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.