Location portraits

PORTRAITURE doesnt have to be confined to staid, stuffy indoor locations. There are myriad places in the great outdoors that are perfect for creating carefree environmental portraits all year round. Just ask Dennis Welsh, who specialises in creating naturalistic portraits that eschew formula and cliche, and instead sparkle with energy, playfulness and vitality.

Dennis, who lives in Maine in the USA, has been a professional photographer since 1990. In that time, he has built a successful photography business producing images for advertising, editorial and commercial clients, as well as private commissions. His style is to put people pictured in their locations at the core of his images.

The appeal of producing portraits in outdoor locations comes from an ingrained love of the outdoors and of people, as Dennis explains: I believe down to my core that life is about being outdoors. I love studio portraiture, but while I can do this Im not a studio photographer. There are some fantastic photographers out there who create wonderful studio work, but Im a location guy - the location plays a big role in what I photograph.


Denniss aim is to include as much of the surrounding environment in his images as he believes is appropriate without taking anything away from the subject itself. I try to create images in which the people dont overshadow the environment and where the environment doesnt overshadow the people/ he says. I work hard to strike a balance between the two. I dont have a set formula for this, such as the person has to take up a third of the frame. Instead, I try to work out every situation separately to discover its potential.

1 tend not to direct every shot, but to let shots unfold instead/ he adds. I might say, "OK. This is a phenomenal landscape. Lets play with this as a location until we find the right mix of person to landscape" Sometimes that person will absolutely fill the frame, but there is always a hint of what is around them. It works the other way, too, as a person can fill a small proportion of the landscape and yet still draw the viewers eye. The persons mood, their attire and expression are all evoked for a reason, and the landscapes in my images help to define why the person looks the way they do.


While there is no typical location, there are certain places that lend themselves to environmental portraiture, and how Dennis chooses a location will depend on the commission. Sometimes he will go where the client decides, but often he will revisit tried and tested locations that he knows will work well. He mentions the potential of woodland or coastlines, for example. Im fortunate in that I live in an area that is a stones throw from the ocean, where there are both rocky and sandy beaches, he says. Tm an hour from the mountains and there are plenty of woods. Snow in winter can be beautiful, too.


Dennis is inspired by beautiful late or early morning sunlight. I like to shoot in the early mornings or evenings/ he says. First and foremost, I try to work with the right light. Although he now shoots digitally, Dennis mentions the challenges he faced when shooting film on location, namely the need to use a separate lightmeter rather than relying on the cameras in - built metering. This instilled a sense of being able to read the light intuitively that has helped him when shooting digitally.

Having a background in shooting film has laid the foundations for me to be able to shoot digitally in adverse conditions without too much difficulty/ he says. Today, with digital technology, you can fire off a couple of exposures, look at the image on the LCD screen and make any necessary adjustments. In that sense, its a lot easier.


Dennis tends to use two cameras - a Canon EOS - 1D Mark IV and a Phase One 645 DF medium - format camera. Depending on the project, his lenses range from 14mm to 300mm optics, and might include 17 - 35mm and 28 - 70mm lenses. Dennis tries not to keep switching lenses during a shoot, so he makes sure he takes all the shots he needs with a particular lens in one session. Tm starting to work more with prime lenses, such as a 85mm, 50mm or a 35mm, he says. To me, these still feel intimate. Depending on what Im trying to convey in an image, I might shoot wide open at f/1.4 if I can, but at other times 111 stop right down to f/16, to bring the whole scene into focus.

Sometimes Dennis will use a wide lens, which he says forces him to interact with his subject to create images that are more personal. As a viewer, when you see an image that has been taken with a wideangle lens, youre right there, he says. Youre part of that image. To me, it makes the images more believable.

Dennis might, for example, start a shoot by photographing the subject with an 85mm lens, to show just a hint of the background. Once he has all the pictures he needs with the 85mm lens, hell switch to using a wider lens, perhaps a 14mm, to include more of the background. Til still be quite tight in on the persons face, but you can see the subject matter behind/ he says. In one shot, the subject fills the frame with just a hint of the background, and in the other, while still tight on the subject, it shows more of the scene.

I try to shoot with as little gear as possible and to keep things simple, he adds. I have complete admiration for the photographers who use lots of equipment, but a simple approach works for me.


The first thing Dennis does when he arrives at a location is scout out the area. He will then take another look around, taking note of how the light is falling on the scene. Til try to work out where the light, the person and the environment all come together, says Dennis. Then Ill start getting my ideas together.

Taking his inspiration directly from the people he is photographing, the emotion of the portrait is key for Dennis. His aim is to capture the essence of the person he is photographing - to get inside their head and to see what makes them tick.

In terms of getting the best from his subjects. Dennis takes time to get to know the people he is photographing, to set them at ease.

If I have an hour to photograph someone, I spend a fair amount of time chatting with that person, getting to know them, walking around the location and so on, says Dennis. In this way, by the time I photograph them, I hope they will feel comfortable with me. Its about intuition and trust. Its a two - way street - I have to get to know them, to work out how theyre going to look their best, and they have to get to know me. The actual process of photographing them becomes an extension of that interaction. I work very quickly as that window of opportunity is often short - lived.

If Dennis feels he has hit upon something that is working, hell stay with it, but he says its also important to take a step back and review what youre doing. 1 might ask myself: "Do I need a new location or a different lens? Do I need the subject to stand in a different way7" Ill look at what the person does naturally and shoot that, but then I might adjust their position slightly. Sometimes Ill throw everything out of the window and thats when I get the best shots.

Movement often features in Denniss work, which lifts the image. I started my career photographing athletes and most of what I was shooting was sports - orientated, and quite often outdoor adventure sports/ he says. Tve taken that sensibility, that style, and used it in my portraiture.


When photographing more than one person, it is even more crucial to find the right angle and to keep the energy going. Group shots can be challenging to shoot because you have to make sure everyones energy levels are up and every person is looking at the camera at the right time/ says Dennis. I try to shoot all the way through the action - not just the start of the movement. If the person is struggling with an action or if theyre feeling uncomfortable, Ill try something else. Its about constantly reading the situation as it unfolds, anticipating what is going on and being prepared to change the approach if its not working.

When photographing children, Denniss advice is clear. I never treat children like children/ he says. I treat them like people. I have three young kids of my own, so Im used to interacting with children. I never rush into a shot and try to force something because that never works.


Many of Denniss subjects are engrossed in what they are doing. For example, in one image, a little girl with a parasol leaps balletlike through the air, in another a man diligently harvests cranberries, while in another a young boy plays by the coast. The image of the girl with the parasol didnt start like that, says Dennis. She was sitting on the wall looking up at the camera, which was a beautiful shot in itself, but I wanted to try something different. I asked her to jump and kick, and suddenly this magical moment happened The picture is full of light youth, life and vitality.

In many cases, the subject appears to be oblivious to Denniss camera and they seem to be enjoying what theyre doing. This perhaps is part of the key to the success of his images, as Dennis is an expert in captunng candid, carefree moments. I try to make my images as authentic as possible, says Dennis. I like my subjects to look natural. There is also a narrative element to Denniss images as they appear as glimpses of a wider story. Whether its an expression on the persons face or a gesture or action, I try to tell a story, says Dennis. I try to relay as much as I can through one image.


Dennis may tweak the images in post - production, depending on what he feels is needed. This could include using a particular colour palette to evoke a certain feeling, but he is careful not to stray far from what looks genuine. I will make an image a little warmer or cooler, depending on whats required, he says.

The image that comes straight out of the camera and is uploaded to the computer isnt the finished picture, he adds. Images need to be polished and Im willing to do that to a point. I know photographers who retouch until their images become almost like illustrations, but I wont go that far. Ill take my retouching to a point where it is visually pleasing but believable. I try to ensure my photography is very honest, he says. A few years ago, I made a resolution to be true to what I feel is good photography. If people like what I do thats great, but if they dont thats fine too.

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