In the words of the great John McEnroe: "you cannot be serious". This is how I respond when people ask me if I'd like to swap landscapes for portrait work. Here's why.
Now before I start, I want to make it explicitly clear that I’m writing this with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. It’s lighthearted and just a bit of fun, with quite a few elements of absolute truth sprinkled throughout. So, with that out the way, let’s get into why I will never leave shooting landscapes for portrait work.
Dealing With People
Have you met people? Trying to deal with different types of people in portrait work and get the best out of them is enough to make me want to grab my surfboard, drive down to the beach as fast as my car will take me, and paddle kilometers out to sea. For weeks. Let’s walk through some different types of people you have to deal with in portrait work:
Little babies are so cute aren’t they? Until you try to get good photos of them. They scream, their heads nearly explode, and there’s some uncomfortable laughs between you and the parents as you both try valiantly to console and cajole the poor little tot into giving you something that resembles even a half-hearted smile. Then you find yourself making all sorts of ridiculous sounds and faces in the faint hope of getting just a fraction of a cheeky little grin. When you finally get some joyful, animated movement to work with and hit that shutter button remotely, you then run back to the camera and pray that you’ve got something that will allow this all to end, only to find that mummy has her eyes half-closed. Good Lord, we have to start again! Coochi, coochi, coooooo.
Even though research suggests that two-year-old kids should know at least 200 words by that stage of their young, budding lives, it seems that when they come to do portrait work, they only bring one. It’s a two-letter word that begins with "N" and finishes with "O." Smile Johnny. “No.” Look at the camera Johnny. "No". Playfully pat little baby’s head Johnny. "No". Stop screaming Johnny. "Noooooooo." It’s even better when you combine shoots with two-year-olds and tiny toddlers. Happy days, indeed.
They walk in with a surly look, shirts unkempt, and earphones in. You say hello, they ignore you and shuffle past, eyes glued to their phones. They leave pee on the toilet, zits splattered on the mirror, and have a general demeanor which makes you think the weight of the world is on their poor, encumbered shoulders. More than likely, it’s just that their latest Instagram post didn’t get as many likes as they wanted, but alas, trying to take photos of them where you can turn that frown upside-down isn’t the most enjoyable of tasks.
Especially the ones who are actually paying. Between negotiating the price, the number of prints they can get, how long the turnaround will be, and any other add-ons included, it’s like a question and answer session by a CSI forensics team.
Now compare all that with landscape photography. On more than 90 percent of my shoots, I see no one and I interact with no one. It’s just me and nature, often without a person in the vicinity. To take a quote from the iconic Australian movie "The Castle": “how’s the serenity?” I can move at my own leisurely pace, soak in the sights, sounds, and smells of solitude, and rejoice in the expanses and beauty of this world. For me, it really is an exercise in meditation, relaxation, and escape, and I wouldn’t change it for all the tea in China (or coffee in Brazil).
I’m not the best timekeeper, nor do I like to be controlled by time. Perhaps it’s because both my parents were in the Royal Navy, but I really like to do things at my own speed (which, as you could probably guess, isn’t particularly fast most of the time). Australians like to say it’s a laid back nature, whereas other, more high-tempo people might like to use another four-letter word that starts with “l” and ends in “y.”
Regardless, when you’re working with people and doing portrait work, you have appointments to make, appointments to keep, and demands placed on your time. Then, you get late arrivals, or even better, late cancellations, which means not only have you prepared everything for nothing, but you’ve also lost half the day you could have been out in the wild. There are also the phone calls, emails, and constant pings of text messages to deal with too. Technology can be your friend, but I really don’t like to be enslaved by a device in my pocket.
In contrast, nature is far more forgiving with time. In fact, you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. You missed sunrise because you were watching Netflix til 2 am? No worries, the sun will rise again in 24 hours. Or just go out mid-morning and shoot something else. The light’s not ideal in today’s golden hour? No drama, shoot black and white. A lot of recent rain putting a dampener on the early morning ocean colors? All good, head off to some forests or waterfalls and shoot long exposures. The point is: unless you’re doing a paid shoot for a client with strict working conditions, you can pretty much go anywhere at any time doing landscape photography. And if one place isn’t good at one particular time during the day, just go back again later, or even next week when conditions are more ideal. That’s not really an option when you’re dealing with people and appointments.
Creative Freedom Limitations
When you’re dealing with people and portrait work, there’s not a lot of wiggle room for creativity, both during the shoot and in post-production. If you’re working in a studio setting, then there ain’t a lot you can do except change those dreamy background drapes or those starry night skies. And if you’re working outside on beaches or in forests or some other interesting location, you’re usually shooting pretty wide open (a low f/stop number) anyway to blur the background out so the setting becomes secondary, regardless. Sometimes, you can get carried away with location shoots and let the setting take the focus completely away from your human subjects, but that isn’t really ideal in portrait work.
In post-production, you’re also somewhat limited. As much as I’d like to put some devil horns on little Johnny and change his face from ruddy pink to devil red, I’m not sure how much mummy would appreciate that. Aside from touch-up work, removing blemishes, and some gentle dodging and burning, there isn’t a lot you can do artistically with portrait work (unless of course you’ve been explicitly instructed to do so or insist on using your latest VSCO preset pack despite the hesitations of the clients).
With landscape photography, on the other hand, you can do whatever your heart desires (within the realms of subtlety, or course). The sky wasn’t cooperative this morning? No problem, just drop some dramatic clouds in. Didn’t get that pop from your colors you wanted? All good, just tweak those vibrance sliders and curves adjustment layers. Think this scene would look better with a subject in it? Bingo, let’s do some composite work. With the software available these days, whether it’s Photoshop or something else you prefer, there are literally thousands of ways to interpret or edit your raw landscape files. You can make them warm, cool, sepia, or black and white, and that’s just for starters. It’s not so easy when you’re trying to take a photo of a happy family.
In closing, portrait work can be very rewarding. Seeing the joy in a person’s face when you present your results or conveying the depths of emotions of a person to the viewer can bring a lot of satisfaction to photographers. However, for me, there are far too many things that make me quiver in my boots with portraiture work to ever even countenance the idea of trading it for shooting lansdcapes. The creative freedom and relaxation it provides me is something I won't be letting go of any time soon.
What are your thoughts? Can portrait work ever be as enjoyable as landscape work? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.