PORTRAITS: The most difficult assignment

One of the most difficult assignments I had as a photography student was shooting portraits. It scared me to death! When I was sent out onto the streets here in Buenos Aires to capture images of people, I thought to myself, “No problem–I’ll use a 200 or 300 mm lens, and people won’t even notice me.” But, of course, that would’ve been too easy. We were required to use a normal lens, which meant we had to be close, and that was only the first guideline. The next was even worse.We were supposed to talk to our subjects. I felt certain I could never do that. After all, I had trouble speaking in a crowded room.I was so shy that I felt embarrassed about almost everything. But I had no choice.

To my surprise, not only could I perform interviews, but I also enjoyed it.When I asked the pedestrians I had chosen if I could take their pictures, most of them said yes. Amazingly enough, their agreement gave me the confidence I needed.I realized that many people weren’t at all uncomfortable about having their picture taken.In fact, in some cases, they even liked it.

However, shooting the portraits themselves wasn’t as easy as I first thought it would be. In the beginning, my pictures were simply not very good (although, at the time, I thought they were extraordinary). They not only had technical problems with film exposure, development, and even printing, but they also suffered from composition issues. In most cases, I didn’t get close enough, so everything in the background appeared in the picture. An inclusive background isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the case of environmental portraits, it’s actually a necessity. But the problem was that my backgrounds didn’t add anything to the photograph or the subject. They only confused the viewers about what it was that I wanted to show.

Another problem I had was a lack of depth–a failure to portray the real person.In the case of glamour shots in which I wanted to make the model look good or create an image, that was not bad. However, in most cases, I wanted to show who my subjects were–their feelings, emotions, characters, and in the end, their true spirits.There were a number of reasons why I didn’t achieve this goal. First, I was nervous, which made the sitters nervous, as well.Second, I lacked confidence in my technical and creative abilities.And, third, I didn’t take time to get to know the people I was photographing.

When I decided to improve my results, my first step was to solve my technical problems.In other words, I had to get to know my medium. My advice to any photographer (whether the goal is portraits, landscape, nature, or anything else) is to get to know your camera, lenses, film, developers, accessories (such as filters), and papers. Knowing your equipment means you’ll be able to achieve the final image you want.This process is, of course, time-consuming, and it generally means shooting a lot of film.

Next, I decided to eliminate any distracting elements from the backgrounds. I accomplished this by moving closer and using a longer lens, or using a wide aperture that allowed the background to go out of focus. Both of these techniques worked, directing the viewer’s eye directly to the subject.As Robert Capa said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”

Another difficulty I had was that I always used a straight-on viewpoint. I didn’t look for creative angles or points of view. I did the same thing with my compositions. My subjects all stood in the middle of the frame, thus my pictures all looked alike. Little by little, I started moving around and investigating the people I was photographing. Trying different lenses was also a part of that learning process.I was genuinely surprised when I discovered that the pictures I liked the most were the ones I would never have thought of shooting.

Improving my technical ability and my composition skills gave me confidence in my craft that I had never had before. The result was that my nervousness diminished. I learned to enjoy the photo sessions.Therefore, the people I was photographing enjoyed them more, as well. And that had a direct impact on my images, because the people had more natural expressions.

Another aspect I had to work on (one that only gets better with time and a lot of practice) was making my subjects feel at ease in front of the camera. Almost everyone has some fear of being photographed, either because they’re shy or because they’re nervous about their appearance.(Let’s face it.We all want to look like models in our pictures.) There were a few tricks I used–and still do–to avoid unnatural poses or faces, unless that was what I wanted:

  1. I always talked to my models before the photo session.I told them about myself and asked them about their lives–especially what they liked.
  2. I sometimes started “shooting” without a roll of film in my camera. (Of course, the subjects didn’t know that.)By the time I started shooting with film, they were feeling more comfortable.
  3. I built their self-confidence by encouraging them throughout the session–constantly telling them how good they looked or how well they were doing.
  4. Another technique that worked well for me was to concentrate on the eyes, since they are the windows to our souls.

In my experience, it’s easier to begin portraiture by photographing family and friends, since you already have a relationship with them.I come from a huge family, so I never run out of people for my photographs–even without taking my friends into account.I sometimes photograph them outside with natural light, but once in a while, I take them into the studio. At first, they were all quite aware of the fact that I was taking pictures.However, after several years of being pressed into service as models, most of the time, they forget I’m there shooting film.

There was still one important requirement of a good portrait photographer that I had to learn–to be in complete control of the situation. I had to be a director as well as a photographer. For example, one time, I was shooting portraits of a two-year-old.(We all know how hard that is.)He wouldn’t do anything I told him; he kept running around the studio. After I had wasted considerable time without taking even one photograph, I realized that if I started shooting his mother, he might want me to photograph him, too. My ploy worked for only fifteen minutes, but it was enough time for me to get some good shots.

To be a good director, you have to be resourceful and clear about what you want.If you have doubts about technical issues or about the best way to approach the subject, never tell the models about them.Your models need to feel confident in your expertise.They have to believe that you have everything under control.

All this learning process took me years of shooting film, and it’s far from over. Every day, I learn something new, and I hope I can keep discovering more for the rest of my life. Good portraiture takes time, money, and a lot of effort, but there’s nothing more rewarding than creating a portrait in which all the elements work together successfully. In 1856, Nadar wrote, “Photography is a marvelous discovery, a science that has attracted the greatest intellects, an art that excites the most astute minds–and one that can be practiced by any imbecile…. Photographic theory can be taught in an hour, the basic technique in a day. But what cannot be taught is the feeling for light….It is how light lies on the face that you as an artist must capture. Nor can one be taught how to grasp the personality of the sitter. To produce an intimate likeness rather than a banal portrait, the result of mere chance, you must put yourself at once in communion with the sitter, size up his thoughts and his very character.”

by Sofia Romero

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