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