For a recent project, I started to focus on portraiture in the studio setting. I have been exploring the notion of camera-shyness over the last few weeks, especially on the streets, and I wanted to bring some of what I loved about that work back into a controlled environment. The reason I am quite fond of street photography is because it offers countless opportunities to make images of people who are unaware of your presence. There is something very beautiful about capturing the mundane, or the candid moment. A small number of these photos will reveal instances where a person drops their guard and exposes a side that the viewer feels he or she can connect with. These moments are short, but add a uniquely human element that can be universally recognized and understood.
Personally, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I hate a posed photo, because I know that they too can serve an important purpose in peoples’ lives, but I am much more fond of portraiture that I hope most viewers can connect with or relate to. And for this to happen, an image can’t feel too stiff or posed; where every gesture feels contrived and unnatural.
So, how does the photographer take an “unstaged” picture in a studio environment? The person you are photographing is sitting in front of a backdrop, the “spotlight” is on them, and they stare into a camera. It’s up to them to “perform” now.
We tend to spend a great deal of our time performing. Whether it is as a professional at work, a family member at home, a friend, a lover, an athlete or any of the other various roles we are trained to present. I feel that there are moments where people reveal the human under these many masks, and sometimes these are the moments where we as viewers of an image feel like we can truly connect with that person; even if we know nothing about them.
The camera can evoke a similar pressure to perform from people. Some might feel inclined to grimace, “smile”, or “look beautiful” because that is how they have been taught to perform in front of a camera.
If we want to show the true essence of a person in a portrait, we as photographers must find ways to break through these social constructs. There is nothing wrong with a smile, or a grimace in my opinion, as long as it is real. I started to experiment with a method I hope can relieve some of the notions to perform – especially for the camera.
The idea is to remove myself, as the photographer, from being a hidden face behind a lens to start with. For this reason, I set the camera up on a tripod with a release cable and engaged with my subjects while asking them to maintain eye contact with the lens.
By having them sit for 20 minutes, my hope was for them to become more comfortable in front of the camera. With the release in my hand, I was looking for the moments between performance, the breaks and pauses, where the sitter sheds their camera-mask. A true burst of laughter, a second of boredom or frustration, a grin, fixing of the hair or anything that reveals something less contrived about the person in my portrait.
My hope is that with this method, every pop of the flash and shutter click makes the process less of a threat, and more of a repetition and thus an excuse to forget about being photographed. Finding the right shots then boils down to the process of editing at the end of a session. It is interesting to see which images the sitter picks as their favorites as well as the ones I feel best accomplished my own goal.
Now I must admit, in the end some of my favorite photos were ones in which the person is clearly performing for the camera. But this usually at a point where it is also clear that they have become much more comfortable with its’ presence… I think these photos may not achieve what I originally set out to do, but I am content with the fact that they don’t feel too posed or stiff. All in all, I had a lot of fun with this session, and will continue to experiment with this style. I am really curious to see where it leads over a prolonged period of time, with a bigger collection of faces to help me understand my own work. Keep posted to see some more as I build the collection.
And just for the fun of it, I threw in some random props at the end. Maybe a bit off topic from the purpose here, but it brings out a sense of play at the end of a sitting and was quite enjoyable.
So here is some advice I could boil down from this experience for photographers looking to capture some less contrived portraits:
– Try to help your sitter forget about the camera: Play music, talk, joke around, and most importantly, try to find something you have in common with them.
– Don’t always hide behind your camera. Try setting it up on a tripod, pre-focusing and setting your exposure. Then use a remote to take pictures.
– Look for facial expressions and emotions. Smiles, laughs, boredom etc. If your camera is set right, this is much less difficult when all you have to do is click the release/remote.
– Give your sitter the remote for a few photos, and see how those differ from yours.
– Try sitting yourself, and have somebody photograph you in the same manner. There is a lot to be learned from sitting behind the lens yourself!