Breaking The Rules
Fresh Techniques For People Photography

Photo 1.
Photos © 2003 Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

If you still think of portraits in terms of main light, fill light, and key light, I think you're missing out on some fresh and exciting techniques. While the classic studio portrait is still practiced by lots of amateurs and practically every portrait and wedding house in the world, editorial and commercial photographers have continued to push the boundaries of what can commonly be referred to as a "portrait."

Since I'm a commercial photographer shooting almost exclusively for advertising and corporate clients, I'm rarely asked to shoot an old-fashioned portrait photo. What I am asked to do is capture a great image of a person. While the person is sometimes famous or influential, often it's just a plain old headshot or environmental portrait for a corporate brochure, web site, or annual report. Over the years I've figured out a lot of fun and interesting ways to spice up my people photography. I try and look at the source books like The Black Book as often as possible to check the pulse of the photo community.

Photo 2.

Even if your goal is not to receive compensation for your portrait work, you'll still want to shoot images of friends and family that impress. Inspiration can come from any number of sources, including the pages of photography magazines. (Know any good ones?) I like to look through foreign magazines, especially Japanese and British pop culture. When my own people photography gets stale I like to see what they're doing in other markets, and then try to incorporate some elements of the best foreign work into my own.

If you've been struggling to perfect your own lighting and framing techniques to get a decent portrait, then throwing away the rules might not be such a good idea. However, if you're comfortable with your equipment and technique, read on.

The Gear. If you've read my other articles over the years, you know that I'm a big proponent of less is more. I like simple solutions to complex problems, and the cheaper the better. However, when you're trying to create fresh looking photos when faced with too little time, impatient subjects, and fading daylight, you need the right kind of gear. Now, you don't have to go overboard, but you'll need some basics. For starters, a good selection of fast, sharp lenses. I use everything from fisheye to super telephotos for people photography, but if you're on a budget a 28-70mm zoom and a 70-200mm will do the trick. When looking for lenses, keep in mind that most inexpensive zooms don't focus close enough, can be prone to flare, and don't maintain a constant aperture over their zoom range. In short, try and weigh cost against such attributes as super fast maximum aperture, pro construction, and macro focusing.

Photo 3.

When it comes to lighting, you can get great shots with just the sun and a reflector or two. Trying to rely on the sun on a regular basis you'll find that you'll miss out on a lot of great opportunities. I use a combination of studio flash units, battery powered pro flash units like my Balcar P2 system, and shoe mount battery powered flash units like Vivitar 285s. I've found that with a decent array of camera and lighting equipment, you can do a lot.

The Wide View. Everyone tends to think of a mild telephoto lens as a good portrait focal length, but I tend to shoot more images with normal to wide lenses these days (Photo 1). For this image taken for a corporate brochure and web site, we scouted out a cool location, the train tracks in downtown Orlando, Florida. To assure a decent supply of AC power I rented a Honda gas-powered generator and had it delivered to the site. Once fired up, we plugged in the flash units and arranged a head with a Chimera medium softbox just to the left of the camera. Inside the train I placed an old Soligor MK-10A flash with a Wein HS-XL mini shoe mount slave eye for some sidelight. To keep the sky bright and add some movement to the image, I set my camera (a Hartblei 1006SM) to 1 sec and dialed the lens, a 50mm f/4 Zeiss Flektogon, to f/16.

Photo 4.

When it was time to pose the subject, I tried a lot of different positions. We tended to like these shots, hanging off the train. By getting very close with a wide angle lens I could bring a real sense of immediacy to the image, while also getting a good sense of the train and the surroundings. The diffused light provided by the softbox helped lend some nice light to the subject, while also giving the image some sharpness and strong color.

A Different Angle. For a lot of environmental portraits I like to introduce a different angle to the shot (Photo 2). By "dutching" the camera, I add a refreshing look to the image. In this shot I had to balance a ton of flash on the foreground subject with the ambient streetlights in the background. While a handheld shot would have resulted in blurring of the background, sometimes a desirable thing, I chose to mount my Hasselblad and 150mm lens to a tripod. Once Polaroids established the correct balance between foreground and background lighting I shot a series of images with different angles. Certainly I can always turn the image sideways later on, but I like to fill the frame. Leaving enough room for post-shoot cropping would have shrunk the image a bit too small for my taste.

Photo 5.

Lighting For Effect. Sometimes it's time to bring out the big guns (Photo 3). For this magazine ad with musician Richard Patterson I brought out all the flash I had, and used almost all of it.

Once we were set up at New York's SIR studios I set up a rehearsal stage with the client's product. Hours before the artist arrived I began lighting the stage. Since it would be shot with a Mamiya RZ67 and used as a full page ad, it had to be very sharp. In order to get f/22 with Fuji Velvia rated at EI 40 I needed two Balcar Starflash 2 power packs firing into Chimera large light banks positioned just to the left of camera. For the stage backlighting, I placed two Balcar Monobloc 3 monolights with amber gels behind the speaker cabinets. To light the ceiling and add additional room lighting I positioned Sun Star Strobo MFH-25 heads on Bogen Magic Arms about the set. In total there was about 10,000 ws of power. It was a lot of work, but I think the image worked well.

Work With Your Surroundings. Sometimes I like to use foreground and background objects to "frame" an image (Photo 4). For this portrait I chose a very long lens, a 200mm f/2.8 on a Canon EOS-1 and looked around the playground for a good mix of color. Satisfied with the texture of the wood, the bright blue on the right side of the image, and the red swirl on the left, I positioned myself to shoot through the playground. The resulting image makes good use of the foreshortening effect of long lenses.

Photo 6.

I like to use this technique when shooting executive portraits, often through office windows or through open doorways. If you can shoot relatively wide open you can limit your depth of field to make your subject really "pop."

Unconventional Lighting Ap-proaches. I like to shake things up, and sometimes that means putting light sources where you wouldn't ordinarily expect them (Photos 5 and 6). For this shot of model Holly Plunkett I hung a Photoflex large light bank above her, and a Photek Illuminata on the floor just to her right. The Balcar head aimed at the background was set to provide tungsten illumination only, so when I shoot with a 4 sec exposure I get that ghostly image blurring from my shaky handheld technique. While the blur is a matter of taste, sometimes placing light sources beneath your subject or below the camera can work well, as long as it is balanced with some light from above. Too much light from below can result in a horror-movie effect that looks very cool, but isn't terribly flattering.

In general, I've found that by continuing to expand the boundaries of what I would consider a "portrait," I've created more interesting photographs. While my approach usually involved a pretty good arsenal of gear, you can recreate all of the shots in this article with a 35mm camera, a shoe mount flash with extension synch cable, and a small light modifier like a softbox or bounce card. All that is important is the desire to change things around and look for interesting portrait possibilities in unlikely places, with unlikely approaches.