How Film Photography Can Make You A Better Portrait Photographer

How Film Photography Can Make You A Better Portrait Photographer

Portrait photography is one of my favorite genres within the craft. To meet someone and make a portrait of that person, or people, is special.

While working for different newspapers, it was portraits that made up so many daily assignments. The goal was to photograph someone creatively in a way to would tell a story pertaining to the individual.

Idlewild, Michigan
Camera: Mamiya 7

Admittedly, portraits used to be a type of photography that wasn’t my favorite. My favorite type of photography used to be street photography, or something like it. I still enjoy it tremendously. I’d always envisioned—perhaps like so many other photojournalists—of being the next Cartier-Bresson, walking the streets of a picturesque city while creating compositions within my viewfinder that pleased the eyes of all that would look at my images.

However, over time, I began to truly appreciate the portrait. After seeing some portraits made by Diane Arbus, Arnold Newman and Dan Winters—and even Cartier-Bresson made some gorgeous portraits while staying in his style—I began to find the draw to portraiture.

After photographing more and more people, for assignments and otherwise, my confidence with portrait photography began to grow.

I began to believe in myself and to feel that I care enough about making a quality portrait that I can do it, and do it well.

My portrait photography enjoyment has even reached a point to where I’m enjoying photographing strangers. I should say, my portrait subjects are strangers when we first meet, but varying connections do form throughout the portrait session, so where not strangers by the end of the portrait session.

Portrait sessions can happen quickly and unexpectedly. They’re no telling when, how and/or where you’ll encounter someone that would make a good portrait. This is part of the excitement.

One of my favorite cameras to make portraits with is not a famed portrait camera at all. It’s the Mamiya 7. The Mamiya 7 is a rangefinder camera that uses medium format film. It’s easy to use and the quality of the lenses is superb.

Detroit, Michigan
Camera: Mamiya 7

Now, you definitely don’t need a Mamiya 7 camera to make great portraits. You can make a great portrait with any camera.

I only bring up this camera because it’s what taught me some valuable lessons.

The Mamiya 7, especially when using it to make portraits, requires focus (literally and figuratively) and attention. It’s not an easy camera to make portraits with. The viewfinder is such that two images of your subject have to line up in order to be in focus. A small movement forward or backward can render your image blurry.

Another aspect of using the Mamiya 7 that helped me improve my portrait photography is the fact that only ten images can be made on a roll of 120 film. With the cost of film, processing and scanning, that works out to about $3.00 per image made. Since money isn’t growing on a tree outside my window, that’s enough money to make me take my time to make sure my photograph is good.

Detroit, Michigan
Camera: Mamiya 7

Also, photo subjects can tell when you’re taking your time and trying your best to make an image. I think that when they see you’re serious, they tend to take the shoot a little more seriously, too.

Of course, there are those who are disciplined and talented enough to be able to capture excellent portrait photos with digital camera equipment. I find that once I photograph with film for a while, I’m able to transfer how I shoot over to digital. After a while though, I tend to get more lax on my practices and I have to go back to film.

Most importantly, you photograph how you want to photograph and using techniques that work best for you. I’m only mentioning what works for me. And, I’m mentioning it because perhaps my techniques will work for you also.

If you’re looking for a fun new experience, try photographing with any type of film camera and see how it goes. I’m confident you’ll enjoy the process of slowing down and the excitement of waiting for your film scans to return.

2 thoughts on “How Film Photography Can Make You A Better Portrait Photographer”

  • Indeed! Like you I probably prefer candid to portrait photography, but you should never stop learning and trying different things. I have sometimes used my Mamiya RZ67 with the 2.8/110 lens for portraits with very satisfying results 🙂 Shooting with film certainly changes the process as you describe, and now when I do shoot digitally, usually with my Lumix S5, I like to use my manual lenses – that way my workflow and shooting habits don’t change, and I get much the same result as I would shooting film!

    • The Mamiya RZ67 with that lens is a beautiful setup Steve! I was a photo intern at a local magazine that featured stories and portraits of the area. The chief photographer at the time used a camera and lens combination just like that one.
      I love your practice of using manual lenses with digital cameras! It truly seems like a way to achieve the best of film and digital photography. Thanks for the message and inspiration Steve!

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