in March 2015, while at a photography convention in Las Vegas. Catching up during a long afternoon of conversation and laughter, I asked if I could take photographs of her. I felt it was important that we capture this. This time in her life. I loved the series of photos then, and even more so now. There is a quietness and strength there – and as much as friends can rally, this is a solitary battle.

Perhaps with portraits where there is connection and intimacy, it becomes this transaction between the photographer and subject – a deeper, unspoken conversation taking place during the taking of the photographs. And it has more to do with your subject giving you those more revealing moments, than it has to do with your technical skills as a photographer. Then the existing friendship and trust can fortunately take precedence – and with a little bit of help with the photographer’s personality to elicit some response – create an evocative portrait. In other words, the success of this photo has much more to do with Petra ‘giving’ me this photograph, than me taking it.

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portrait photography – show us a favorite or break-through photograph

This photograph remains one of my favorites. It was taken circa early 90’s during a studio shoot-out arranged by a camera club (CCJ) I belonged to in Jo’burg. In this photo, the models are waiting for their turn to be photographed in a studio setup, using studio lighting, as well as available light in the large studio. It was a candid moment, as I knelt in front of this model, Megan.

For me, this was a transitionary photograph – I was at a point where I knew basic photography techniques. I read voraciously, and devoured magazines and books. But my own images at the time – landscapes and cityscapes and such – were mostly “found” images. For me, there was still a gap between what I was photographing, and the images I was drawn to – portrait and fashion images which were more controlled. Even then, the portraits and fashion photography that appealed to me, had a fresh and “loose” feel – and I felt I wasn’t quite  capable of that yet. It wasn’t just insecurity, but also shyness in working with people, and posing them. I lacked the courage to involve the people in my photography.

Yet, here I had a photo that had that spontaneity and elegance that appealed to me. Even though the moment was presented to me, and I had nothing to do with how it was arranged, I still felt really proud of it … but more so, the realization dawned on me that I could do this. I could have set this up and shot it. It was within my reach.

I was aware of the problems with this photograph – the fingertips cropped off, and the tilt. The pillow she held to herself is incongruous. The background is cluttered. A more controlled photograph would’ve been more successful. Still, this was one of those photographs which sparked a change for me.

This photograph then, was pivotal in my progress as a photographer. For the first time I took a photo that looked (nearly) as good as I saw in photography magazines. I could do this!

 

I would like to hear your story, and see your favorite or breakthrough portrait.
It need not be perfect. It just needs to be important to you.
There are two book prizes to be won:

 


The Portrait: Understanding Portrait Photography

The Portrait: Understanding Portrait Photography, by Glenn Rand & Tim Meyer, is a good introduction to portrait photography. Over the course of 200 pages, the authors explain the essentials of Portrait Photography.

You can order this book from Amazon, or directly from Rocky Nook.

If you order an eBook directly from RockyNook, then the coupon code Portrait40 offers 40% off the ebook version of The Portrait.

You can also buy it at a discount as an e-book bundle, along with Tilo Gockel’s book, Creative Flash Photography. (review)

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photography tip: available light portraits – finding that sweet spot of light

A regular theme on Tangents, is using interesting found light sources while shooting portraits on location. For example: using sunlight reflected off a traffic sign.

With this straight-forward portrait of Irene, a photographer friend in New York, I want to show a neat little trick here – helping your subject understand exactly where you want them to stand.

Here we had random reflections of glass structures in Manhattan, giving random spots of lights.  I wanted to use one of these spots of lights here as naturally found light for Irene, and another splash of light to give a high-light behind her, as I framed her against it.

Instead of giving your subject incremental instructions – “a little to the left, a little to the left, no, come back” – the simple trick to have your subject turn around so they can see this highlight, and have them move a little until they can see their own shadow in the splash of light …

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business headshots in the studio, with a contemporary / modern look

When Matt Sweetwood, the owner of the largest Camera Store in New Jersey, discussed doing new new business headshots for him, we agreed that a more contemporary look suited him. There’s a large dynamic personality at work here … and using an 85mm f/1.4 lens wide open would place attention on his eyes and his expression. Nothing else is really in focus aside from his eyes, and this really makes for a compelling portrait that grabs your attention.

We shot various sequences, with the background brighter and darker. In the end we settled on a sequence of images with the lighting shown in the top photograph – it has an airy brightness to it, and looks modern. With the colors muted like that, it draws attention to his expression even more. No bright colors to distract.

We also had fun with various expressions just to mix it up a bit.

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feminine portraiture – Pure: the authentic beauty project

Since 2012, Stacie Frazier, owner of Haute Shots Beauty and Boudoir Photography in Las Vegas, has been on an interesting mission – one to help women relinquish the control of cosmetics and see their own authentic beauty in the form of beauty and/or boudoir portraiture. Recently Stacie invited others to join her in this mission by announcing the PURE: authentic beauty project on the Business of Boudoir website.

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dramatic lighting with fresnel lights – photo session w/ Jen Rozenbaum

For the portrait session of Jennifer Rozenbaum, I wanted to show her in her “office” – the studio where she shoots boudoir images of her clients. But instead of photographing Jennifer in a boudoir style, I wanted this to be portraits of her, the boudoir photographer, where she works. Her office as such. Still, it needed to be sexy, a little feral, yet sweet, and very much her.

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Using your lens’ bokeh as a design element

In previous articles we could see how a fast 85mm can be used for shallow depth-of-field to shoot nearly anywhere by melting away the background. There’s another aspect to this – the bokeh of the lens. The bokeh is a reference to how the quality of the background blur is rendered by a lens. It can be smooth, or have “jittery” patterns to the edges of objects, and the highlights.

Do note though that bokeh and shallow depth-of-field are not quite the same thing. While the DoF / choice of aperture does affect the appearance of the bokeh of a lens, the shallow depth-of-field look isn’t “bokeh”. Similarly, you can’t do something like “add more bokeh”. Bokeh is the quality of that background blur. It’s mostly an aspect of the lens design.

Now, very often, when a fast prime lens is used wide open, there’s a kind of swirly feel to the background blur – and if you’re aware of this, and find an appropriate background, it can really accentuate the portrait.

The image at the top of Jen & Corby, was shot at f/1.4 and you can see how the background behind them has a distinctive circular swirl to the out of focus high-lights.

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on-location portraits – speedway racer, Courtney Lefcourt

When Courtney’s mom first contacted me, she told me that Courtney is a race-car driver and that the camera loves her. Intrigued, I met up with her family at the Bethel Motor Speedway for on-location portraits of Courtney. To find out more about Courtney, check out her Facebook page, Courtney Taylor Racing.

So the challenge here was two-part. The sun was very bright since it was 3:30pm in the afternoon. The other challenge is that while speedway racing might be an exhilarating sport to watch, the speedway race-track isn’t exactly a visual feast. The race-track is a barren oval strip of tarmac at an angle. I had to accentuate her more, and the race-track less – but still keep it relevant as an environmental portrait.

Courtney’s fire-retardant suit was fortunately a vivid blue and black. This neatly matched the blue sky and black top. This especially helped with the wider images.

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85mm – the first lens that could change your portrait photography

If that hat seems familiar, yes,  Elle was the model in the series of photographs for the Nikon Df review article. For some of the sequences of photos that we shot, I used the 85mm lens, wide open. This had the effect of just melting the background. You can pretty much shoot anywhere, and make the background look good and non-intrusive.

While a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens can be even more effective in controlling the background, the shorter focal length, an 85mm lens can make this somewhat easier in some respects. Specifically, it’s a smaller lens and less intrusive when you photograph portraits. It’s less “threatening” to the person you’re photographing, and easier to carry around.

Just how well can you blur the background when shooting wide open with an 85mm prime lens? Compare the photo above with the pull-back shot, taken with an iPhone from the same spot …

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