People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


Exercise: An active portrait


Take a series of photos of a subject who is engaged in some activity or other. The point of having an activity is to preoccupy your subject, and if this can be achieved without too much movement or changes in location, so much the better. As this is primarily a portrait exercise rather than an exercise in reportage, try not to get distracted by the demands of showing how the actions are performed — concentrate instead on the person and the facial expression.


Subject: this is Russell, a joiner who’s done lots of work on our house over the years, and is currently working around the corner for our neighbours.

Here are the shortlisted pics with a little commentary on each. What I consider to the the best overall shot is enlarged at the end.

 Sawing 1 & 2:

The idea here was to show some actual physical work typical of his trade. In both I tried to use a slightly slow shutter speed to get a bit of motion blur on the arm. I’m not sure I got this right; there’s enough blur to be noticeable in the image but maybe not quite enough to really denote movement. In terms of composition, 1 has the cleaner background but 2 makes better use of the lines and shapes in the frame. In both there isn’t enough of his face.

Working 1 & 2:

In the first of these two I wanted to show a more upright position, and in the second I wanted to zoom in closer on the face. However, neither is wholly successful for similar reasons to the sawing pics: not enough of the face, so you can’t get a feel for the facial expression. By this point I was beginning to realise that his work is inherently inclined towards facing walls and/or looking down… No. 2 in particular is weak as there is no context on what he’s working on – it’s just a picture of a bloke leaning over.

Thinking 1 & 2:

I felt these were the most successful of the set. Even though he isn’t very ‘active’, he is working, albeit in more of a mental capacity: he’s standing back, checking what he’s done, and planning his next move. I found these pics much better at giving a feel for the person as you get to see more of the face. The pencil behind the ear gives the clue to his trade – more subtle than a saw or a hammer – and I deliberately left a bit of space to the right for him to be staring into. 1 has more tonal detail but 2 has a cleaner background.

So my preferred shot of the lot is the one below.

Thinking 2

Thinking 2

What I’ve learned

I’ve learned that you can get much more natural-looking pictures of people by NOT asking them to specifically pose. Letting them get on with doing their own thing and forget that the camera is there can be a useful technique.