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When your subject runs away: Portraits 101

A couple weeks ago, Chris challenged my new found photography skills with a human portrait assignment. I was to venture out into the public and convince strangers to let me take their picture for no other reason than to practice. Being a bit of a wallflower, the task made my stomach churn every time I thought about it. But, there wasn’t any use in procrastinating, so I packed up my camera and headed to the one place I thought would have willing participants: the local farmer’s market.

When I arrived the market was brimming with life. Everywhere I looked I saw smiling people biting into strawberries, stuffing asparagus in their reusable bags, trying on jewelry, taste-testing pesto, and enjoying life in general. This was the place to be a portrait photographer. Taking a deep breath I descended on the crowd.

Apparently, all it takes for a person to switch from friendly and welcoming to terror-stricken and furious is the promise of having a camera in their face. It didn’t matter how soft I spoke or how many times I smiled or how interested I was in their merchandise, the conversation was always the same…

Me: I’m studying photography and I have been given an assignment to take portraits. Would you be interested in being one of the subjects for my assignment? None of the photos would be published online. This is only practice.

Victim: No thank you. I’m working. I don’t have time.

Me: Oh, actually, these portraits are working portraits. You wouldn’t need to stop working, I would just be in the background-

Victim: No. Please go away.

The real kicker was when I approached a fruit stand and asked the owner if he would let me take a few pictures of him while he was working. I expressed that the pictures were for my class assignment and they wouldn’t be published. His face immediately darkened and I braced myself for another rejection. “No. I do not want my picture taken… but ask those guys,” he said pointing to two other men working in the same booth. “They might go for it.”

Moving from the oranges to the strawberries, I asked the next guy if he would allow me to practice taking portraits. He had the same reaction but he told me that the next employee would be happy to help. Thinking I had caught a break, I hurried to the end of the stand where the third employee was unpacking blueberries.

About three seconds into my question, I realized that the new guy didn’t speak a single word of English. He looked at me blankly. I turned to the second employee who translated for me in Spanish. The man still looked confused. I took a picture of the blueberries with my camera and showed him. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up. I pointed at the camera and then at him. He slowly nodded, still confused. I lifted the camera up to my face to take a picture of him but all I could see was the white tent in the background. He had dropped the crate of blueberries and taken off running. The other two men in the booth laughed hysterically. So much for that.

Just when I was about to give up, I passed a young woman who was singing and playing guitar. Her voice was calming and I decided to stay and listen for a while. After she finished her song, I struck up a conversation and eventually asked if I could take her portrait.

To my delight and astonishment she was all about it.  

For the next ten minutes I swarmed around her taking pictures from every angle. I hovered over her shoulder, crouched in front of her guitar, stuck the camera inches from her face and she never blinked an eye. She was the perfect subject. Her bright pink sweater, floral tattoos and golden sunglasses made for a colorful and challenging session as far as my novice photography skills went, but in the end, the shoot was a thrilling success. After the shoot, she gave me permission to publish my photos on Immersion’s site (you can bet there was dancing after hearing that).

So, what did I learn?

  • Technical techniques are only half the battle when taking portraits.
  • Knowing how to ask related questions in other languages is helpful.
  • Charm is much harder to wield when holding a camera.
  • This won’t get any easier without practice.    

Thank you Apryle Dalmacio for your support, understanding and patience.


Apryle Dalmacio

Inland Empire Music Awards Best Female Artist. If you like good music and are in the Inland Empire area, check in with Apryle to see where she is playing. Her first album will be released on June 30th at the Riverside Fox Theater at 7pm.

June 19, 2014

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