Recently I posted a couple of portraits on my Instagram feed and someone commented that it made a nice change. That comment got me thinking, why aren’t there many portraits? How can I change that?
I decided to set out on a personal project, to take more portraits on film.
The only portraits I have taken recently are selfies or photos of my dad, neither of us are very willing subjects. The rest of my family are even more camera shy. When I do manage to snap a photo of them, they don’t want it to be posted anywhere public.
So how do I increase the number and variety of portraits I take?
I could pay for a model, but money is tight right now so that is out of the question. It would be a significant expense for one model. I could share the cost with a few other photographers, which is a possibility, but I want a variety of models.
The first approach I tried was to simply walk up to people in the street and ask them if I could take their photographs. I found this worked 75% of the time, especially if you have a “cool” looking camera. Many of my friends think I am brave doing this and that I must have lots of confidence, but when I ask people my insides are literally turning to jelly. The confidence I exude is all show. In these instances, I am always conscious that I am stopping someone from going about their daily life and tend to rush through the process. Quick-stop volunteers often produce images that I am proud of and wish I could repeat, but that time and model has gone.
To overcome the rushing issue and to reduce my nerves, I decided to adjust my approach. I posted a message on my local Facebook community group page specifically asking for volunteer models. I was surprised at the number of responses I received. I felt most of the respondents were speculative, so I set my own criteria to choose who I would accept. The potential model had to send me a direct message, that cut down the number of volunteers by at least 75%. I figured, if the person could send me a direct message and engage in a conversation then they were more likely to follow through. Even so, a couple of people who I arranged to meet didn’t show up. It seemed many people wanted to volunteer or were at least curious about the announcement, but they didn’t think they were suitable subjects. I went back and edited my post to say,
“I don’t care about size, age, looks, it is about being at ease in front of the camera. You might be sitting there thinking you are not good enough in some way or form. Have a go, if you don’t like the photos, I won’t use them.”
That spurred a few more people to respond by direct message. In the end, I chose seven people, two were still no shows, and one has been postponed due to a positive covid result. I decided to stick to one camera, a Mamiya C2, as I have been meaning to use it more and I think it is a great portrait camera. I could have chosen many more respondents, but the price of film kept my numbers sane and manageable.
The first person I met was very eager, turning up early and with a few outfits for me to select for her. She was a delight to photograph and a great person to have as the first volunteer. She said she wanted to do something for herself, away from the family. She took my directions very well and even said yes to lying on the ground…I did bring a blanket. I said she was brave meeting a stranger in the woods, then I realised I was doing the exact same thing. We were both local and knew the woods were regularly frequented. I made a point of staying close to a path so she would feel safer. A friend of hers walked by with a dog at one point, which also put us both at ease.
Spurred on by the results from the first model, I met the next volunteer in the same place a week later. This time it was a completely different experience, but still very positive. We stayed close to the path again, but she was much more relaxed and had a more laissez-faire attitude. Basically, she said, “Just tell me what to do…whatever”. To a certain extent, all the volunteers were like that. They all needed more direction than I might have used with a more experienced model. I had to be quite direct with my instructions for each one. I had asked this model to wear heavy eye make-up, but circumstances meant it didn’t happen, so I had to adjust my approach.
The final volunteer for this project was another experience altogether. He was literally up for anything and I will be taking more photographs of him in the future. He has an interest in latex outfits and volunteered to wear one for the project. However, on the day of the shoot, it was THE hottest day for a long time and the UK weather agency had given heat warnings. He said he was still willing to wear the latex, but I was uncomfortable putting someone through that for a personal project. In the end, we compromised and he wore a mask that I had just purchased. Plus I thought the latex outfits could be part of a much larger project in the future.
I really enjoyed this project and hopefully, it will spur me on to take more portraits in the future. I don’t think I will ever be at ease with pure street photography. But I now have a few more people to rope into being models…literally. If you have a local community page and want to advertise for models here are the top seven pieces of advice I can offer.
- Have a plan and be very clear in communicating that to the volunteers. Make sure they know the kind of photos you take. Share your Instagram account if you have one.
- Be very clear if you have clothes you want them to wear. I personally asked for clothes without bold patterns or stripes, plain was better for me. Don’t worry if they don’t do or dress exactly as you asked, roll with it. They are volunteers.
- On the day, show them sample photos of the poses you want them to take. If you don’t have samples, model it yourself first.
- Take time to get to know the volunteers, have a chat, it puts them at ease and that leads to better photos
- Have some tips ready, it makes you seem more knowledgeable. Here are two I use: You don’t actually have to walk, you can just rock back and forward on your feet. Be aware of your hands, keep them together.
- Meet in a familiar place, a place they know is safe and is frequented by enough people that you both feel safe, at the end of the day you are meeting strangers.
- Have fun and make sure you let them know what is going to happen to their photos. If you need to get them to sign a model release, let them know before the shoot. I haven’t at this point as I have no intention of selling the photographs. If they object, do not use the photos. They shouldn’t object, as you should have talked about this first, see my first point. If they change their mind respect that. It is very quick to gain a bad reputation on a community forum.
And that is it, I have more portraits, a few more friends, and an idea for another project.
You can find more of my work on my Instagram feed, and you can find my blog here
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26 thoughts on “More Portraits Please – Making Opportunities to Photograph People – By Peggy Marsh”
Thanks for a wonderful story and pics Peggy! Your “no show / no follow up” is pretty normal. Lot’s of people will reply but then have fears that keep them from following through. Just part of the process. I always stick to the rules of shooting in a public place and having a chaperone along (unless it is a close friend). It makes everyone more comfortable and heads off any issues down the road.
Thanks Jalan, I agree with you, a chaperone would have been a good idea but I knew the place very well and knew it would be well populated at the time we went.
Peggy, these portraits are really stunning. It seems so much of the art happens ahead of time—how you find volunteers, who self-selects based on what you ask, and who you actually choose to work with. This approach is really innovative, and the results are excellent.
Thanks Steve, I love your photos but I just don’t have the confidence for that style So this suited me more.
“External confidence while insides turn to jelly…” I am right there with you! The more I do it though the less “jelly” I become. Some of my favorite shots have been chance encounters where I mustered the courage to ask for a photo. I do find that every time I go out I have to re-muster the courage and then it gets easier as the day goes on. Stay with it!
Exactly, you grow in confidence on the day then it seems to reset as soon as you go to sleep.
Thank you for the fine shots. I especially liked the portrait of your model lying down.
People’s faces are endlessly fascinating. I think we all like to observe others, but as you said, we’re too shy to impose ourselves on them.
Often just sitting in my car at a traffic light I’ll see someone whose face or bearing is distinctive and I wish I could jump out and approach them (but I don’t).
Good for you for following through with your idea. Keep up the good work.
Thank you, this project has spurred me on to do more portraits…and this article has helped me find more volunteers too.
Woah, that was really good. I totally agree with you about the awesomeness of the C-series Mamiyas for portraits. BTW, check out “Portrait per Day” on Insta, if you have not. He was featured on the beeb also. basically a shy guy with mental health issues who forces himself to take a stranger’s portrait every day to help himself cope. With sometimes amazing results – like yours!
I certainly will check that out, it sounds just my cup of tea. Thanks for the information and response 🙂
Portraits of strangers are such a challenging thing to do, and you’re spot on in saying that we don’t see enough of them.
Your advice, coming as it does from direct personal experience, is eminently sensible and gives the whole process a clear structure. Consequently, it makes the prospect of doing this kind of project far less intimidating
Thanks for posting this genuinely inspirational article along with some really very fine photographs.
Gosh thanks. Those are very kind words. It really was less intimidating this way, and enjoyable for myself and the models…so they told me anyway.
Wonderful work, Peggy! I particularly liked the shot of the reclining woman. And that “jelly” feeling? Embrace it! It’s a sign of your emotional openness and vulnerability. Without that, both behind and before the lens, you just wind up with a record of a face, not a portrait.
I’ve found that requesting a portrait of strangers becomes much easier when people are in a public situation in which they expect to be observed and engaged in conversation. For example, in documenting rural culture in the U.S. Southwest, I frequently attend rodeos and county fairs. As a grandpa-aged guy, I might get my nose punched for approaching a 12 year old girl, but in the context of the fair, where she may be showing her prize sheep or crafts project, my attention is welcome and greeted with a smile when I ask to photograph her. And the interactions often reward me with introductions to others who are equally eager to be my subjects. There also begins to build a thematic unity in the pictures, as individual portraits coalesce into a larger exploration of a group or cultural phenomenon.
However you go about it, keep shooting portraits. Nothing is more fascinating to us humans than other humans!
Thank you for your kinds words. Those sort of events have just started up again here after lockdowns etc so that is a possibility. I have tickets for an event coming up so I will definitely try to take more portraits there than I usually would try.
These are really stunning, you’re going in my 35mmc inspiration bookmark folder 🙂
I think part of why I love portrait photographs so much is that I can’t really explain why I like them.. something about the human touch, the light in their eyes. It’s about capturing the “realness” of a person, but paradoxically as soon as you start to look for the “realness” it comes off as trying too hard.
I also feel that a lot of male portrait photographers are doing some variant of “hot chick photography” with an artistic tinge. What I mean is that the male gaze comes first and foremost in every photo on their instagram timeline, and it’s just boring to me. It’s another formula (hot girl + rangefinder 50mm wide open + portra 400 = likes) and formulas will only get you so far in portaits. I think this is why female photographers tend to be better at it. If I take a quick glance to my photobook shelf – it’s almost all women behind the camera.
Thank you. I suppose we all take photos we like and that connect to us or even make us feel comfortable. So if I feel uncomfortable taking a photo the result would feel awkward too. Hot girl photos would make me feel uncomfortable to take. I was very lucky with these volunteers they all make me feel at ease. Synergy.
Wonderful post Peggy in every sense of the word. I only wish I had the guts to approach someone and ask to take their photograph. I’m Ok with street theatre and buskers where I always throw something into the hat and they are expecting to be photographed anyway. Given that I’m quite comfortable with public speaking, gigging and striking up a conversations with a complete strangers in the pub I just can’t bring myself to ask to take their picture?
Your 7 point plan is a keeper, especially tip number 5. Thanks!
Thank you. In some ways I think being female helps when approaching strangers. I thought of tip 5 because a friend I photo always has claw hands that look weird when I take her photos. I constantly say, hands hands.
Really like your “street” shots ! Thanks for you story !
Thanks so much for sharing this; I really love it when people share their experience on how to approach a project/something new – it helps me (and no doubt many others) to rethink and refocus on getting out there and achieve something. And of course, it helps a lot that you can illustrate it with some really good photos!
Thank you. It took me a while to build the courage to place the ad. But with covid restrictions being lifted I decided just do it, what have you got to lose. Placing the ad was as nerve racking as walking up to people. Once done, all the nerves went away.
Amazing, thank you for sharing these photos and your approach in such depth! My girlfriend was doing this for a bit in London – the modelling that is. She signed up on some website which I forget the name of, a sort of platform where photographers and models can connect. Some were voluntary or travel-reimbursed, some were paid. I personally enjoy taking photos of strangers whom I encounter by chance, just the serendipity and uncertainty of it (the first approach which you described). But the second approach has its merits too – they produce two very different types of photos, and different experiences for both the photographer and the subject 🙂
Thank you, I have definitely increased my portrait ratio which was the aim. Another approach I have used recently is to go to places where people expect to be photographed. Places where they actively encourage it, like festivals and events. I took a VPK to a Wartime reenactment and I feel that worked out well.
Wonderful project. Don’t feel bad about ‘No Shows”. I did fashion and models arrived late, unready or simply disappeared.!
Your’ using one of the best ‘people magnet cameras’, a Twin lens. Mamiya C series. My favorite but now I use a Rollei, as it’s lighter..
Look forward to more!
Thank you. Yeap the camera helped, especially my Japanese print version. The weight of it means I rarely take the mamiya out and stick to a folder for wandering with medium format.