“Photography is a communication sport,” says Steffen Böttcher when asked about his portrait and fashion work, “and that’s lucky, because I like to communicate.” Indeed, whatever the style of portrait you choose to shoot, the one thing it has to do is tell you something meaningful about the subject. If it’s anonymous, it’s not really a portrait.
Steffen’s portraits communicate a great deal of character, and amongst several other important techniques, he says this has to do with the visual storytelling of a location.
It’s very important to have the right surroundings for a good portrait; the environment is something that can tell you a lot about the person. Them, their work, their mindset…I don’t want impersonal pictures. There’s nothing wrong with basic headshots, they’re modern and useful, but in my pictures I want the surroundings to help tell the story; a politician in a library, a chef in the kitchen…what makes them tick.
Thoughtful use of location, he says, also makes things easier for the subjects to be themselves. “It’s just like actors making films, or musicians performing; the actors need a set or a location, not a greenscreen where there’s nothing to react to, while the singers need a stage and an audience. You can’t take an animal out of its natural habitat and expect it to behave naturally. It’s just the same with people.”
Steffen worked for 12 years as a graphic designer before making the jump into photography full time and this certainly gave him a superb grounding in visual language – how pictures can communicate ideas. He credits his years in graphic design with helping him to understand the basics, like good composition, using complementary colours, and how to structure an image. With those skills, he says, “it’s easy to make a switch to photography because you’re not starting from zero. I just wanted to be creative – that’s the most important urge, and it shouldn’t be bogged down by technical things.”
He feels that too many photographers come into photography from that technical side, focusing on playing with the settings and gear. He explains that for him however, this doesn’t play a big role:
For me, photography is more like painting a picture. It’s not about the camera. It’s about looking at the light, the elements of the composition, the colours... It’s so much more than a technical exercise. In this way, it’s important to make the photo in your head before you even pick up the camera.
An aspect that helps him here is the tilting screen of his Sony α9. “I do prefer to compose on screen for several reasons,” he explains, “when composing through a viewfinder, you can forget elements, because it’s more like real life.” Your eye is drawn to the subject and not the composition as a whole? “Yes, because when you use the screen and you see the composition that way, it’s more like seeing a print...the finished work. You have some more distance and you can be more objective.”
Back to the art of communication and, for Steffen, another great aspect of composing via his camera’s LCD screen is that he can engage with his subject more easily without the ‘shield’ of the camera up to his eye. “As a photographer it really helps when you come out from behind that mask. It’s much more intimate and much better for the subject. The way people react is very different, and it’s something you see immediately. It’s then so much easier for me to concentrate on the subject and interact with them better, especially as with the α9’s AF and exposure I know I can fully trust the camera. I don’t have to think about technique, just composing and communicating.”
Talking, in fact, is a huge part of what makes Steffen’s portraits special. “Without a camera covering my face, I can talk to the subject and relax them. Sitters don’t do this every day, so they need some reassurance. I talk a lot, actually, and I give them the feeling that they don’t need to perform, just be themselves. Then it’s up to me to capture those nice little moments.”
Most portrait photographers, he says, talk to their subjects, but it’s how you do it that’s crucial, not just talking for the sake of it.
Many come along and over direct, which can actually make people feel more stressed and anxious, not less. I don’t want them to be thinking ‘where am I looking?’ or ‘where’s my chin supposed to be pointing?’ I want to take them out of themselves; to take self-awareness away.
Some of the methods he uses are to bring stories into the conversation and to alter the way he delivers them, based on how he wants the subject to feel. “Some photographers say ‘think about something beautiful’ and expect a reaction. It doesn’t work like that – you need to be smarter, more empathetic. If I want them to look heroic, tell them heroic stories; and if I want them to look cosy, I tell them cosy stories, like how beautiful my holiday was.”
His key tip: “Use conversation to take them out of the moment. It’s like directing a ballet, but you’re working with their subconscious; they listen and respond. That’s how communication works best.”
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