Still Life That Breathes
There are times when shooting portraits feels a lot like shooting still life, only such subjects are harder to control for the purpose of composition. There may be a language barrier preventing them from understanding your objective, they may be deeply engaged in their work, or just the rise and fall of their breath alone can bring subtle changes to your frame.
You are trying to capture an extremely finite moment in time, a moment that will never exist again.
The curve of their smile may never quite be the same again, the focus of their gaze, the manner in which their hair rests on a shoulder. In the space of that single image your subject will never look exactly the same again. This style of portrait steps fully into the detail.
The intimate portrait is what I look for after having spent some time with a subject, and usually after having shot a lot of wider portraits. You can think of this as a dedicated technique to change your compositional perspective, or just one step further towards highlighting a unique person and a unique moment in time.
My intention is usually to show a particular expression that reflects the nature of that person, to make the shot all about their expression.
Fill the Frame
The intimate portrait is intended to be the exact opposite of the “environmental” portrait. Instead of bringing a depth of context through external elements, this technique seeks to fill the entire frame with only the person. The only guide we have to look into their lives are the fragments of detail that sit close to their face and compliment their gaze.
Composing in this way can be challenging because you end up cropping out parts of a person in the process. It takes some getting used to, after a lifetime of trying to avoid cropping heads and ears and chins. Try not to think of this as excluding things, rather you are simply filling the frame with pieces of their face, a little bit of clothing, a wave of hair or the curve of a hat.
Most of my portraits are shot with the intention of getting wide and bringing as much context to my subject as possible, but nothing is absolute. I want variety above all else in a photographic series, and that goes for portraits as well. The big prize when capturing portraits is “intimacy”, which is simply a reflection of your connection with the subject.
As with all composition, even when working with a tight frame, you are still being very careful to avoid putting all of your subject into the centre of the frame. This may sound like a paradox, to fill the frame without centering the frame? Think of this as giving your composition a push to the left or right, be heavy handed to one side or the other.
Eye to Eye
When shooting photojournalism I typically want to shoot portraits as a fly on the wall, but that changes for the intimate portrait. This time I want the eyes to be powerfully directed at my lens. The connection between subject and photographer is what is revealed in this style, and almost all else is swept aside.
Just as we fill the frame with our subject, with want to make sure the eye contact dominates our composition. To be fair there is always room for your own style to come into the process, even where eye contact is concerned. It could be that a shy glance away from the lens is part of the story you are trying to convey, and that playful shyness reflects your relationship with the subject. Only you will know where intimacy lies.
My baseline for intimate portraits is a fast 50mm lens. This provides the perfect balance between trying to compose a tight frame while still being very close to the subject. Closeness is vital. If you attempt this with a 200mm telephoto you are literally putting distance between you and the subject, and not in a good way.
A half decent 50mm prime lens will also let you drop down to f/2 and capture with very shallow depth of field. This allows you to highlight the connection with the eyes, to make them pin sharp while other features move into bokeh.
Shooting shallow depth of field with a 50mm lens also allows you to drop out the background dramatically in such a way to remove almost all detail. Remember, this style is unique in that you are filling the frame with the subject and ignoring all environmental context. Standing close enough to fill a frame at 50mm will do this for you with beautiful aesthetics and perspective.
If you’re shooting with smaller sensors please remember that I’m referring to 50mm on a full frame DSLR, so the equivalent on a smaller DSLR or Fuji X series is 35mm, or a Micro Four Thirds system would be 25mm.
This Person is Unique
My guiding rule for all photography is to pay attention to what makes a scene or subject beautiful but we can equally ask ourselves, “what makes this person unique”? Why does a wrinkled face of a 90 year old woman compel us to capture an image, or the ebullient smiles of a child draw us closer and closer?
When shooting for intimacy we are seeking the unique, we are focusing on what is rare and precious. It should come as little surprise that this technique will work best when you pick a genuinely unique subject, someone whose life experiences have left story lines across their face.
If you just watch two friends talking for a few minutes, closely watch them, you will observe that in that space of time they offer each other a wide range of very subtle expressions. Their facial cues flicker and dance with the conversation, as they embellish the words with expressions.
Most of those expressions are ephemeral however, they rise and fade within fractions of a second. Our minds hold onto them for much longer, and when we think of that person we often think of a particular expression.
It takes great patience to photograph intimacy and to wait for the expression that reveals what you wish to portray in that subject.
By shooting with a continuous shutter you give yourself a better chance of capturing the exact expression that reveals your impression of the subject. Every time you take a shot, take four or five instead. It’s minimal work to discard the unwanted frames later, and you never know what you will find amongst the series of captures.
A dash of a smile may appear for half a second, rich and bright on one frame in the series but with no trace in the others. Taking a burst of frames each time also means you can avoid eye blinks, or that initial reaction to a shutter that sometimes makes someone blink.
I typically set my camera to silent mode anyway, I want to avoid interrupting to the moment as much as possible.
Shooting an intimate portrait is often very satisfying because most of us have a natural tendency to shoot tight anyway. In this case I’m asking you to get even tighter than you normally would. Your goal is to step beyond the quick and easy snap and to pull yourself deeper into the moment.
I like to save this shot for the end of a little photo session. Having shared a few photos with my subject and shared a few smiles, they have had time to feel more comfortable with the camera. Maybe I’ve sat down and eaten a bowl of noodles in their stall, or taken a dozen photos of their kids playing at amongst the cabbages.
I save this one for last because I am seeking the most intimacy and comfort possible, and I want the best chance to see them and their expression.
It is the opposite of just walking along with a telephoto lens and popping shots of someone you haven’t spoken to. It should evoke a depth of intensity because it removes all else and lays bare your photography, and lays bare the subject.