Bringing Style and Substance to Portraiture
If your photography is a journey, then perhaps its destination is a style – the sum of your experience that defines the look of your pictures, and how you see the world.
A visual style has always been important to photographers and, in a world where images are more numerous and easier to share than ever, it has arguably never been more vital. But how do you arrive at a style? Is there some obvious path you can take to it, like following a map.
© Laerke Posselt | Sony α7R II + FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/3200s @ f/2.8, ISO 100
Even to an award-winning portrait photographer like Laerke Posselt, it can be tricky to define. Her work, she says, is about “connection, emotion, the feeling of authenticity, representation and identity,” adding that, “it may be easier for others to talk about my style, but for me, my photography springs from an urge to create certain feelings in people and to express what I see and feel.”
With her images a strong blend of aestheticism and honesty, like a series of candids shot through a fine art prism, maybe understanding style can really be about looking back as much as forward.
© Laerke Posselt | Sony α7R II + FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 2s @ f/10, ISO 100
“I started out in art photography,” Laerke explains “then moved towards documentary and worked solely in photo-journalism for several years – and now both of those worlds influence my vision and my work.”
In 2012 Laerke was awarded First Prize in the portrait categories of the World Press Photo and Pictures of the Year international (POYi), both on the same day. “That moment certainly framed me as a portrait photographer,” she says “and I still find that genre constantly challenging and rewarding.”
© Laerke Posselt | Sony α7R II + FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS | 1/60s @ f/9.0, ISO 640
Laerke continues, “As I move forward, the things that are constantly inspiring to me are human interaction, social norms, identity and representation, so it’s those you’ll find in my work.”
Just as you’d expect from a photographer steeped in documentary and photojournalism, Laerke prefers to work with available light, reasoning that “it provides an authentic feeling to my photos and also to the environment in which I am making the images.”
For example, she points out “working in my sitters’ own homes or surroundings, using available light is so much more natural than what a studio session with huge strobes, umbrellas and softboxes would mean. It also stimulates my vision, and forces me to look for interesting light.”
© Laerke Posselt | Sony α7R II + FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA | 1/100s @ f/4.5, ISO 200
Capturing that light needs a tool that’s up to the task, and Laerke has found that in her Sony gear. The first time she used a Sony model was with the α7R II, and now she is just beginning the move to the α7R III.
The smaller, lighter body of Sony’s mirrorless cameras, compared to DSLRs, fitted in with her roving documentary approach, in particular that the camera “can be less intimidating for the people being photographed,” she explains. “The fact that it doesn't cover up my face means the sitter can see me rather than the machine between us, and that communication affects their feelings and expressions, which comes out in the images.”
© Laerke Posselt | Sony α7R II + FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS | 1/160s @ f/2.8, ISO 200
Working with wide apertures to make the most of available light means a shallow depth-of-field, so a feature of Sony bodies that Laerke relies on a lot is Continuous Eye AF mode.
“Knowing that the focus will be perfect, is a great luxury,” she says, “especially when I’m working with subjects who are nervous at the beginning of a session – these are real people and they’re not always comfortable, so they sometimes fidget or sway, but the α7R II keeps them perfectly sharp.”
On top of that, Laerke isn’t afraid to push the ISO on her α7R II, knowing that it will deliver the exposures she needs.
© Laerke Posselt | Sony α7R II + FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA | 1/125s @ f/9.0, ISO 160
“I know that, even at very high ISO speeds, details in the image won’t get smudged or lost under a mix of noise and unnatural colours,” she says. “Sharpness is always well preserved, so much so, that sometimes I've even used high ISO in lighting situations that didn't require it, just because I wanted that beautifully natural looking grainy effect which on the α7R II is like a film negative.”
Again calling back to the different points of her photographic journey, Laerke twins her α7R II with a classical suite of portrait and documentary lenses, including “the FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS for closeups, the FE 85mm f/1.4 G Master for headshots or portraits with a bit of background, the Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA when I want to work a bit wider, and the Distagon T* FE 35mm f/1.4 ZA for when the surroundings are really important.”
© Laerke Posselt | Sony α7R III + FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/25s @ f/2.8, ISO 100
Like the cameras and lenses she uses, Laerke has come a long way, and the journey has been worth it. Who knows where her journey with the α7R III will take her next.
Distagon T* FE 35mm F1.4 ZA
FE 90mm F2.8 Macro G OSS
FE 24-70mm F2.8 GM
A portrait session is an intense exercise in human interaction, and at best I get much closer much faster to the other person I portray than I would without the camera between us