As portrait photographers many of us strive for making pictures with lots of wow and oomph. In order to do that, we trek to fancy locations, use loads of fancy gear and process our pictures using expensive software. In many cases, all this fancy stuff does not lead to better photographs, but instead hampers creativity and locks us down. In this article, I will share tips on how to create marvellous pictures in your own neighborhood on minimal gear, unleash your creativity and maybe even win a friend in the process.
So let’s go back to basics and examine how great portrait photography can be done with minimal equipment and natural light only, no flash, no reflector, no assistant, no tripod, no tethering, no MUA, no stylist, no mood board. Only a camera and you. You are the key to creativity, not your gear. All of the pictures in this post were taken with a Nikon D610, a Sigma 105mm OS DG lens and processed in Lightroom only, showing that you can achieve many different looks with the relatively basic equipment if you can be bothered to work a bit with it. This is not a discussion about equipment, but I would argue that you could easily do the same type of pictures with a crop sensor camera and a 50mm f1.8 lens.
The vast majority of my pictures are shot within 500 meters of my own house. Not only is it much easier to lug gear around this way, but I have also found that any neighborhood has near-infinite possibilities just waiting to be explored. Go scouting in your own neighborhood with a camera and try to imagine what the different spots can look like. Go to the same places at different times of day or at night. Challenge yourself to create five different looks in the very same spot. This picture was shot in a nearby shopping mall that has a strange, empty area in one of the top floors with bright, white walls and large windows. I have been there many times before and after this shoot, creating many different looks and styles. It is like a free studio and I would never have discovered it, if I thought good locations are only found in far away, exotic locations.
A major upside of using natural light is that you trade control for speed. So you let go of the control you have with strobes and what you get instead is a much smaller setup which in many cases consists of a camera and perhaps a reflector. This is not only lighter to lug around but it is also faster to set up which means you can blend in and shoot in locations where they would normally not allow you to. You are quick and you look like a tourist. This picture was taken on a walkabout with a model. We passed by a hotel with a doorway where the light fell in a great way. Had I been using strobes, I would have to set them up first, security would have come running and the shot would never have happened. Using natural light only, I would quickly place the model optimally and take the shot. About 20 clicks in two minutes and this was one of them.
Most people are friendly. They really are, especially if you are friendly yourself. They also like to help other people, especially if helping means that they can see you appreciate the help and maybe even get a smile from a pretty girl in the process. This picture was taken at a nearby iconic building that never allows photography for reasons that are beyond me. Anyway, on the day of this shoot I walked by the iconic building with the model and the light under the buildings columns was amazing so it was hard to ignore it. I carried the usual one camera and nothing else so it probably did not look like much. I asked the model to sit down at a great spot and I asked the guard if it was ok we snapped a few photos; something that would definitively be rejected under normal circumstances. But the guard must have been surprised by our boldness because instead of kicking us out, he helped keeping people away from area which would normally be packed with people and we got more than ten minutes of perfect shooting time thanks to the guard. Afterwards, I duly thanked the guard and I am sure he felt he did something good that day.
Some of the best expressions on models’ faces can be caught when they think you are not looking. Maybe they are contemplating something, thinking about yesterday or whatever, but they will be showing plenty of interesting expressions when sitting in their own little world for a moment. Even experienced models relax more between shots so one simple technique is to click when they don’t expect it. Or tell them that it is just test shots that will not be used. They will forgive you afterwards when they see how great the shots are. This is one of the advantages of natural light shooting. You are not relying on the model being in a particular spot for the light to work out so you can just click. This shot was taken when the girl took a quick break between shots as we were waiting for some people to pass by. When they were out of my frame, and before the girl was getting ready, I got this one, by far the best of the set.
Shooting in natural light can be a blessing and a pain because in spite of weather forecasts, you never know what the light will be like when the shoot begins. So it means that more than anything you should be prepared for changes. This photo was planned to be a high-key shoot at a white-tile-covered building close to where I live. Minutes after the model arrived, heavy clouds rolled in and it started raining. So there was much less light which meant I had to shoot wider aperture than planned and higher ISO. On the other hand I quickly realised that it also meant that the light was much softer so we went for a smoother, softer look to the pictures instead. A quick change to the camera settings and a couple of test shots convinced me that is was going to work out just fine. Being prepared for changes also means that you must be able to “read” light and see how you can work with it instead of against it. For most of us that road goes through lots of shooting and lots of mistakes.
Tips by Thomas Starlit
I love gear for photography. I really do. I am sure you do too. But sometimes the gear gets in the way of creativity, and it is time to go back to the roots. I hope you have picked up a few ideas from this article and will join me on the journey towards more creativity and – perhaps – a bit less gear.