Photography

Learning portraiture

My first wife made brilliant portraits. Through wit and charm, and sometimes even a little flirting, she was very good at drawing spark and life out of her subjects as she worked the shutter. She made many portraits of our young sons with her Pentax K1000, several of which were framed around our home. Two black-and-white portraits of Garrett, aged about five, somehow found their way into my hands and are framed in my living room. His eyes are full of light and joy.

I shied away from photographing people for a long time. I didn’t think I could ever be as good as my ex, so I wouldn’t even try. What a logical fallacy. But I let it be for years.

I wanted annual portraits of the boys, so we’d go to the Target portrait studio. They did reasonable work for the money. But after several years the photographer moved on, and the new one wasn’t very good. I figured I could do at least that well. So I started trying.

Damion

Nikon F2AS, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kodak T-Max 100, 2013

I bested the new Target photographer right out of the gate.

Damion

Nikon F2AS, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kodak T-Max 100, 2013

I don’t own any lighting gear, so I photographed my sons outside. Broad daylight turns out to be challenging for good skin tones. I relied on my cameras’ meters; I see I should have underexposed by at least a half stop.

Garrett

Nikon F2AS, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kodak Portra 160NC, 2015

I used slower films for the finer grain, but found the in-focus patch could be mighty narrow even in blazing sunlight. I got lots of soft-focus photos, and even some that were clearly out of focus. I shoot handheld; perhaps portraiture calls for a tripod. Or faster film.

Garrett

Nikon F2AS, 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor, Kodak Portra 160NC, 2015

I even started dabbling with 135mm lenses, because portraits are supposed to be taken with long lenses, right?

Damion

Nikon F2AS, 135mm f/3.5 AI Nikkor, Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros, 2016

I could really fill the frame without having to put my lens right in my son’s face, which they liked. But I think a 100mm, or maybe even an 85mm, lens would be more useful.

Garrett

Nikon F2AS, 135mm f/3.5 AI Nikkor, Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros, 2016

And soon I busted out some medium-format equipment, and even started experimenting with poses, trying to do something artistic.

Damion

Yashica-D, Kodak Ektar 100, 2016

I still haven’t mastered the art of posed portraits. I just don’t have that ability to be engaging and charming with my subject as my ex did. She had a gift. I’m too buttoned down, too unsure of myself yet. My sons frequently look like they’re trying too hard to smile. Damion usually doesn’t bother.

Damion

Nikon F3HP, 135mm f/3.5 AI Nikkor, Fomapan 200, 2016

But now and then I do nail it, usually at a more candid moment. Garrett was just watching YouTube videos in my easy chair when I asked him to look up. He was relaxed and content, and it shows in his eyes.

Chillin'

Nikon N90s, 50mm f/1.8 AI Nikkor, Eastman Double-X 5222, 2016

Now that the boys are moving on into their own lives, they’ll be around less for portraits. Maybe now I need to put Margaret in my lens more!

© 2013-2017 Jim Grey. All rights reserved.

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15 thoughts on “Learning portraiture

  1. I just don’t have that ability to be engaging and charming with my subject as my ex did. She had a gift. I’m too buttoned down, too unsure of myself yet.”

    I think you too have a gift. Do be sure of the splendid work that you do and moreover do not be buttoned down.

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  2. Edwin P Paar says:

    Jim,

    You are right that an 85-90 mm lens is ideal for adult portraits, I have found that a 135 mm lens is perfect for young children. With that length the photographer is far enough way to be out of their circle of interest and thus able to capture the child unposed and natural. After about the age of 7 this no longer works.

    Peter

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  3. I can relate to what you are saying about not being able to be natural and open. Even when I try to photograph my family I feel a bit stiff. And my wife hates posing. So I found the only way to get better portraits for me – be discrete. Which is quite a challenge of its own with small kids;-)

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    • I don’t know why I feel driven to be good at portraiture. I don’t feel the same drive toward, say, street photography. But the fun of photography is following those drives and seeing what happens!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Joshua Fast says:

    No one has a natural talent for it, it just takes practice and confidence. I consider it an equal talent to public speaking. You just have to know how to connect with your audience. I try to take a light-hearted approach to any portrait photography. Laugh, crack jokes, make fun of yourself and take pictures while you are doing it. Some of my best shots were actually taken between poses. The more comfortable they are the more natural your finished product will look.

    I use a 50 or even a 35 if i am doing more than one person, I am not a bokeh chaser and actually prefer more dof. For a single person in the frame the sweet spot is 85 for 35 and 150 for MF. For film use portra 400 for those special occasions, it has enormous latitude for any speed you want to shoot it but my favorite is EI 100-200.

    When my wife and i first met, she hated getting her picture taken. She has since accepted she is my muse and I always have a least one shot of her in every roll i shoot. We are all drawn to shoot the things that invoke a feeling right?

    Great work Jim. Your portraiture should never be a worry.

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    • Well, I certainly overcame public speaking. I’m half decent at it. I even was a radio disk jockey for a while, which is related. I got pretty good at that. So I suppose I can become pretty good at portraiture too!

      Of course, I’m sharing the best of my work in this post.

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