“Once I allowed my style to become consistent, things started happening”… Timothy Allen, master portrait photographer
Upon hearing that I was traveling to remote Wales to attend a weekend masterclass on how to photograph people led by photographer and filmmaker, Timothy Allen, a friend of mine noted, “but you already take great portraits!“.
My response was simple – The day I stop learning as a photographer is the day I end my career.
Sure, I’m happy to have found my own visual voice as a photographer, but I can always learn from others. I can always compare how they approach the world and their own subjects, and see how mine differs.
So, before I go on, let me tell you a bit about Timothy Allen… He was the award-winning photographer behind BBC’s legendary Human Planet series and has worked with high profile publications from the Sunday Telegraph to the Independent and many more in between. He also won the highly coveted Travel Photographer of the Year award.
In addition to regular appearances on TV and radio, he also runs expeditions to places like Mongolia and his 2017 adventure across the Siberian Arctic was captured by a documentary film crew for Discovery’s Animal Planet Channel.
He is a master of single source lighting.
Needless to say, I was excited to sign up for his summer portrait photography workshop held in Hay-on-wye, Wales, and which later took us deep into Brecon Beacons National Park to experience the remote Llanthony Rodeo Show. Beyond the opportunity to return to Wales (it had been too long), I was looking forward to learning under the wings of a master of light.
The goal of the two day workshop on how to photograph people was to teach us all aspects of Timothy’s style of photography. From how he creates them to how he edits them. To start off, Timothy gave each of us an in-depth and very public review of a sample portfolio we each sent to him.
Here is the selection of images I sent to him for his frank review:
After reviewing my portfolio, his critique was frank. I use way more color saturation than he does (which is okay because that’s my own visual voice), but the most important feedback was that I had good intimate contact with the people I was photographing. It was very evident in all my people photos, he said.
Even with that Siberian husky too, he noted humorously. I was so glad that he caught that in my images – intimacy and connection.
His singular advice to me was this:
“Lola, when you match intimacy with epicness, you become a master portrait photographer.”
Tips I learned on how to photograph people
“The best version of everything frozen in time in a single image creates an epic shot”…Timothy Allen
There are some of the best tips on how to photograph people I learned from him. Many of these are a reaffirmation of what I already knew but it’s always great to get those reminders from master portrait photographers. Especially since I am a self-taught photographer.
Tip 1 – Go when no one else will
The rarest pictures are the best. Go at times when no one else will. This is also why we photographers love getting up early or staying out late for those extra special light moments. This helps you maximize your chances of shooting in great light.
Tip 2 – Think about the elements of a great photo
When creating a portrait, always have the following picture elements in the back of your mind: Light, , Intimacy, Color, Action, Irony, Humor, Composition, Significance, Decisive moment
Tip 3 – Time and acknowledgement go hand-in-hand
You can actually engineer the situation so people want you to take their photo by the end of the day. This often starts with acknowledgement and requires time. Things I’ve been preaching forever. Always go for more interesting portraits by asking and spending more time. Why not honor them by giving them a proper setup with a really lovely portrait? It also makes people feel special.
Tip 4 – Eye contact is everything – if you can get it.
Eye contact is the root into your photo. When you lose eye contact, you lose the connection to who they are. When you don’t have eye contact, you should replace that with emotion or feeling.
How to photograph people with a single source of light
Besides photographing the rodeo (more below), the main reason I attended this workshop was to learn how Timothy creates his atmospheric portraits with a single light source. The source could be natural streams of sunlight to a low burning fire or even smoke from a kettle. Enough to change the mood of a portrait photo and create a more epic shot.
So, that weekend we worked with “models” – his intern and his wife – and he positioned them by a window cracked open slightly to get a little bit of light resting on their face.
That small crack of light transformed the entire portrait and it got me thinking about how I can apply this on the road while traveling and if I can spend enough time with my subjects to reposition them in front of the light source.
Here are just a few of the portraits I created using his signature style of using that single source of light.
- Should I keep my camera in the bag or bring it out?
- Should it be an environmental portrait?
- Can I relocate or reposition people?
- Would it be good to pay in any way?
- Could I spend the day with my subject?
- Could I hang with them for a week?
You can view more single light photo session portraits in the gallery below.
One of the highlights of the workshop experience was attending the Llanthony Horse Rodeo Show in remote Wales. This offbeat, rather obscure rodeo brings together local horsemen and women in the Llanthony Valley (Brecon Beacons National Park) within the remote Black Mountains of Wales.
Here are some great portraits from my weekend in Wales from learning how to photograph people like Timothy Allen and applying them at the rodeo.
And to top it all off, I won the 2018 Best Shot of the Weekend Award – a highly coveted solid pewter engraved trophy!