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HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR PORTRAITURE IN ISOLATION

By Jay McLaughlin

For anyone that specialises in photographing people, quarantine can present a challenge. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t practice and hone your craft though, so I thought I’d share a few tips for photography at home.

It’s easy to put up barriers and obstacles in front of your photography. It’s definitely something I’ve been guilty of in the past. The idea that you need a certain piece of gear, lighting, lens etc. in order to create something good. Sure it helps, but the best photographers can make magic using whatever is to hand, so try to use what’s available, and see it as a challenge, rather than a restriction.

The best camera is the one you have with you 

One bonus to everyone being stuck inside is that there are no excuses for not having your camera with you, or your favourite lens, or any of the other excuses you tell yourself for not taking a photo. So if you are planning to do some photography over the next few weeks or months, consider leaving your camera out on the side, so it’s easy to grab at a moments notice.

When it comes to personal photography, and capturing my life, my favourite camera is the Olympus PEN-F. This is pure because it looks stunning and feels great in my hands. I’ve used it for so many years now that I intuitively know where everything is, and I have it set up just the way I like it. Olympus cameras allow for so much customisation in the settings, that allow you to think more about your subject than the gear.

For portraits, I often go through phases when it comes to lenses. 5 years ago I was all about the long lenses, shooting primarily on the M.Zuiko Digital ED 40‑150mm F2.8 PRO, and standing on the opposite side of the street. I then went through a phase of using the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12mm F2 which is a great everyday lens if you want something wider to get more of the story in. This can be particularly useful if you live in a relatively small space. Lately, I’ve been shooting the vast majority of my work on the M.Zuiko Digital ED 25mm F1.2 PRO. It’s a happy medium between wide and telephoto, but the main reason is the shallow depth of field from the wide aperture. It helps to isolate my subjects from the background with beautifully blurred backgrounds.

The tips I have in this blog can be achieved with any gear, however, so if you’re still rocking a kit lens, you’ll still be able to get some great photos in these strange times we live in.

Working with windows 

I love shooting with natural light. It’s when I’m most connected with my subject because there’s far less technical stuff to think about and change. We might be in this lockdown for quite some time, so take the opportunity to study how the daylight changes throughout the day. If you have windows facing different directions in your home, you’ll get very different light due to the sun’s trajectory across the sky, and as we get closer to summer, this will continue to change.

Using a window as a light source is amazing as it is, but can also be modified to create different effects. A net curtain will soften the light coming through on a bright sunny day, whereas Venetian blinds will create horizontal stripes that can be used to dramatic effect.

Locations around the home 

Being housebound can present a challenge when looking for backdrops for portraits. It’s easy to dismiss the mundane when you’re surrounded in an environment that you’re used to seeing every day. With that being said, I’ve shot many editorials and campaigns in kitchens and editorials, so there’s no reason why your own home can’t provide interesting and unique visuals for your images.

As I mentioned earlier, windows are your friend when shooting around the home, but not everyone has big windows, and there are often a few rooms that lack natural light at all. If you have an extension lead, you can move a bedside table or desk lamp around as a light source. On camera, flash can help to create pop inside a bathroom, but if all you have is the recessed spotlights in the ceiling, try getting your subject to look up slightly to avoid creating dark circles under the eyes.

Finding models 

As photographers, you can only shoot what’s in front of you, and whilst we’re social distancing, your only subjects are likely to be the ones you live with. If you’re not lucky enough to be living with someone comfortable in front of the camera, it’s a good opportunity to practice what I believe is the most important skill for a portrait photographer… rapport. I always say that 95% of my job is not what I do with a camera, it’s what I do as a person. You’d be surprised how many celebrities are uncomfortable in photo shoots environments. Put them on a stage, or give them a script, and they come to life, but when it all becomes about them, suddenly it’s a different matter. So it’s our job as photographers to create the right environment for our subjects to feel at ease with the situation they’re in, to allow us to capture them in the most natural way possible.

Of course, some people live alone, in which case your best solution is to turn the camera around. Handheld selfies are the simplest option, but a tripod will allow you to create more interesting compositions. The beauty of Olympus’ camera range is that you can use the image share app as a remote control to see what your camera sees and to trigger the shutter. The image then appears on the screen allowing you to review it, and decide whether to take another or not.

The need for photography at this time 

Most people are ok indoors for a few days, but there’s the potential for this to continue for quite some time, so it’s important to keep as busy as possible. Additionally, this is an unprecedented worldwide event, that’s affecting all of us, which means it’s important to document. This is a time we will all look back on, so keeping a photographic journal is important, even if it’s just for yourself.

For those of us who make their living from photography, it’s vitally important that we maintain our skills while we’re unable to work. Whilst I believe photography is much like riding a bike, your skills do fade over time if they’re not flexed, and we all want to hit the ground running again once this is all over.

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