Things I learned from Analog Portrait photoshoots

So far, I photographed four models with experience ranging from low to moderate. I had to pose them either deliberately or they posed with little direction. I only used film cameras.

Here are some things I learned after doing these photoshoots.

  1. I missed focus on only a few frames, and only by a few centimenters. I must be more careful with portraits. This is where shooting with a single lens reflex camera triumphs over my twin lens camera.
  2. I don’t need to bring my Canon full-frame DSLR to the shoot at all. Frankly, I brought it for "insurance" in case I mess up the workflow with the TLR film camera which I didn't. I will carry the little Fujifilm X100F on the shoot to expose a challenging scene. Back in the day photographers would expose a polaroid to do this very thing.
  3. I should start the session with the Nikon FE 35mm camera. I can waste some film while I learn how the model takes direction and while the model learns how I give direction. This will prepare me before I start shooting with the Mamiya C220 medium format camera. Shooting with the Nikon FE will give the model quick, repetitive shots to habituate body positions, angles and expressions. Shooting with the Mamiya is slow and calculated. And expensive.
  4. I must start shooting three hours before sunset. I only need two hours for the shoot but the light changes very quickly in the last 45 minutes. The rapidly warming color temperature does not give me much room to control the feel of the shoot. Moreover, the diminishing natural light makes it increasingly difficult to find focus in the ground glass of the camera. Blurry shots are no fun.
  5. I must specify outfit choices with more detail. My casting call said: “I prefer simple outfits for this project, nothing too tight or shiny”. I changed it to say: “I prefer simple outfits for this project; nothing too tight, shiny or structured; solid colors over prints, colors could contrast with your skin and hair. Loose buttoned shirts, tanks, cropped tops, and spaghetti tops will work.”
  6. On that note, I should be more specific about the exact kinds of tops and bottoms over texts and emails with the model.
  7. I run out of poses after shooting three to four rolls. Thats 48 frames. An experienced model could get into more poses, and much faster. With practice I could take quicker shots when I get more efficient at positioning my camera and tripod, and focusing quicker.
  8. I've averaged 3 to 4 presentable shots out of every 12 — not too shabby!
  9. I can be less picky about the location. I tried shooting in Mead Botanical Garden in Winter Park, FL. I thought the picturesque gardens and boardwalks would help set the scene. We ended up shooting in front of the trees next to the parking lot. So, all I need is some open space that is safe and quiet, some shade (trees, walls, small buildings) and good exposure to light.
  10. I must try to add some space in the photographic frame around the model.
  11. I am trying to but I still can't make the case to purchase a single-lens-reflex medium format camera. My twin-lens-reflex has proved very predictable so far and I should get more familiar with it.
  12. I haven't set my mind on this yet, but I am leaning towards working with one model at a time instead of two or more.

Imitating Jan Scholz

Photoshoot with Sandy, 2012
Nikkormat, 135mm lens

Photography has taken me down several paths, one of which is portraiture with models. In 2012 I accompanied my friend Katie to her shoot with Sandy. This was my first shoot with a model. I had a five dollar Nikkormat with a color roll from Walgreens. Kirk gave me a 135mm lens. Katie helped pose Sandy and I got a decent photo or two out of the deal.

I upgraded to a DSLR the next year and booked a few models to photograph. Katie recommended I create a “mood board” so I did. I collected other peoples portraits that I liked on Tumblr and referenced it during the shoot. I even opened a casting call titled “Moody Portraits”. I had decent luck shooting this way for some time.

Over the years I added and added to this “mood board” and, well, there was no cohesive mood left. My photos became disconnected from any central idea. All my portraits in 2016 and 2017 reflected nothing more than an average mash of the mood board. Any photographer with a DSLR would get these shots. My “Moody Portraits” project was effectively dead.

I started photographing medium format in early 2018 and decided to dust off the old profile on Model Mayhem. I wanted to come up with a new project. This is when I discovered Jan Scholz’s work. He is based out of Belgium and like me holds a non-photography full-time job. His portraits are breathtaking. I later realized that he shoots only film in small, medium and large format.

Jan’s work gave me the idea for a project of my own. I built a new “mood board” with photos only from Jan.

 My current mood board; all photos by Jan Scholz

My current mood board; all photos by Jan Scholz

I made a list of the type of poses I liked the best, a list of angles of the head, placement of hair, line of sight and bends of joints, etc.. I wrote these down in index cards and I take them with me to a photo shoot. When we are stuck during a shoot, I pull out the index cards for a quick reference.

To be clear, I am not trying to copy Jan’s photos. I am only trying to imitate the feeling in his portraits while using my slow, deliberate style. Further, my choice of models, venue, camera/lens, and film choices all color my particular interpretation of this project.

Austin Kleon said it best: Steal like an artist

Aunt Carol's Portraits

I am reasonably satisfied by the trajectory my portraits are tracing so far. On one hand I am working with models who I have never met before. On another hand I am working with people with whom I have some kinship. As I follow this trajectory it becomes clearer that I must say something real and genuine through these portraits, and this real and genuine “thing” must come from me and I must project it into the portrait.

Aunt Carol on the side of the house
F4, 1/30 sec
Face: EV 10 1/3 placed in zone 7

I spent a Saturday afternoon taking Aunt Carol’s portraits. We photographed outside the house in which she and many many members of her family were brought up. For generations this house was a concrete waypoint as children and grandchildren grew up through countless Christmas, Thanksgiving, and graduation ceremonies. This is Granny’s house and Granny is gone. This house will be gone too someday.

Aunt Carol in the front lawn in direct sun
F5.6, 1/500 sec
Face: EV 15 placed in zone 7

I live nowhere close to the home in India where I grew up. I have fond memories of my time living in Jacksonville in a cave of an apartment. Over time I have left these homes to build a renewed sense of home somewhere else. I have lost something in the trade but also gained something new. This was on my mind when I asked Aunt Carol for portraits. I wanted to capture this sliver of time in Aunt Carol’s life that will become a memory once she transitions into a new place of her own.

Aunt Carol on the side porch
F4, 1/30 sec
Face: EV 10 1/3 placed in zone 7

Now, on to some technical details. I shot this with Portra 160 on my Mamiya C220 medium format camera. I like the colors of this film over its 400 speed version. Choice of venue is an ingredient to which I must pay more attention. I find it is easier to establish my idea in the portrait when people are in their own familiar space. I will have to test this hypothesis before I draw any firm conclusions.

I will eventually settle down with black and white film — my new home — but I am enjoying this journey with color film while I get there.

Coming into focus

My portrait project, like many ideas, was a jumbled blob of thought for years. I have struggled to bring that idea into sharp focus in the last few years. There was a small period of time in 2013 when I enjoyed shooting documentary style portraits and those photographs continue to draw my eye.

Some old photos:

I am consciously bringing back the essence of that time that clicked with my style so well. The portraits are unhurried, taken in a comfortable environment, and not posed for any specific expression. In fact, the expressions are natural and genuine which gives room for the viewer to project their own feelings upon the photos.

Two weeks ago I asked Uncle Bill if he would sit for me and he agreed. We took some photos in and around his house. Uncle Bill bought this house a few years ago and is slowly growing into it. I wanted to capture a sense of independence and affirmation.

Uncle Bill, Overcast afternoon
Neck: EV 10 2/3 placed in zone 6
f2.8, 1/250 sec

It rained that afternoon. The light was poor but we made it work. I shot Portra 400 on my Mamiya C220. Outdoors, I exposed the neck in zone 5; indoors, I put the bright side of his face in zone 7 and crossed my fingers. We shot at 1/30 second at times and the photos came out sharp enough. I did miss the focus on two frames.

Uncle Bill, indoor next to a sliding door
Bright side of face  is EV 9 placed in zone 7
f2.8, 1/60 sec

Here are some lessons I learned in no particular order.

  1. I need a proper tripod
  2. I must pay close attention to the lean of the head and position of the arms. Twelve frames are all I have.
  3. I should just ask people to sit for me
  4. I want to shoot 100 speed film, 50 speed if possible. 400 speed has too much grain for my taste
  5. I want to shoot more people in their homes or studios

My portrait idea continues to become less blurry, the edges are coming into focus. If you or someone you know want to sit for me for an hour or so, drop a line.

Showing, not telling

Friday, noon. Four of us were on our way to lunch. Someone asked me if I liked the book he had recommended. Friday lunch is to decompress and we are normally frank with each other. I said, “It wasn’t written well”.

I am no judge of English literature. But it was Friday lunch and I was asked for a judgement. There it was.

A good novelist once invited me to find awareness of the difference between showing and telling. I am a slow reader; my mind frequently wanders around the prose while I gaze between the folds of the pages. Years passed since that invitation and years of reading while aimlessly wandering seems to have helped me spot novels that show versus those that tell.

Below are the beginning lines from two novels. See if you can tell.



The first excerpt paints a beautiful picture that slowly comes into focus. I can’t wait to read further. The second sort of spoils the ending. This chapter continues telling what’s going on with Nicholas’ life. I didn’t read past the first chapter so I don’t know if this was really a spoiler but I don’t feel like finding out.

The first is like sipping a beautiful wine. The second is like chugging lager.

It is not only a matter of taste; it is a question of appetite.