Working with People by Ben Bentley
People, eh?! People are the worst. People can also be the best. Many people I encounter are traversing that
ever-fascinating middle-ground between those two extremes. It’s my job (and if you’re reading this, quite
possibly yours too) to tell a story by way of photographing them.
I’m not sure that my following ramblings that you’re about to try and muscle through qualify as tips
necessarily, but here are four thoughts or reflections on shooting portrait work over the last decade.
“You need to have a solid plan. You also need to be willing to set fire to the plan…”
Portrait photography is alchemy. Somewhere in the excitement of that swirling mass of contradictions and
complications lies the sweet spot where a great portrait can be created. There are a lot of times, where my
time on set or location with the talent is a luxury, not a given, particularly with editorial work. This means
that you have to enter the situation with a solid plan for how you’re going to approach the given brief and
feel confident that you are as prepared as you can be in order to walk away with what you/your client/editor
needs from the shoot.
That means knowing your setups and how you think you’re going to light them. The
technical aspects of your shot/setup ideally have to be in the bag before your subject steps in front of your
camera. The aim of the game is to be able to make the most of the time and interactions with your subject
in order to create something compelling and interesting in the frame. That’s not say that minor adjustments
aren’t going to be made along the way, but if you’re still trying to dial in your key-light whilst your talent is in
front of your lens, that’s time and your subject’s interest/patience that you’re not necessarily going to get
back. In these situations you’ve got to be confident in the gear you’re using, it needs to behave how you
need it to, when you need it to.
For four years now I’ve been using Interfit S1 500w monolights as the backbone of lighting kit. I’ve flown
around the world with them and to put it bluntly, they’ve seen some sh*t. From the comfort of traditional
studio spaces, to the Mojave desert, to the waterlogged backstage areas of festivals like Glastonbury – the
S1’s continue to do what I ask them to so I can concentrate on working with my subjects to create
something ideally above and beyond a well-exposed frame. All of that being said, one of the most valuable
skills that I continue to try and hone is reading the room and being flexible and open to opportunities or
alternatives to your initial plan that can quite often yield results above and beyond your pre-conceptions.
“Scientists confirm: Famous people are human beings…”
One of the questions I get fairly regularly in my DM’s or in real life at events like The Photography Show is
“Weren’t you nervous to be working with X,Y,Z?”. Famous or prominent people are exactly that, people.
Thankfully I’m not someone who is prone to being starstruck. I’m both insanely grateful and fortunate to
have had the opportunity to photograph a handful of artists who are important to me personally and who
inadvertently have allowed me to test that theory. Ultimately we’re all there to do a job and with the
following, in mind, whether it’s a Grammy Winner or someone’s Granny who is in front of your camera…
Be courteous, be calm, be attentive, be kind, be professional…. Nine times out of ten you will reap what
“And it’s never going be be the same…”
One of the things that I love about shooting portrait work (and genuinely separates it from a lot of other
photographic disciplines) is that every-single-session is different. Regardless of if you have photographed
that person a thousand times or you were only introduced seconds before you needed to start pressing the shutter, every single portrait session is as unique as a finger print.
Whether it’s the morning someone has
had, the weather outside, the song that just came on shuffle, the list is endless when it comes to factors
that are shaping both your subject’s and your own contributions to the shoot, for better or for worse. That’s
an incredibly exciting prospect to me, everything is to play for. This is especially worth keeping in mind for
people who find themselves photographing the same people repeatedly.
“From small things, big things come…”
As trite as it may sound at face value, every single portrait I have ever shot has taught me something.
Sometimes it might be the smallest of lessons or insights on a practical or a personal level. Other times
something seemingly small and/or simple in and of it’s self ends up leading to the biggest shoot of your
career to date.
Either way, for better or for worse, every single portrait I create (and the interaction it entails)
has been influenced on some level by each one of my portraits that came before and likewise will impact
the process of those to come. It’s crucial to me that I never stop listening and never stop learning.
Can you imagine how boring that would be? Perhaps, you can, you did just make it to the end of this blog post after
Written by Creative Pro Ben Bentley