Portrait settings aren’t always the picture-perfect locations you desire, but if you want to sell your art to a discerning clientele, the end result better look it.
What do you do when you need to deliver creativity on demand but the setting is less than ideal?
Last year during the pandemic lockdown, Stacy Robeson spent a lot of time asking herself that question. Restricted to her suburban Chicago neighborhood, unable to work in a studio or meet clients, Robeson resolved to hone her processes to the point where she could create artistic results anywhere, in almost any conditions.
Photographers often allow themselves to slide into self-limiting beliefs, thinking they need certain elements, certain equipment to be able to create. Really, those are just excuses.
“In photography, there are so many stories we tell ourselves to excuse failures,” Robeson says. “We don’t have the latest gear, the right lens, an amazing setting. But you can create art with next to nothing.
All you need is a camera, a knowledge of light, and your own creativity. It doesn’t matter where you are. You just need to see the possibility in the mundane.”
To see that possibility, you have to look at things in different ways. If there are a million distractions in the background of your scene but you know how to create a magical portrait anyway, then the world is full of possibilities.
“If you can create something from nothing, then you can create anywhere,” says Robeson. “I realized this at the beginning of COVID. We were all locked down, not supposed to be venturing far away or seeing clients. My neighborhood is nothing special, just an average suburban experience with small yards, no extravagant landscaping. Wherever you turn, there’s going to be a house or a car in your line of vision. So, I never saw my own neighborhood as a place I could potentially use for photography. But then when COVID started, I realized I needed to look past my limitations. If I wanted to create, I had to be creative.”
She dug deep and reexamined her composition processes, challenging herself to find hidden but inspiring scenes and using her photography skills to selectively represent beauty wherever she could find it. Along the way, she developed a simple four-part plan for delivering wow-worthy results in just about any location.
1. Have a vision. Creating a vision for your portrait begins with understanding the subject. When you’re scouting a location, think about who you’re scouting for and what you’re planning to photograph. For example, a family is going to require a big spot, but a baby can fit next to something very small, like a little shrub growing out of the ground. “The world has too many possibilities, and it can be overwhelming if you don’t have a vision,” says Robeson. “You have to consider what you’re photographing and how you want to photograph it. Then you can find locations that work.”
2. Look for the light. “Learn to recognize beautiful light, and utilize a variety of types of lighting to make your portraits dynamic and engaging,” suggests Robeson. “Consider the possibilities offered by different lighting conditions or how you can sculpt the light for your style of photography.”
For example, Robeson typically looks for even lighting and avoids the complications caused by dappled light. She doesn’t like harsh highlights or deep shadows because they don’t work with the soft style of portraiture she creates. Still, those conditions sometimes present themselves, so when she has to shoot in dappled or extra bright lighting conditions, she uses scrims to eliminate the dappled effect and bring down bright highlights. Inexpensive and portable, scrims do a great job of evening out light and making many different lighting situations more manageable. You can even make one yourself with a shower curtain or white sheet.
Apps that Robeson uses to plan her outdoor sessions show the anticipated position of the sun for a specific location. Multiple apps will show you exactly what the sun will look like at a given time on a given day, so you can plan how to shoot a scene at a particular time of day.
3. Use creative angles. Look at your subject from every angle. Robeson recounted a photography school exercise where her instructor asked her to photograph a statue from 36 different angles, essentially forcing her to photograph a still object from 360 degrees. Portrait photographers should go through the same exercise at every location shoot, she says. Instead of photographing something straight on, walk around and consider all the possibilities. Sometimes, just by turning your camera slightly, you can create an image that’s a completely different scene. And if you do that enough, you train your brain to look at things in new ways, which will bring a new creative element to your photography.
When you’re trying to eliminate distracting details from the background of a shot, employ some background separation to highlight the most flattering components of your location and hide the distractions. Lens choice and depth of field are your best friends when separating subject from background.
4. Test your location. There are very few locations that you can’t make work if you’re flexible and look at things creatively. Robeson has done sessions next to dumpsters and portable toilets, and she captured one of her favorite portraits of all time next to two garbage cans.
Having a plan is essential. “I like to have a rough idea of what I’m going to be doing, and I like to test my light beforehand. I go to a location in advance at about the same time of day, walk around, look for interesting spots, take some pictures, and test the light.”
Especially when you’re working in an unconventional location, it pays to be ready when you get there. The light will always dictate how you use a space, but if you show up prepared and have a good grasp of how to shape light, you’ll be ready to adapt to most situations on the fly.
The very act of scouting locations helps you look at spaces in new and creative ways. Robeson is always looking for new locations, she says. She finds herself constantly stopping her car and taking pictures from the window. She might see something as seemingly ordinary as a patch of flowers in a parking lot, but she’ll stop, take a photo, and think about what a portrait session would look like in that location. “Even if you decide not to use a spot, it keeps your mind trained,” she explains. “If you can recognize it, then when you need to use that skill, you have it.”
If you can master this approach, you become that much more versatile as a photographer. You can’t control everything, especially when you’re working on location, but that doesn’t necessarily matter to clients. When they ask for a portrait on location, they expect you to create something high quality that falls in line with your portfolio. It’s important to be able to produce and apply your creative approach no matter the conditions.
If you’re selling portraits, clients are likely to buy more from you if you give them something a bit different than what they’ve seen elsewhere, says Robeson. “All you have to do is change your perspective a little, and you can produce something completely unique.”
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.