Portrait Photography Techniques

The Challenge of an uncomfortable portrait sitter

Last week, as a bit of a challenge from a friend, I photographed a self-confessed hater of sitting for portraits, my ex-girlfriend Sharyn. Although she is very striking, she is not that comfortable in front of the camera. So, challenge accepted, she came over to have her portrait taken.

We parted ways over 30 years ago, but have been friends since reconnecting around 10 years ago. I wanted her to look stunning. I wanted her to want to hang one of these images in her family home. To post them on social media. To be really happy with them.

Generally speaking, people want to look good in their portrait. Not many people want to be portrayed in a bad light, or for the image to be unflattering. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but for the life of me I can’t recall any reason why.

She HATES having her photo taken. Her son, Jude, graces my front page. He loves having his photo taken. So when she joked about me photographing her, I said I would make her look great, and more importantly, feel comfortable doing so.

I started off using a flash with a softbox, in a Beauty Portrait style setup- with flash above and directly in front of the sitter, with a reflector under their chin to fill the shadows. But I was not getting what I wanted so I switched to 100% natural light.

Luckily I am blessed with gorgeous light in most of my house. All these images were taken in different rooms of my house and studio. Work with what you have got. Look for where the light is good in your home.

MAking Someone feel good in front of the camera

So, here are some thing I learnt about shooting someone who hates the camera:

  1. Drink champagne. (Okay, this was her trick!) I am not endorsing the consumption of alcohol, but a little drink while chatting beforehand and half way through the shoot can work wonders for a nervous sitter. If you know them, okay. I would never suggest this with someone I don’t know. (A little bit creepy)
  2. Talk to them through the whole process. I show my sitters how I want them to stand, or what to do with their hand. “Sit with your legs up like this, and your hand resting here.” Explain the lighting, the poses, how you want them to sit, what to think about. Yes, how to think. “Think about being confident, brave.”
  3. Give constant feedback. “You are looking great.” “You look gorgeous.” “These photos are going to look so nice.” You have to mean it, otherwise you are lying. “I like that pose, yes, that looks great.” They can’t see what you are seeing, so you have to tell them.
  4. Show them. Pause every now and then and show them the preview screen. I generally shoot hand-held, so it’s easy to show them how they are looking. Pick the good one to show them…not the one where you caught them off guard and they are pulling a face. They will generally (and hopefully) say “Wow, that looks good!” Which is the signal to keep going.
  5. Ask them. Ask how they are doing, are they okay. “You are looking more comfortable now, are you feeling it?
  6. Laugh. I always try and keep every shoot light and fun. In between these photos were were laughing and joking around. (There were some of those too, I just didn’t include them here)
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/60 sec @ f/4 ISO 320 Natural light, no reflector.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/60 sec @ f/4 ISO 320 Natural light, no reflector.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/8 sec @ f/5 ISO 320 Natural light, reflector under chin.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/8 sec @ f/5 ISO 320 Natural light, reflector under chin.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/8 sec @ f/5 ISO 320 Natural window light.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/8 sec @ f/5 ISO 320 Natural window light.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/125 sec @ f/4 ISO 500 Natural window light, no reflector.
Nikon D750 w/ Nikon 50mm 1.8 lens. 1/125 sec @ f/4 ISO 500 Natural window light, no reflector.

I hope that has been useful in shooting portraits where the sitter isn’t so comfortable in front of the camera.

Until next time, best wishes,

Don

Lonely Town: Twilight Suburbia Photography

More images on the themes of loneliness and fear. I had an uneasy childhood, growing up in darkest suburbia. Stalkers around toilet blocks, domestic violence, roaming gangs, street violence. An ongoing project is trying to capture this unease.

I grew up in a place called Gosford, most Sydneysiders know how drug-riddled, dangerous and just-damn-scary this place is. Inside my childhood home wasn’t that much better.

These were taken in the small town of Culburra, 3 hours south of Sydney. At times, I scared the hell out of myself walking around empty streets and dark car parks. Some shots were taken from my car, straight through the windscreen.

Hope you enjoy, or not.

Best wishes until next time.

Don

How I became a Photographer

Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris 1984. Canon T70.
Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris 1984. Canon T70.

I have been a photographer for 30 years. My first camera was a Canon T70. A film camera of course. I thought that thing was the bees-knees. It was actually a very advanced SLR for the time with styling not too dissimilar to today’s DSLRs. That was 1984. I shot my girlfriend when I was living in London. I was eighteen and I was going to be a photographer!

Dhana, London 1984.
Dhana, London 1984. Canon T70
Kate and Dhana, London 1984
Kate and Dhana, London 1984 Canon T70

By the time I moved back to Sydney my priorities had changed, I was also broke and had to sell that camera. That was almost the end of my photographic career. Not too sure where from, anther camera came into my life and I was back shooting- mainly girlfriends.

Creating painting and sculpture became my bag soon after that, and every painting of piece of art I made had to be documented for my folio. From then on I always had a camera- even if it wasn’t very good.

Lara, Sydney 1985 Canon T70. Kodachrome.
Lara, Sydney 1985 Canon T70. Kodachrome.

But the camera was just a tool. Just a practical tool.

The last roll of film I took before digital came along was shooting on the streets of New York. The photography bug was back! That was the year 2000.

Later that year, or maybe the year after, I purchased my first digital camera – a Panasonic Lumix DMC-F7. With a whole 2 megapixels, I was the coolest dude on the block. Welcome to the space age- digital cameras! But, again, I was mainly using a camera to document other artwork and not using it much as a form of expression.

Berlin, 2009 Panasonic Lumix DMC-F7
Berlin, 2009 Panasonic Lumix DMC-F7

I had a fashion label (Urbandon Menswear) then, so again my camera was used to document the clothes I was making. I would style, model and often photograph myself as well. A one man band. I bought a Fujifilm X10. Lovely digital rangefinder.

Me in Urbandon Menswear, Sydney 2014
Me in Urbandon Menswear, Sydney 2014

I was shooting in Paris and Berlin (and Sydney) on Fujifilm cameras: first the X10 and then the X-E1) and got hooked on photography again. Around September 2017, while on holiday, I was struggling with a way to express myself visually, in a more powerful and immediate way, (I was making electronic music and doing collage on paper) when I decided to commit all my creative time and energy into photography.

Culburra Beach, NSW Australia
Culburra Beach, NSW Australia 2018

I was was seeking an immediate form of creating without being bogged down in sewing machines, mountains of paper or boxes full of rusty metal junk. Something fast, clean and efficient to keep me stimulated.

Vegetables
Vegetables on Instagram. NikonD750
Market Finds, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750
Market Finds, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 1/2 at f/ 11

Since then, I have been seriously pursuing photography as an art form and developing my skill as a photographer. I shoot almost every day with my Nikon D750 or on the Samsung S7 (amazing camera).

Woollahra, Sydney. 2018 Samsung S7.
Woollahra, Sydney. 2018 Samsung S7.

I really look at the light now, set assignments for myself, set up still life arrangements, shoot on the street, read everything I can get my hands on and try and learn as much as I can.

Jude Paddon-Row. Model and actor, Sydney 2019. Nikon D750
Jude Paddon-Row. Model and actor, Sydney 2019. Nikon D750

Photography is ‘it’ for me now. I now know that this is my true means of creative expression. So perhaps I have been a photographer for 1 year, or maybe for thirty- it is hard to say.

Best wishes until next time,

Don