Making Intimate Portraits
A few friends have asked me about how I take intimate portraits, and while there’s an infinite variety of approaches, I’m happy to offer mine.
The short version:
The Flow and mood of the session guides the poses and the way I shoot. Trust and Rapport are the most important factors for consistently getting into a good flow, and they are built slowly over time, before and during each shoot.
Once the mood is set and rapport is established, the subject’s own body language and eyes will be more expressive and authentic than any pose could be. The particular gear you use doesn’t matter very much, but it may affect your style.
The long version:
I prefer working in a relatively freeform and improvisational way, with my mood and the subject’s mood guiding the session. This is similar to a ‘flow state,’ in which an artist is totally present in the creative act, with creative ideas or inspiration arise spontaneously. In this case, both photographer and subject are in the flow state, similar to how musicians may be able to improvise freely while naturally working in sync. Getting to a flow state requires trust and rapport, as well as a suitable mood. It takes a while to get into the flow though, for me it usually takes about three hours of working with the subject before the flow really takes off, and that’s when the most soulful photos usually happen.
The mood guides the shoot itself, and will shape what the photo session will look like. For instance, I usually play music during sessions, and carefully choose artists and albums that fit the mood for the session. Likewise in the conversation, if the subject is someone I know well and we want to do a somber mood, we may talk about a recent relationship that didn’t work out. Alternatively, if a subject is new and uncertain in front of the camera, I’ll steer the conversation to more funny or light hearted topics to help them build confidence. Many photographers also use a mood board to come up with a visual inspiration for the project. I occasionally do this as well (Tumblr or Pinterest are good places to for inspiration, particularly from different mediums).
TRUST & RAPPORT
To reach a flow state you need to establish trust and rapport with the subject.
Trust is the knowledge that you are a competent photographer and will respect them, both in your behavior during the shoot and after. Trust that the photos will be good. Trust that you will not share unflattering photographs of them. Trust that you will be unselfish and take photos that they love and and can share publicly. Some trust can be built in advance by only sharing your best finished work that show your subjects in their best light, and having worked with many subjects who are happy to recommend you.
Rapport happens when you and your subject are both totally at ease, comfortable and confident in each other’s presence and with the camera. This takes time to build, even if we’ve worked together before.
The way I make this happen is by having conversation with the subject before and during the session, being as open, relaxed, and comfortable as if I were talking to a sibling or a friend I’d known for years. It may be variously funny or serious, and we may talk about personal relationships or cheeseburgers, but the goal is to develop mutual understanding in general. During the entire session, I’ll also take little breaks to show my subject photos as we go along, pausing to point out photos that are particularly good. This gives the subject confidence in their posing and my work, and in turn gives me confidence to keep going and be more creative. This becomes a virtuous cycle, with each bump in confidence leading to better, more natural photos. After a few hours, even a shy subject with no experience in front of the camera will find it easy and natural.
Of course, certain things can break the flow and the rapport. Being not present in the moment instantly communicates that one person isn’t valuing the other’s time and attention (checking one’s phone frequently or complaining about something, for instance). Another thing might be fumbling around with gear or being generally obnoxious. Take care to avoid anything that takes either person out of the moment.
The specific poses don’t matter nearly as much as the eyes and body language that arises spontaneously when there’s rapport.
When we are in the flow state, I’m often quiet or give only moderate direction such as “Chin up; turn your face that way but keep your eyes on me; arch your back a bit— okay” etc). Of course, if a subject is new or prefers more direction, I’ll give more guidance, such as with colorful descriptions (“You know how a cat moves, kind of slinky and stretching as she goes? Move like that”) or by demonstrating a pose myself. Once I get some photos that I think are good I’ll show them to the subject to make them more confident in their posing.
First, a caveat: The particular gear doesn’t matter as long as it suits you and the style you are going for.
Regarding camera gear and lighting, I’ll quote Marshal McLuhan: “The Medium IS The Message.” The gear you use will go a long way to determining the kind of photographs you take. A small compact or instant camera with a flash will lend itself well to poppy, freeform portraits, while a large format 8”x10” sheet film camera will lend itself to carefully composed portraits. The entire process of carefully setting up an imposing large format camera with rails and bellows on a tripod, and slowly going through an elaborate series of actions for every single shot, makes for a completely different mood than with a compact camera or a DSLR. Returning to McLuhan, even the aspect of film vs digital changes the dynamic as well, since with film it is impossible to show the subject photos as you go along unless you’re using instant film. This might actually be a good thing, depending on your personal approach.
When it comes to specific gear, I almost always use a manual focus Leica rangefinder type camera usually with a 50mm f1.4 lens, paired with a Fujifilm Instax Mini 90 camera. The Leica is compact and unimposing with a fast lens that lends itself well to available light even in dark situations, and the Instax camera makes it easy to give your subject some literally “one of a kind” photos they can hold and take home that very day. This has a tremendous effect for building rapport and confidence during a shoot with someone who is new to being in front of the camera. The Instax 90 in particular has good autofocus and controls to turn flash off and change the exposure compensation, so I can take dark, moody photos with natural light that match my style. There are other less expensive Instax cameras but the 90 is the only one I recommend, since the others lack autofocus and have fewer controls.
My backup camera is an SLR type and while it may struggle to autofocus in the darkness that my Leica is perfect for, it is perfectly suited for quick action shots of moving subjects, whereas my Leica focusing skills can’t always keep up. The SLR also lends itself well to using filters or other times when seeing through the lens is essential, so I will always keep one as part of my kit.
I would recommend a prime lens with a fast aperture, such as a 50mm f1.4 or a 40mm f2.8, since that would give a good field of view for portraits and the capability to take photos even in relatively dim available light. The added bonus is that they each would give a reasonably shallow depth of field to allow one to focus on the eyes without creating a distracting background. I’d avoid zoom lenses though, since they generally have lower quality optics at the same price, and they require more light to work with since they have smaller apertures.
Some websites like Flickr often show the EXIF data that the camera saves when a photo is taken. This will let you know everything from the camera model to the exact settings used, from the ISO to the lens, aperture, shutter speed and ISO. You can also research the ‘look’ of certain lenses and focal lengths by searching Flickr for groups dedicated to that lens or by looking up hashtags on instagram.
Just like the dynamic between film and digital, or large and small formats, natural and available light vs controlled studio lighting is another major choice that is completely personal. I prefer natural available light, in part because I never tire of the way it looks and the variety it offers, but also because I enjoy the challenge and feel that it forces me to be more creative with how I use it. I do also enjoy experimenting with studio lighting, but due to my small studio size it is not very practical for me. I think all photographers should experiment with both, as the possibilities of growth are endless.
The best advice I can give is to shoot as much as possible in various settings and times of day, and assist other photographers if you can. There’s no replacement for experience.
The second best advice is to carefully study the lighting in photos that you like so that you can try to recreate it. If its a portrait and the subject’s eyes are clearly visible, you may be able to see the exact lighting reflected in their eyes.
I think that’s enough for now. I hope my experience will help you take more meaningful portraits. If there’s anything you think I missed, drop me a line here.
Make good work,