On Portrait Photography part I

After watching few "educational" youtube videos and articles here and there, I've had enough and decided to write something about portrait photography (btw, I am editorial portrait photographer based in Japan, working professionally for 8+ years now, I am mainly do celebrity portraits). I have a lot of thoughts, and there is no specific order to them, so I will share as they come and go...

© Tim Gallo.

Stop saying 1,2,3 before taking a picture.

Saying 1,2,3 to a person when shooting portrait is basically the same as saying "smile" or "cheese" when asked by someone to take their picture at a tourist spot. It’s the same kind of distance… you’re taking their picture, but you’re not actually taking their picture. You re just happen to be there.

And looking at lcd screen of your camera while doing so is also the same kind of distance.If you are shooting from the hip or trying to be discreet — it’s ok. But if your subject came for a portrait — he is looking at front of your camera, you are looking at the back of your camera — basically, you are two human beings concentrated on a box with lens. What can come out of this? Can you even see the persons eyes on the lcd screen? I bet you can… but again, do you actually looking into their eyes?

Ok, now that I got it off my chest, let’s actually move on into actual theme of this story. How to work with subject of your portrait photography…

Two type of portraits.

Personally, I distinguish two types of portraits. One is a “work” type, and another is “personal.” The difference between those is only one — commercial purpose. If it’s present — then its work. Work may involve or may not intimate distance between the photographer and the subject. Personal portrait — is everything else, freed from commercialism at least at the moment of taking a picture. Few photographers can easily do both types — and my respect always goes to them, it’s a tough thing to do.

I don’t want to go deep into work type of photography, but in both cases, I believe that your technique, gear, and light can take you only as far as your communication and directing abilities go.

So instead of learning what lens makes a better portrait (cause really, any lens does) — learn how to communicate with a person you are trying to photograph, how to make them at ease. Learn how to get into person skin and get inside their mind and heart, and even more importantly, learn how to make them express it for you to photograph.

There are as many ways to close the distance or direct a person to a point of honest expression (as I like to say) as there photographers out there, but I can speak only for my own experience so lets get on to it.

© Tim Gallo.

Start in a Studio.

If you can — start with a studio portrait. The studio is just an empty space. Like a human heart — it is a very lonely empty place that is for you to decide how to use, and there is nothing to lean on — there is only you, your subject and your gear (I advise to start working tet-a-tet, until you feel comfortable to talk and direct person with many staff present).

Studio is a great place to see clearly into actual act of taking photo. Studio reveals ones weakness and strength. It’s a place to learn about yourself and your abilities as a photographer (or even as a human being).

The more you get comfortable at shooting in a studio, being opposite your subject with the camera, the better portrait photographer you will become.

Uneasy is normal.

Few people come into the studio and immediately feel comfortable to express themselves in front of the camera. Even in the entertainment world. Everybody feel uneasy at first — you, your subject. Just know that it is universal, there is nothing extraordinary about it. Deal with it. And remember that with time, and hopefully, you have time to take a portrait everybody gets used to it — some sooner, some later. Of course, it is your job to make it sooner than later.
From my experience, one of the things that help you to make this job easier is just knowing that.

© Tim Gallo.

There is nothing special about it.

For photographers taking photos of people is common - a second nature, I suppose. But for most, non-photographer folk, a photo session is something more mysterious, sometimes scary. Many come with misconceptions about portrait photography in general. So talk to them about it. Explain your subject that it’s not a big deal and there is no only one correct way. And since there is no one correct way, you don’t need to worry about it.
You are just relating to everything that happens or about to happen and taking pictures while doing so. You might as well enjoy it.

And it’s true — you just making an image together, there is nothing special about it.

There is no reason to “hold it” too early.

Since we are talking about misconceptions. One of the biggest misconceptions that people have is that they have to hold still and don’t blink. (Unless you are dealing with retro image taking, there is no reason to do so.) So if your subject is conscious about staying still — explain that there is no need for them to hold the pose, you operating with fractions of a second, and it’s your job to grab a moment — their job is just being present, just be there. Some pro’s, especially models, are tend to pose for every hit of your shutter — which may be great at times, but in most cases, it is not — it makes them operate consciously of their body and rhythm of your camera, and forget about what they actually feel or expressing. Later you can “hold” your subject and “let it go,” and they will not loose “the flow” so easily…

My often thought is that posing is for showing clothes, not for showing your heart.

Yet we need to pose our subject sometimes. For those times here is what I think.

© Tim Gallo.

Let the person breathe and blink.

Whenever you pose a person — remember that now this is all they are thinking about . So let them breathe, get them get used to the pose and lead them into an emotional state that you want to portray. After few shots let them improvise for some time, and if it’s not working — lead them back to your desired pose, it may look more natural after it.

Don’t hurry into getting the desired image — lead them to it, take your time. First 5–10–100 shots may not matter if you get the right one after that.

Now, if you try to eliminate or hide your presence — then don’t pose or direct them at all. Make your subject feel comfortable for whoever they are. Make it forget about act of taking picture. Talk or be silent — depending on what works at the moment.

Remember, the body usually follows the feelings. So work with feelings of a person first — then with the body.

© Tim Gallo.

As easy as sitting on a chair.

Sit your subject. It’s incredible how a person gets comfortable just by sitting. So if you can — in the beginning, photograph them sitting, and later — if it is needed — make them stand up.

© Tim Gallo.

All they have is your voice.

Now, remember, your subject does not see himself, only you know how they look through your viewfinder. (Unless it’s really necessary don’t use mirror or show them monitor).

All your subject has is your voice — teach them to trust it.

Be conscious of your voice and use a tone of your voice to your advance. If you don’t know what to say — stay silent, but in that case, I advise you to explain that silence means that everything is going fine. Preferably, in the beginning, say that person looks as it supposes to be (high, charming, beautiful, fresh and e.t.c.) or as it expects to be (most people expect to look beautiful under your studio lights).

If a person is too conscious of their posture or state, remind them — that all they need to is follow your voice. Let them flow and move free until you point out that they have to stop or hold it. You may or not rush to take a picture.

© Tim Gallo.

Music is the key.

Another advice — choose music that matches mood of your portrait. When people can’t relate to your directing, they may relate to music of your choice. Ask your subject to feel the music and move with its flow when nothing else works.
In general, I advice to have music as background. It should not distract too much from the connection you trying to create with your subject. If anything, music should compliment it.

I hope you like this topic, let me know if you have any questions and…

to be continued in part 2.

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Based in Tokyo Japan, I work as celebrity portrait photographer. Sometimes Movie Director. Occasionally poet. I apologise for not perfect english. timgallo.com

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Tim Gallo

Tim Gallo

Based in Tokyo Japan, I work as celebrity portrait photographer. Sometimes Movie Director. Occasionally poet. I apologise for not perfect english. timgallo.com

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