I never got into photography to photograph people.
The first time I picked up a camera, I spent an entire roll of film (yes, film!) photographing the rocks outside my childhood home. The shapes were interesting — the craggy rise and fall of the jagged edges that made small mountains for the ants living in macro. From there, I took a picture of anything that looked interesting: screws jutting out of power poles, leaves on trees, even the rooster and his hens wandering around the neighbourhood.
But never people. Not once.
That didn’t happen until sometime later, after I more than halfway through college and took a job as a sports photographer. Even after I graduated, when I (briefly) held a job as a school portrait photographer before moving to a traditional studio, I never really loved photographing people. I’d shoot portraits during the day, of course, but I’d hunt landscapes on days off and during vacations.
I ended up getting pretty good at it.
When I finally settled down and started photographing portraits the way I wanted to shoot them, I discovered that portraiture and landscapes aren’t so different. Shooting landscapes taught me a lot about photographing people, and it’s helped get me out of some tricky lighting situations. Here’s what I’ve learned during my transition from a landscape photographer to a wedding and portrait photographer.
1. The sun is still king.
Landscape photography is all about timing. Shooting in the late morning and early evenings gives you deep pinks, purples, reds, and yellows in the sky. That variety helps keep images interesting.
Those same rules apply in portrait photography. Midday light is harsh and unforgiving. If we’re shooting together, I’m looking for shade or hanging reflectors and diffusers everywhere to try and soften up the light. Even if I bring my own lights, it’s hard to overpower the sun.
Instead, it’s much easier to shoot later in the evening or earlier in the morning, when the light is low on the horizon and naturally softer. Finding a way to work the best natural light —no matter where the sun is hanging in the sky — is a great way to capture incredible portraits.
2. The background still matters.
Most landscapers will tell you that there’s nothing worse than an interesting landscape and a clear sky — and that’s true. It leaves a huge chunk of your composition completely devoid of anything interesting.
That’s also true in portrait photography, except that it works in reverse. No matter your subject, if the background is bland and uninteresting or too complex and busy, it’ll ruin the shot. It’s up to the photographer to find a way to properly frame and isolate a subject from a background. As a photographer, if I’m doing my job right and finding a way to include an interesting background into the shot, it makes for a magical image.
3. The eye still needs a focal point.
Landscape photographers use all sorts of things to guide the eye in landscapes and scenes. Whether it’s a bridge, a road, or the curvature of the rolling hills, a beautiful landscape needs something to pull the reader into it. While portrait photography has an advantage to it, those same rules and techniques still apply.
No matter how great the image, if there’s not a clearly defined subject for the eye to pick out, it’s easy for the details to get muddled together and for the photograph to be lost. If you’re asking yourself what I’m talking about, let me give you an example:
Take a look at the photo on the left. It’s not bad image. In fact, I’d say that it’s atheistically pleasing in many ways. But if you really study it, the scene is missing something. The way it’s shot begs for there to be something — someone, really — standing on that bridge and doing something interesting. Here’s a similar shot with a model standing on the bridge. She’s not doing anything but consider the difference just having someone in the scene gives the image a different personality and style.
4. The image still has to take you there.
For a lot of people, landscape photography evokes a sense of calm or a relaxation. That’s often why you see landscape images used as computer backgrounds or as pictures hanging around the home. Landscapes speak to a broad audience since it’s about the whole image rather than the people inside it. I’ve found that even though people connect with portraiture, they don’t do so as intimately unless they know the people inside the image.
That’s not to say that it can’t happen or that it shouldn’t. At the most basic level, the best images — portraits or landscapes — still connect at some level with the viewer and transport them into that world for just a moment.
For me, landscapes have always evoked a sense of wonder and adventure. I want to go to a place and climb the highest hill to get a good view and take it all in. With portraiture, it’s a little different. I still want to take it all in, but I want the view from the ground level. I want to be up close and personal, to capture that raw emotion on a granular level instead of going wide and capturing everything from far away.
5. Technical precision still matters . . . most of the time.
I’ve taken my fair share of terrible portraits and landscapes alike. Though the recipes are a little different when it comes to composition and post-processing, technical precision throughout the process still matters. It matters a lot.
An image that’s unintentionally out of focus is still ruined. An image that focuses on the wrong subject, is improperly lit, is poorly framed, or is subject to any number of compositional issues that photographers have to work around is still a ruined image.
But then, there are those other types of images. Those images that happening the moment, when everything might not be perfect — but the moment is more powerful than absolute, technical precision. For landscapes, that might happen when the sun comes over the horizon in an unexpected way. In portraits, it happens when nobody expects it — when the wedding party upstages the groom (by stealing his shoes, let’s say) or when someone cracks a joke and everyone laughs.
Images like that are powerful for a different reason. Maybe they aren’t technically perfect in every single aspect, but they’re a moment plucked out of time that can define the way someone remembers a life-changing event for the rest of their life.
If you’re looking for a photographer or just want to chat about this article, don’t hesitate to get in touch!