Refining Your Style

Compelling Portraits Far From Home

By Jeffery Jay Luhn Back to

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Getting great travel portraits is an acquired skill, one that I’m still refining after more than 40 years as a commercial photographer. I’m happy to say that I’ve made more progress with it in the last 10 years than in the previous three decades. Much of the improvement has come from the ability to review photos on the LCD while I’m shooting, allowing me to refine the image during the session.

In the old days I gave my exposed rolls to a courier at a foreign airport in exchange for another brick of film. I got my critiques over the phone from a cigar smoking photo editor in San Francisco.

“Get closer! Concentrate on dramatic lighting. I want more angles!” Of course he already had the Kodachromes on his light table and a reshoot was out of the question. I never saw the final images unless someone back home bought the magazine for me. It’s difficult to refine your style under those conditions.

Today, getting great location portraits is easier than it was 30 years ago because you get multiple chances to finalize your image. That newfound power is best used when it counts most, while you’re shooting. Your digital camera will do the heavy lifting when it comes to exposure calculations, allowing you to concentrate on other skills like setting up the subject and composing the image− actions in front of the lens, not inside of the camera.

Briefly stated, the introduction of yourself to your subject is more important than your camera settings. The gruffly delivered advice I got from my first editor still rings true: “Kid, get their confidence and then get their picture.”

Jeffery Jay Luhn, travel photography, portraits
Father Michel, Israel 2011. I identified this great location in the doorway of a church across the street from the first Station-of-the- Cross in Jerusalem. I did some test shots and when I was satisfied with my result, I asked several subjects to pose. Father Michel, pictured here, turned out to be the best subject. He was delighted with the photos I sent to him.

Here are the rules:
· You can’t trick someone into giving you their confidence.
· Honest and compelling photos of people are taken by honest and compelling photographers.
· People like friendly photographers.
· You have to feel friendly to be friendly, and you have to be friendly to look friendly.

I don’t hide behind dumpsters with a long lens to get my best portraits. A subject must be in close range to collaborate with them. For me, the ideal distance is two arm lengths. We should be able to touch fingertips. From this distance your smile will relax your subject’s facial muscles and help them to take a less defensive stance.

When I see an interesting person, I observe them from a distance of about eight or ten feet. I make eye contact, and smile. If they don’t like me, I can feel it right away and I move on. If they smile back I use hand signals and facial expressions to wordlessly ask the question, “May I take your photo?”

This approach works almost anywhere in the world, but it takes practice. If you can’t walk up to a street musician in Memphis and pose him, you’ll never be able to get a good shot of a rug salesman in Jerusalem. If you’re shy, practice your ap- proach in a mirror, and then try it on a friend. Work up to a local farmers market and then go to an outdoor concert or political rally. There’s no magic bullet, you have to rehearse your moves to get into the game.

I begin a typical session by taking a photo from about 10 feet away and then moving in closer. People usually take up a stance that’s straight on to the camera, so I coax my new friend into a better pose by moving the camera right, left, up or down. If your collaborator trusts you, they’ll move their face, but their body will stay in place. Moving to the side, you solve the ‘straight-on’ posing problem.

After I take another picture I move closer and compose the next shot. Here’s the important moment: I hold the camera in place while I peek around so my subject can see my eyes. This third photo is usually my best. The process of getting three or four shots takes about two minutes.

Jeffery Jay Luhn, travel photography, portraits
Sri Lanka 1988. This young girl was quite interested in me while I photographed people lining up to buy fish on the beach. I lowered my camera angle so her head was above the line of people in the background and moved to my left until she had a perfect Rembrandt lighting pattern. I got a few serious shots and then she started laughing and ran off to help her mother and sisters with their purchases.

When I make a good photograph of someone, I want him or her to have it. I ask, “email?” If they nod, “yes,” I write the frame number of their image down on my business card and give it to them. This is more of a courtesy than anything else, because most people forget about me when my note goes through their washing machine. If the image is particularly good, I ask for their email and write it down so I can contact them. After they get their photos by email, I ask for their permis- sion to use it in my classes and articles. Note: If you take good photos and distribute them freely, your photography and your life will improve.

There are billions of interesting people in the world. Unfortunately many will be in poor light when you meet them. Here are a few solutions for this problem:

1. Get to know your subject by taking a few shots and then ask them to move into better light. Usually it’s just a matter of moving them into the shade, turning them away from the sun or having them face a window or open door. This takes 30 seconds or less.

2. While searching for subjects make a mental note where lighting and backgrounds are especially appealing—under an overhang, inside of an archway or near a large window. Bring your subject to that spot, or wait there and invite an interesting person to pose as they pass by. If barkers can entice people into restaurants or bars, you can get them to pause for a picture. I do it all the time.

3. Eliminate bright elements in the background by moving the camera, the subject, or cropping tightly. This will ensure a proper exposure.

4. Always use RAW for maximum quality, control of color balance and increased dynamic range.

5. Short depth of field is your friend. Choose a wide aperture and a fast shutter speed, even at the expense of high ISO settings.

I hope you benefit from this short primer. Once you put these techniques to work, you’ll develop your own approaches. Please remember to share your photos with your subjects. If you do, your work will be more satisfying and it will make it easier for the rest of us to get a good reception when we approach people in foreign lands.

Resources: Cameras: Nikon D-300; Lens: Nikon 12-24 zoom; Other: Photoflex 32″ LiteDisc®


About the Author

Jeffery Jay Luhn
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Jeffery Jay Luhn began his career as a small town newspaper photographer while attending the photo program at Laney College, Oakland, CA. He later graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography and shot for United Press International in Asia and Latin America. Jeffery founded a studio in San Francisco and for 30 years did studio and editorial shooting. Client list and photo galleries can be viewed at www.LuhnPhoto.com.