How To Take Great Portraits Interview w/ Darren Rowse

Darren Rowse interviewed me this week about taking photos of people – portrait photography specifically – for a new book he has coming out on the topic. Thanks a lot for including me Darren. You do great work and it’s an honor to be a part of it! 🙂

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Here’s a rough transcript of the interview:

1. Q: What do you know about photographing people that wish you’d known when you started out?
A: I have shot literally hundreds of people’s portraits, in all types of spaces and environments. Portraits of all different types of people, from various angles. All different kinds. The one thing I have learned from all of this is that you can make a single face look a hundred different ways. There is no “one” way to shoot a person’s portrait. When I started out I was under the impression that there was “one” way to capture people, from “one” specific angle or with “one” particular light source. Granted I am still learning within this particular process because everyone’s face, their everything can be so different from the next that you can’t rely on the same things working from person to person. The beauty of all of this is that you can make a face look inspired or approachable or even prestigious, just from how you capture it. We all don’t have “one” true face but a face that is made up of different parts. I am learning on how to invoke those different parts, specifically focus on them and bring out their attributes and qualities.

2. Q: What mistake do you see beginner photographers making most when it comes to portraits? How could they overcome them?
A: I like to get really close to people when I am taking their photograph. The most common mistake I see is that photographers tend to be too far away when taking portraits. Sometimes you can overcome that by zooming in real close but the better way is to physically get closer to the person you are shooting. It is only when you are physically close, that you can properly interact with with them and then that spark can carry over to the camera.

That’s probably the biggest mistake. But I also see photographers making smaller mistakes. Some portraits are good or fine but could ten times better if the photographer had just taken a second to look around and work with their environment. Whether it is moving the subject into a light or moving something in your background or changing the angle of the shot, those simple things can make a portrait so much better. Just taking a few seconds before you take the photo, that’s all.

3. Q: What advice would you give someone starting out when it comes to interacting with and posing a subject/model?
A: Spending time with the person before the shoot. Like have coffee with them or flip through some magazines to grab a sense of what they are interested for the photos. Getting your photo taken can be very intimidating so it is nice to buffer the shoot with some sort of activity to get to know the person before you dive into taking their photo. You want to get a know a part of them and get acquainted with them like have them tell stories about themselves and show their personality. Some of my best photos of people have been with people that I have gotten to know before the shoot or are at least acquainted with somehow.

4. Q: Can you share one of your favorite portraits with us and how you achieved it?
A: I have three favorites actually:

Malloreigh - RetouchMalloreigh: During this photo shoot Mallory had brought over a bunch of fun stuff to work with and my studio tends to be a museum/art gallery/flea market so we had a bunch of stuff available. We were just listening to music and having fun really. I helped her pick out a bunch of outfits. During the shoot we became comfortable with each other and just started playing with different props. She picked up their weird old boxing gloves I had and it just worked. All the elements were really strong: her sexy, playful personality, the strength in the boxing gloves mixed with feminine nature of her outfit. Plus the light is great in the shot and it reflect off of her lipstick perfectly. We were just hanging out and experimenting really.

kim cathersKim Cathers: Kind like how Chace Jarvis says that the best camera is the one that you have with you, the same goes for the best model you have is the one you are always with. Kim and I had lived together for awhile and we were always carrying our cameras around and taking photos of each other. This particular photo, we had been sitting around, drinking wine, discussing life, love, media and whatnot. It was super spur of the moment but the moment was very comfortable, so I didn’t shy away. It turned out to be a great portrait.

Pete DohertyPete Doherty: I ran into Pete on the streets of London and I didn’t recognize him initially as the musician/rockstar. I just noticed him because of his style really. So I ran across the street and asked him if I could take his photo. The first shot I got I was too far away and it didn’t work. So I just gave him a bit of direction, to move closer and lean in a bit and then the shot turned out amazing. It was really just serendipitous. It was seeing something I liked and then going after it. The round trip literally lasted about ten seconds. I was super happy about the image and immediately stuck it up on my Flickr. I still didn’t know it was Pete Dougherty at this point. The internet quickly let me know who he was though!

5. Q: Could you leave our readers with one last practical piece of advice on shooting portraits that stand out from the rest?
A: In a time where everyone has a fancy DSLR camera and a laptop with the newest version of Photoshop on it, you really have to make an effort to differiante your photos from the next. You literally have to make them special or have them have your own personal fingerprint or signature on them. You can achieve that in many different ways. For me I carry a reflector around with me so that I am able to reflect or manipulate my light in my photographs.

I also have several low end film cameras that are super easy to carry around. I change up my film so that I can cross-process to change the variance in color or make my photos look more grainy, depending on the approach. Sometimes for light sources, I use desk lamps, overhead lighting, lighters, matches, candles, just so I can change the lighting up a bit and possibly redirect it where I want it go. Depending on your camera techniques, whether you use your IPhone, a Holga, or digital and then how you use your available light sources will really make your photos stand out from the rest of them.

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