Approaches to making portraits of strangers

One of the ambitions I see for photo enthusiasts heading out to me in Morocco is the desire to make interesting photos of people in the country. This is not always the case, many photographers have no wish to photograph strangers on a point of principle or are too shy to try. Each country or culture has different views about photography but a portrait by its nature is universal in its approach; one that demands the willing participation of the sitter. Street photography is a very different kettle of fish. So here are my thoughts on how I go about getting good portraits on location with people who are not professional models.

High Atlas nomads

The above is from a series completed during two trips in 2017 which I made with a guide. I had decided from the outset to mostly exclude context, due to the difficulty of working with lighting contrast, amidst a background of washed out rocky mountains. Contextual vista images showing scale and subject proximity, are great photos to get but they take considerable time on location; scouting and waiting for the right conditions. An approach that requires camping out in the wilderness. Instead I decided to make more intimate portraits which would also show subjects engaged with the portrait process. So many photos of nomads show them nonplussed and disengaged. Moreover, I looked to get smiling women to convey what was a shared interaction. To generate these responses I kept the process light hearted. The women are naturally joyful when they meet new people, but can stiffen when the camera appears, so it’s really about winding those responses back.

Basing an approach on limitations

Lighting and background are two key factors that determine the success of your images. A sunny environment can play havoc with your contrast settings, so it’s important to find a more subdued backdrop. The flip side is that finding a key light is often not an issue. In more northern climates, background distractions are still to be controlled but more often it’s finding adequate light to separate the subject from the overall scene. Reflectors and a fill-in use of flash can both be useful, but they can limit spontaneity, so practice a little with this set-up so it doesn’t hamper you engagement with the subject and your technical control of the camera. With sufficient natural light, I prefer to use reflected light off surfaces which can work successfully in different ways.

Young women 

It’s often been said that the ideal subjects are young women and old men. Hopefully we’ve moved a bit beyond this in our photographic thinking, but there’s little doubt that both can exude bags of charm.  Aside dealing with background and contrast, this is essentially about developing a rapport, directing and exploring options. After getting consent, it’s about finding a lighting set-up and backdrop which works. If a house interior or yard is basic then a dark backdrop works well enough using a reflected key light off the ground, or through a window.

Strategies for getting what I have in mind 

Shooting before and after ‘the moment’ is one way of injecting some informality in your set-up. Signalling when it’s the right time for them to focus on the camera and pose feels natural to the occasion and gives you as the photographer an insight into how they present themselves. From here you can gauge the tone you really want. By further indicating when to rest momentarily, you can then see this fall away of expression and continue shooting to get something natural. You may find subjects too emotionally flat, too serious or indeed too smiley or fake when they are posing so try to modulate this.

Musicians lit from windows

This was about creating a mood of the interior world both literally and metaphorically. Photographed across several trips in three different rooms, I would quickly scope out a subject and a potential window. Each shot was a juggling act balancing highlights, shadows, depth of field (DOF), shutter speed, and focus point. Small movement and adjustments in their posture as people came in to talk to them would require a tripod reset. For subjects that are dressed in white, it can be difficult to have consistency of colour across a set. Processing work on individual images over months or years means that each RAW file is individually interpreted based on creative tastes at that time. Only afterwards when the series is gathered is when the final adjustments need to be made.

Choosing subjects and making sure you like them

For whatever portrait photography you choose to make, it’s important that you feel a connection with your subject, either you like the visual sense of them or indeed you admire them as a person. Through making an image, you should build on those initial responses; it should be the driver for the session. Photographing women enables an opportunity to interact with a section of the Moroccan community that is mostly closed off to me in towns and cities, where privacy inside the home is taken as a given.

In a busy market

In 2018 I chose to make some unromantic portraits of men at their local country market in Morocco, capturing a version of reality with a quick fire no nonsense approach. With the help of a friend at the location I chose an open door leading to a dark interior as a backdrop and sat each of the men just in the space in front. Right behind me was the dusty ground reflecting a huge amount of daylight onto their faces. This made the technical aspects of shooting much easier and acutely revealed details in their faces. Sitting for no more than 30 seconds, only a few exposures were made and very little direction was given. Each of the men was then offered a print of their portrait. The passport photo nature of the encounter very much contributed to their responses, a generation without smartphones and without social media looked at photos of themselves in a functional way.

The importance of your footprint

Of course it should go without saying that how you treat your sitter goes a long way towards the perception of photography within a community. It may be beneficial to offer a future print or agree to email them the photo. Reassurances about where it will be shown can also be help alleviate any concerns about possible exploitation.

Darren Lewey is the Founder of Images in the Sun. Images in the Sun is a photography workshop provider offering specialist photography holidays and tours of Morocco.

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