Lessons in portraiture, on location

Identity and self-representation were key themes for Brighton Photo Biennial 2016, with the influences of fashion and style photography clearly at play. Unsurprisingly, this had great appeal to our visiting Year 12 and 13 photography students who, to add to the mix, had recently been inspired by a visit from Tom Oldham. These students were looking for jam on their toast; no wonder our jaunt along the coast led to a surge in portraiture work.

This post shares some portrait-related insights from a great weekend away.


Millie and Sophie, fabricating photography in Fabrica

Our first evening was spent experimenting with fashion photography. On residential trips, night time shoots are a great opportunity to develop technical and collaborative skills…


Katrina and Julia, hat sharing, by Gabe

And even though our two days were crammed with exhibition visits, we still took the opportunity to stage photos in the gallery spaces. With great lighting, hard edges, plenty of room, white walls (or bright yellow even)…it would have seemed amiss not to.


Paul, thinking Benjamin Clematine, by Chloe


And then, Brighton itself. What a gift for photography students. The obvious challenge – amongst the funkiness of the lanes – is not to be drawn into taking photographs of the stereotypical. But then again – for students visiting for the first time, some newly challenged to photograph strangers  – why not? Interesting characters abound, and (safety briefing delivered) students should mingle, chat and negotiate portraits. It’s all about practice and developing confidence.


Brighton street portraits, by Paul

I’m certainly no expert, but here’s a few lessons learned through our portrait-related experiences. (If others have further thoughts to add, please do so via the comment boxes below):

  • If using costumes (easily sourced from charity shops) let the students experiment beforehand with different looks. This can be a good laugh but also, importantly, alleviates some of the self-consciousness (and sheer excitement) of dressing-up, which saves time (and larking about) when on location.


Evie and Kayleigh, studio experiments in preparation for the trip, inspired by The Dandy Lion Project

  • Students definitely respond better if the challenge is treated professionally rather than as a simple activity or game. With this in mind, choose groups carefully, balancing confidence levels, technical understanding and so on. An element of competition can also help, as can setting a clear time limit.
  • Lighting is obviously a key factor. An alternative to expensive portable studio lights are LED portable lights, which for us proved invaluable. White fabric or white paper can help to soften and diffuse these further. A reflector panel, large white paper, or even a large tray covered with tin foil, can also help to fill-in light and make subtle adjustments. Existing ambient lighting – street lamps, car headlights, shop lights, and so on – can also offer possibilities. Mobile phone lights too can be used to ping a little more light onto details.


  • Let the group simply observe a stationary model whilst subtle adjustments are made with lighting. This is excellent for developing observational skills and light sensitivities. Consider ‘temperature’ and how various lights may warm or cool; how photographs can be composed through strong contrasts and shadows; or how directed lighting can isolate or bring into play various elements – shapes, outlines, textures, colours, and so on.
  • Ensure students are using full manual settings, continually developing their understanding of their cameras. At this point of the year, new year 12s should be familiar with aperture and shutter speed. It’s good timing to reinforce further considerations, such as ISO settings, white balance and using a fill-in flash.


Julia’s portraits (of visitors to Ewen Spencer’s ‘Kick over the statues’ show) illuminated with the help of a mobile phone light

  • For photographer or model, self-consciousness can be debilitating: fears of making mistakes, wasting time, or simply looking silly have compromised many a shot. For a young photographer, practice and preparation is essential – using cameras in various lighting conditions; working under pressure; thinking hard about what they want to achieve; looking carefully at the work of others, questioning why something works or not…all of this can help greatly.

But student photographers also need to develop an affinity with their subject, to know how to manage and manipulate too. The answers to this certainly aren’t on Pinterest. Good portrait photographers are inquisitive and curious – ask lots of questions; put yourself in your subject’s boots.




Briony and Julia, in boots, by Gabe. Taken in University of Brighton’s Edward Street gallery. A great space for photography.

  • Movement, energy, spontaneous moments can all help to break up a flat or contrived composition. Simple suggestions might be:
    • Create a sense of urgency, rather than letting moments of awkwardness brew. Put the emphasis on the model: “10 different faces. go!”; “When I shout change, create an awkward body shape / a different position / a new movement…”

    Year 12 Seb captures Katrina and Julia tussling

    • Consider viewpoints and the use of space within the frame. E.g. empower the model by looking up at them, or emphasise vulnerability by surrounding with space; can the edges of the photo come into play? Can the model interact with the boundaries of the image? Pay attention to the negative spaces and shapes created…
    • Continue to photograph informally  – simply when chatting and preparing. Alternatively, throw in a complement, a random prop, instruction, a bit of humour even…experiment with provoking movement or expression (go on, crack a joke, what can go wrong?)
  • For street portraiture pair students up (consider confidence levels and experience). It might also help to focus on a particular approach, be it more formal, objective or collaborative, or more stylised or vernacular.  Define a time limit and the physical space/boundaries to work within, provide a mobile number (just in case of any problems), then set them free. They will inevitably return full of stories and excitement. Hopefully with some great images too.


Brighton trip 2016

Thanks to all students and staff that came on the trip, it was lots of fun. Looking forward to seeing more images this week too!

For a great portrait exercise with students you might wish to try this.


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