Portraits Without a Studio

By Roger (26 February 2017)

Humans have a long history of making portraits, with all sorts of tools. Photographers began adding to this history as soon as the camera was invented. Portrait photography began as a stiff pose (because of the long exposure times required), in front of a very controlled background.

As film became more responsive and artificial lighting was improved, portraits were easier to make, but the general environment didn't change much. You made an appointment with the photographer's front office; got all dressed up; and went into a separate building, with big (hot) lights. If you were a kid, you knew this was important to your parents, but you felt intimidated by the stranger behind a big chunk of metal and glass. Your parents would joke with you; cajole you; and/or threaten you to achieve the desired “natural smile.” (OK, I may be painting the scene with an over-dramatic brush....)

To be clear, the portraiture I'm describing is a deliberate event to make a person's photograph. We're not talking about great photos of people that happened because an alert photographer, saw a special pose, background, or lighting, and happened to use his camera to capture that moment in time.

Many years ago, I had full access to a nice studio, with tall ceilings, lots of seamless paper choices, big lights, and modifiers. We made mostly formal portraits because that's what clients expected back then. We had room to create unique sets for portraits when we wanted to stretch a little.

Lots of seamless paper and bright lights

Today, however, most people aren't making many trips to the photographer's studio. People don't want to take the time to travel to a studio; they think those sessions are too expensive; or they're more comfortable in relaxed environments. Everyone has a camera on their phones and too many think a snapshot is “good enough.” There are many and varied reasons the old idea of a portrait studio is fading, but studios are suffering from the lack of business.

Regardless, people still want portraits – formal and otherwise. If you want to make nice portraits, but don't want to pay for a studio, you need to move in a different direction. You need to be able to make photos wherever you find your subjects and ensure the quality is comparable to the studios of olden days. This is much easier and less expensive than you might think.

To be fair, there have always been photographers who needed to make portraits away from a formal studio. Wedding photographers might make pre-ceremony studio photos of the bride (as above), but had to make on-venue photos during the wedding. Model and family photographers traveled to various location shoots and brought their lighting with them. You can adopt their methods when you want to make a deliberate portrait.

The equipment list doesn't have to cost you an arm and a leg. With the quality of today's cameras, you don't have to worry about its ability to create a portrait. You want good quality lenses, but that doesn't always mean the most expensive. I recommend some lights and modifiers, but, again, you don't have to spend a fortune. White sheets, in front of windows, can produce a very nice softbox. The only requirement would be practice, to learn how to best use your equipment and produce consistent effects.

Front yard, with flash and softbox

Useful locations can be found almost anywhere, especially if you're shooting tight. Think your photo through and pay attention to your viewfinder. You want to inspect it to see what to include or exclude. In the shot below, you can see I had my granddaughter stand in front of a narrow window panel, by our front door. You can see the dining room table (cluttered, of course) behind her. I moved closer for the final shot, for a cleaner background and easier post-processing.

Inside, with window light only

I made another portrait with her sister, on the other side of the door, taking advantage of the lines of the door panels. They provided more interest, without being a distraction. These photos were taken less than six feet apart but look totally different. The only lighting tool used was a reflector for the second shot.

Outside, with reflector

I like to keep the portraits simple, with few distractions that move the viewers eyes away from the subject. However, that doesn't always mean you need to shoot tight. Even simple backgrounds can help your composition. In the photo below, the horizontal and vertical lines echo the couple's pose and guide your eyes directly to the subjects.

Outside, with flash and reflector

You would be right to point out that I violated a couple of composition “rules” in the portrait of the Native American fighter, from the Battle of New Orleans Bicentennial. He's centered and the wood line cuts across the middle of the photo. It works in this portrait because of the symetry and balance of the subject. The 4x5 crop increases this feeling. The background is blurred, but it's easily identifiable as foliage. You may disagree, but I think this is a case where violating the rules works to my portrait's advantage.

Outside, with reflector

We all like to mix things up a bit, now and then. When you begin to complicate the portrait, you will find more little problems that need to be fixed. For this last photo, the sun was on the opposite side of the B&B. The lamp certainly wasn't bright enough to sufficiently illuminate her face. I used a flash, on the inside and on low power, to fix that. There were obnoxious reflections on the window, over parts of her face, but a slight upturn of the camera took care of those. I needed to adjust her skin tone to reduce the color shift from the orange room. I experimented with cropping out the lamp, but, in the end, I think it adds more than it detracts.

Outside, shooting in, flash

We've talked post-processing in previous posts, so I won't dwell on that here. I put some effort into skin tones and removing obvious blemishes, but I'm not a fan of over-processing the skin. Any stray distractions in the background are removed. I usually just brush in sharpening around important features, like the eyes, rather than global sharpening. And, then it's done.

I still enjoy going to studios when I get the chance, but you don't have to have a dedicated building to make nice portraits. You control what the viewers see in your final photo, and, with practice, you can make a portrait almost anywhere . The results are all that matter to your subject.

You will be surprised how much you can do when you get into the portable studio mode. There are even books covering the subject. One of the best is Nick Fancher's Studio Anywhere (link), if you'd like to go more in-depth. Nick goes into great detail on his portraits, with light diagrams and equipment descriptions. Give him a read.