Using Location To Avoid Portrait Fatigue

I share my method for avoiding portrait fatigue then discuss light direction, visual balance/tension and why the unplanned portraits are often my favourites.

One of the questions I often get asked is, “When photographing all day, every day, how do you avoid repeating images?” For me, one way of avoiding portrait fatigue is to head out to new locations with my clients. We meet up and go for a walk somewhere that I believe will provide good opportunities for aesthetically pleasing lighting and backgrounds.

The fact that we’re walking along helps everyone relax and keeps the whole thing informal. Young children are able to move freely and expend energy, which avoids the challenges of trying to keep them in one place in the studio. And the change in surroundings provide inspiration and force me to find new ideas. That’s how I ended up with this unique portrait of Nancy, Phiill and baby Oscar.

Light has direction even on overcast days

There’s a common misconception that on overcast days, the sun is so diffused by the clouds that it is soft and directionless. However, as you can see from this portrait the daylight still has direction to it. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a shadow under the bench.

If the sun was behind clouds in the background, Oscar’s face would be a lot darker. As the sun was directly overhead (but still behind clouds), there’s plenty of fairly soft light falling across his face, and good, strong catchlights in his eyes.

How can you tell the direction of light on an overcast day? Often you can see the white hotspot in the clouds which tells you where the sun is. In those cases, I position my subject relative to the sun to mimic the way I’d set up studio lights indoors – 45 degrees above and to one side, for instance.

With heavy cloud cover, sometimes it isn’t possible to see where the sun is hiding. One trick to is to hold your hand out in front of you, with your palm facing inwards. Turn in a circle, watching how the light changes on your palm as you spin. When the light on your hand looks the most interesting – that’s the direction to shoot in.

Somewhere between visual balance and tension

I crouched close to the ground to get a low angle on the scene. This meant that more of the clouds and cityscape across the river came into view in the background, giving us a better view of what the parents, Nancy and Phiill, are looking at.

My angle also enabled me to line up with the bench so that it was square on to the camera. This created a balanced, harmonious feel to the composition, with visual tension added by the off-centre placement of the family on the right hand side of the bench. The trees on either side and the buildings in the background help to balance this out, so I’ve ended up with a family portrait that has strong symmetry but with a good dollop of visual interest.

Capturing the unplanned shot

Oscar was watching me as I walked towards the bench, and I loved the interesting take on an image that this created, with everyone else facing away. I sunk to my haunches and quickly captured it. I think it feels like a moment caught, rather than staged, and makes the baby the star of the shot.

To me, this portrait demonstrates the importance of being alert to opportunities for unplanned shots. If you are too focused on capturing pre-conceived images during a shoot, you can miss out on a great opportunity that just presents itself, like this one.

So always be looking, noticing and mentally framing potential shots. My favourite portraits are almost always the spontaneous ones, perhaps because they are such a welcome, unique and unexpected surprise.


Camera Settings

  • Focal length: 82mm
  • Aperture: f/6.3
  • Shutter speed: 1/400 sec
  • ISO: 800