I’m rubbish at taking portraits. I’m definitely better than I was, but it’s very much a work in progress. Other than shooting more, how can you make yourself improve?
Much of my photographic career has been spent shooting buildings, often with people jumping between them. I’m completely comfortable telling someone where to leap to and from, how to create a position in the air, or how to adjust a dynamic movement to create the shape that I want. When it comes to telling someone how to stand or sit for a simple portrait, I’m at a loss. Realizing this massive weakness in my photographic ability, I’ve put a bit of effort into addressing it over the last year or two.
Getting Close With Affordable Glass
My tools of choice are my Sony a7 III and two very affordable primes: the Samyang AF 35mm f/2.8. FE and the Sony 50mm f/1.8. The wider focal length primes appeal to me for a couple of reasons: firstly, they’re typically cheaper than longer primes, and more importantly, they’re significantly smaller and lighter. If I’m to practice portraits, taking the camera with me on trips to the forest needs to feel like it’s not a chore. And yes, it’s something of a contradiction: I love full-frame cameras, but I also love small, lightweight glass.
Secondly, the level of compression that 85mm and longer creates is something that doesn’t appeal to me so much, perhaps something that is shaped by the fact that so much of my photography is about presenting someone very much engaged with their surroundings while also being quite close to them. I’m usually sporting a wide-angle zoom, shooting at around 20mm or wider, and the space in which someone is moving is very much a part of the story that I’m telling. This seems to have carried over into how I want to create portraits, finding myself keen to present people very much within a context. However, I do wonder if I’m making learning a bit more of a challenge when it comes to posing people, as there’s so much more to consider when creating a shot, especially when shooting at 35mm. 85mm and above would allow me to forget the background a little bit more and focus more closely on the model.
Probably my biggest source of inspiration for this style of shooting is Julia Trotti, who seems to have a knack for finding great light and turning what would otherwise seem like a mundane location into something beautiful. She also seems to have a preference for wider primes, though she certainly has the advantage of working with experienced models. I’ve only had a brief taste of how much easier that can make things, but for now, I mostly have access to people who are not always comfortable being in front of the camera.
I don’t recall who gave me this piece of advice, but if you’re just starting out learning photography, it’s worth repeating to yourself, however obvious it may seem: if you want to get better at taking photographs of people, spend time photographing the people around you. I’m fortunate to have a regular stream of visitors to our home here in the forest of Fontainebleau and no end of people happy to sit for me while taking a break from climbing.
Strangely, three pieces of gear have helped me to keep in the habit of taking the camera on every climbing trip (we often walk quite far with lots of gear, so extra stuff can be a pain). The first is a cheap camera pouch that I stole from my wife, which gets thrown into the top of my much larger climbing bag. The second is the aforementioned Samyang 35mm, a ridiculously affordable lens that I don’t mind using when my hands are covered in chalk. I’ll preface the third by expressing how much I hate camera straps while simultaneously being too paranoid to pick up a camera without one. This daft internal conflict has made me very appreciative of my Peak Design Cuff, a tiny wrist-strap that increases convenience for those days when the camera only emerges at intervals.
For these casual portraits, I'm shooting using aperture priority with a minimum shutter speed set to 1/250th. This allows me to all but forget about what the camera is doing and focus on composition. I keep half an eye on my histogram, occasionally locking the exposure when required or tweaking using the exposure compensation dial. Sony's eye autofocus is worthy of the hype and gives me a much higher percentage of keepers compared to my old Canon DSLR.
35mm Is Weirdly Difficult
35mm is definitely a tricky focal length for me. Given how comfortable I am with 20mm and wider, this feels awkwardly in between what I’d use to shoot action and the 50mm that I’d typically use for a portrait. With a wide, I can make someone look heroic and find ways of using perspective to guide the eye, perhaps by getting low and looking up, and find foreground, mid-ground, and background layers to stack a shot and give it depth. With the 50mm, I can isolate the person a lot more and not worry about much other than how they look and maybe the odd branch sticking out of their head. With the 35mm, I find that I’m between these two things, neither one or the other, and for me, it’s a new and slightly awkward way of shooting. I’m definitely enjoying the challenge.
If I get too close with the 35mm, faces can start getting a bit stretched. If you have a stunningly beautiful model with bold features to work with, this can offer great results. I’m not suggesting that my models are not stunningly beautiful, but if I get too close with 35mm, faces can get a bit too narrow, chins too long, and noses wandering off to strange new places.
In looking through the results from my last couple of outings, I’ve realized that part of my struggle is a tendency to avoid center-weighted compositions when shooting these environmental portraits in landscape orientation. Check out this behind-the-scenes video from Julia Trotti, or better still, this ten-minute photo challenge from Taylor Jackson. The 20mm focal length to which I’m more accustomed has so much space that I’m used to subconsciously dividing up the frame geometrically, tucking people away towards corners. By contrast, almost all of Jackson’s shots have his subject very much in the center of the frame. This probably helps avoid lens distortion becoming a distraction while also keeping features feeling more natural.
I’ve noticed that I tend to push people a bit too close to the edge of a frame, even at 50mm. This can be great for editorial content when text or graphics need to be overlaid, but not so good for standalone images if it undermines the overall impact of a shot.
The Power of Editing
Something I’ve always told to those who attend my workshops is that the editing process can be the most important part when it comes to learning how to improve your photography. I’m not talking here about tweaking levels and curves or discovering new presets; rather, it’s about looking at your results and trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t, why this came about, and what you can do to change things. At the moment, that's a key part of learning: sifting through the endless failures and trying to figure out what I should have done differently.
I’ve spared you from my shoddier efforts, but I'd be grateful for your suggestions — not so much feedback on specific shots but more ideas for getting more comfortable with the 35mm focal length and how to improve my ability when it comes to shooting portraits. I look forward to receiving your thoughts in the comments below.