Portrait Photography: Keeping the Subject in Motion
I like to work with moving subjects to keep it real.
Having been a photographer for over 50 years, I have shot all manners of subjects and genres. In my younger years, it was fashion and beauty, and eventually, it became product and still life. But through it all, I have been a portraitist at heart.
I love making portraits of people and capturing that tiny moment in humanity where we get something a bit more than just a representation of the person being photographed.
One of the things I like doing with portraits is something I did back in my fashion days — I keep the subject moving. By always being in motion, the images are not so static nor do they have that over-posed look that eschews the humanity of the person.
Briana is a good friend of mine and we have made photographs for over 15 years. She knows how I work, and she keeps moving within the parameters I give her.
In this shot, I sat her on the edge of a little wall in the middle of a plaza. This is in Balboa Park, and it was bustling with people. This means that I had to not only watch Bri as she was moving, but I also had to keep an eye out for people walking through the background. My cue to Bri was to just bring the camera down from my face a bit. She knows that means there is something behind her I am waiting on. When the camera goes back up, we go back to work.
In these situations, I shoot fast. I do not let the snapping of the shutter be a move/response thing that happens so often with model and portrait photographers.
The model moves, the photographer shoots. Instead of relying on the serendipity of human movement and emotion to get something special, it becomes a trigger-response exercise. The model is moving and stopping and the photographer is hoping that the pose is working when they take the shot.
That is not the precise way of working to get the images that make a difference. I shoot fast, without a ‘rhythm’ and I shoot a lot. BITD my assistants would keep a body loaded to hand to me as I was shooting and the rolls would stack up in the A/B bags like cordwood.
If you look at the grid above, you will see Bri moving left to right (the light allowed a range of directions for the face to look) but always on that little corner of the planter. We discussed the range of motions that would work there and then we would go left to right. And back again.
Here are two images from that part of our shoot.
A soft coastal haze gave us shadows but with less contrast than a clear day would have presented. I chose this area because behind me there are bright white buildings. As you can see, the sun is behind Bri at this point casing shadows toward the camera. That same light is making the buildings behind me into a giant soft light that is presenting beautifully on her face.
In the following set of images, we discovered a bit of dappled light against a warm-colored building. I knew the blues and whites that she was wearing would be an excellent contrast to the warmth of the wall.
However, we had to limit the angles for her face to always be looking into the direction of the sun.
First I studied the light on her face to see how far the range of movement could go toward the camera. Turns out that she could not come all the way to the camera, but always had to be looking a little to camera left. A full-on face would create some very harsh shadows on the right side of her face (from camera),
Bri and I set the motion limits and then she began her movements.
I never pull a model back from movement. If it is not what I want, I may shoot a few frames while suggesting a change. NEVER saying I don’t like something means the subject never has to think about what they are doing from a negative approach.
Of course, I wanted to use the dappled light on her face so we had to work that out. The sharp-edged shadow image on the wall gave a really fun compositional element to play with and I tried to make the most of it.
You can see that halfway through the grid I stopped shooting landscape and went to portrait orientation. I try to always shoot both. It is important to work compositionally in the two orientations. After 30 plus years of shooting ads (portrait orientation for magazines), I have to remind myself that the world’s way of looking at images has changed.
Shoot some landscape compositions whenever you can, and of course, make the portrait orientations as well.
Dappled light is a favorite of mine. In this case, the sun was getting low in the sky and I could have Bri look directly into it without it making her squint. I always make sure that the subject KNOWS they can see and feel the light on their face and work toward keeping it that way. Occasionally I will flirt with a shadow on the face, but not in this case. It was important to keep the face and body well lit so they would contrast well with the background.
This is only a small sampling of the images we shot that day… even a small sampling of the ‘poses’ we worked on.
I like to explore an area and make a ton of images to work with. Every time I do, I learn a little bit more about composition, light, and working with constantly moving subjects.
And it is a heck of a lot of fun too.
This is not the ONLY way to do portraiture. It is how I do it when I am looking for a particular aesthetic of natural and simple. When using medium format and large format cameras, different dynamics come into play.)
Camera: Nikon D750.
Lenses: 85MM f1.8, 24–120MM f4.
Thanks for reading.
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