Normally, when you shoot portraits you've got time. You might have half an hour or more, maybe starting with a coffee, and over that time you and your subject connect and build up trust in each other. And that’s where good portraits come from, those moments of connection.
Brendan’s recent project, ‘one-minute portraits’, therefore posed some interesting problems. “Yes,” Brendan laughs, “the project was a big challenge, especially as I was just taking random strangers out of the crowd at my events to do it. But I like a challenge, because as a photographer you need to set the bar as high as possible every day.”
The purpose of the project, Brendan says, was to show people that you can get a great portrait in just one minute, “so long as you have trust. Trust between photographer and the subject. But also trust between photographer and camera.”
It’s this mix, he says, that allowed him to create his striking series of monochrome portraits. In his opinion, anyone can do it too, if they have the skills and tools. “I wanted to show people you can do stuff like this in street photography or really in anything,” he explains, “because a lot of people are afraid to go up to people and ask them.”
“Trust is built,” Brendan continues, “in the way we look at and speak to people. So even in a situation like these crowded events, of 200 or 300 people, I tried to make a space for just the pair of us. I asked my subjects not to look at the crowd, just at me, like we were one on one, and nobody else was there. That stops them being nervous, so in that way we’re working together, as photographer and subject, and it’s a job for us both.”
So just how does Brendan manage to complete the connection with his subject in such a short space of time? Well, says Brendan, it’s a question of asking them to look at the lens and try to find him within it. “That's very important,” he tells us, “as it creates a very different look to when someone is just staring at the camera. They look more concentrated, like they’re having a conversation. This then gives you that connection that makes the picture.”
With one minute rapidly ticking away, Brendan needed to know that his α7R III would perfectly capture the connections he had quickly formed. The most important aspect? “Sharpness,” he says. “With Sony’s Eye Auto Focus, I know I don't have to worry about the focus on the eyes. It’s always spot on, even when the aperture is wide open. Before Eye AF, there was always the risk that, in that special moment, the sharpness would be on the eyelid or eyebrow, so you were worrying ‘do I really have control?’”
But now? “I know I can work with the subject,” Brendan says, “and keep contact with them. I know that I never have to worry about my camera; it’s just an extension of my creative mind. That's the most important thing, especially if you have only one minute to take a shot. And, again, it comes back to trust – trust in my camera. So that's why I work with my α7R III, because the technology just lets me do my thing.”
Working so quickly and using a simple flash setup, Brendan also made use of the α7R III’s TTL functions, which add to his usual way of working. “I'm an old-fashioned guy,” he explains, “so in the studio, I love to work with a light meter. When I don't have that time however, TTL helps me a lot. So, the first shot was always TTL, then I switched those settings into Manual for full control. To me it’s a kind of hybrid shooting, giving me a great starting point, from which I can take the shot further.”
The final exchange of trust is with the viewer, Brendan says, as you’re asking them to buy into and follow through a series of images which may have been shot many miles and months apart. In a project like his one-minute portraits, success came from achieving consistency in the shots.
It was a challenge,” he admits, “achieving uniform lighting, framing and focus across multiple locations and subjects, but using a consistent flash setup and shooting on the FE 85mm f/1.4 GM, really helped. I loved shooting these images with the 85mm wide open, and to be honest that lens always gives me goosebumps. It's beautiful for portraits, and just one more reason why I can trust my gear to get the job done.