Summer Shorts

Photo by Martin Clark

With the summer recess now in full swing, Fiona Wallace is devoting her time to her “summer shorts” – no, not an attempt to rival Jim Stevenson, the undisputed shorts king, but shorter articles for the website only. The first of these looks at possibly the Marmite of photography genres – Portraiture.

 A portrait of the artists …

Photo by Michele Campbell

Portrait photography. Two words that, like Marmite, either strike love or loathing into many photographers’ hearts. For many, capturing the perfect pose and/or look on a subject’s face is joyful; while for others, trying to capture a person-free landscape is the ideal. And for others still, portrait photography is something to be feared like walking through a field of landmines in clown shoes, such is the perception of portraiture being fraught with difficulty and complications.  As I fall into the second and third categories, it is not my intention to give you a ”how to” article here as that would require significant study and quite possibly several packets of paracetamol.  Instead, I have consulted two of our members for whom portrait photography is truly a labour of love, to see if we can dispel the myths of difficulty and specialist equipment.

Step up, if you please, Martin Clark and Michele Campbell.

>I asked Martin and Michele what had sparked their interest in Portrait photography.

Michele: I have been taking photos ever since my eldest daughter was born so something like 27 years ago. I only started doing it more seriously after joining Townend camera club about 8 years ago. One of my first entries was a portrait of a friend and it got 2nd Place quickly followed up with a first place of a little girl. I’m sure there are some still there that are thinking beginner’s luck.

Martin: My love goes back, oh, about 40+ years – ever since I was really small. My grandparents, especially my grandfather had a huge box of black and white photos and he also had an awesome RAF photo album that he made during his War service. I always spent hours going through those photos. I’ve always loved taking candids of family members and most recently over the last 10 years more formal and posed portraits of other people.”

Photo by Martin Clark

>One of the biggest perceived “problems” that puts some off portrait photography is the need for a studio and lighting. I asked Michele and Martin how this had affected them.

 Michele: “I was very fortunate that Townend had its own studio to hire and I have to say I learned a lot of my studio work there. Additionally Alan and I attended an evening portraiture class a few years ago at Ayr college and this further developed my interest in other styles of portraiture as it took me away from the “Club” style of portraiture i.e. no need to have separation etc.  Some of the low key portraits were very low key.”

Martin: The beauty of portrait for me is there’s really no absolute need to use artificial lighting at all for portraits. I started just with natural light. The main thing for portraits that you can apply to daylight or artificial lighting is a knowledge of light direction and quality to make your portraits look their best.

>Interestingly, both Martin and Michele highlighted that natural light can be as good a tool as a studio.

Martin: “ Absolutely. Natural light can be stunning and if you position your subject just right you’ll have yourself some beautiful images without having to humph around big backs of lighting equipment.”

Michele:  I would suggest that no one should be put off portraiture because they don’t have access to studio lighting. The college got us to shoot with natural light, flash fill and studio light for our portfolio. Even here is Scotland the first one is available, and moving on to flash fill is a great skill to learn for a variety of genre and not just portraiture.”

Photo by Michele Campbell

> I asked Martin and Michele what they might advise someone who is thinking about getting into portrait photography.

Michele: “If someone is going to use a studio and lights they have there I would suggest starting with a very simple set up of 2 lights at approx 90 degrees to each with subject in the centre. I have only used a light meter on a few occasions as it can be daunting to a new studio photographer to have this added complication. Keep it simple. Only once you are a more accomplished studio photographer would I suggest trying different things unless you have someone guiding you. Read up on lighting set-ups beforehand and plan what you wish to do as you are in control of the lighting in the studio. Check your cameras sync speed etc.

Photo by Martin Clark

Portraiture for me in Scotland is so much easier in the studio, not the least because of the weather. We were involved with a girl doing HND Makeup and did a lot of outside shoots due to the type of styling. But we often had to delay weekends due to weather so it was hard to plan and carry out to a timescale. It was still lots of fun, but it just requires more patience than studio work.

Martin: The best advice I can give is to start looking for light and understand how it falls on your subject and how to move your subject to make the looks change. As I said earlier, you can do this with natural light, then build up to flash fill. You then build up even more by adding a reflector to direct the light or soften shadows. When you think you are ready then you add on-camera flash and soon realise that you need to get that off the camera to control your direction. Before long you’ll buy a studio light set up and be hooked on it.  Also, be influenced by other good portrait photographers. Look at a photo that they made and try and replicate it or work out how they lit it and use that lighting setup for some of your own portraits. It’s not copying, it’s learning.

>So what then makes a good portrait? Both our contributors had the same answer to this – connection.

Michele: Many of the winning portraits I have had have had the comment “Great Connection with the Photographer” Camera club judges!! So eyes are always important but just like the rule of thirds sometimes you need to break the rules.

Martin: You can have the best lighting equipment, best location, be a master of lighting and still not get a great image because there is no connection between the photographer and the sitter. A perfect portrait for me is one that instantly tells the character or shows the emotion of the sitter. I will often sit and just chat with my sitter first. This will relax them and I try and keep that conversation going throughout the session. Getting them to talk about something that really moves them or interests them will get the connection you need.  

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Photo by Michele Campbell

And finally, the question we all want to know the answer to: how on earth do you get kids and pets to sit still long enough to take a good portrait of them?

Michele: “Getting the attention from kids, pets etc is the hardest part and it requires a combination of rapport, skill, luck and a few tricks. But mostly it requires patience. 

Martin: “Being a parent really helps to be honest. Again find something that interests the child that they can talk about. Research the latest fads that kids are into or ask them their favourite cartoons, films or games. Prepare to be bemused by their answers but remain cool like you know what they are talking about!! If they are really young then good luck as it just depends on their mood that day. Pets, well dogs for me again is down to their temperament. Be prepared to be very quick to click the button for both kids and pets. My 7 year old son has nailed his portrait sessions with me. He can do it literally in 3 or 4 clicks. After that I have no chance of getting him back. The same may apply to pets. Just think that the last shot you took might be your last chance to capture that perfect moment.