Robin Does Portrait Shooting (... and he chuckles while doing it)

I know, I know, this is probably one of the rare occasions when you find me out there shooting an arranged portraiture session of a model posing deliriously in front of many cameras pointing at them all at once. I have my fair share of bashing talk especially targeting newcomers to photography (Malaysian crowd particularly) who would shoot portraits and models ONLY, and disregard anything else about photography. Their sole purpose of shooting is to shoot models, and nothing more. I have often talked down on this trend of photography locally, and how it actually did not encourage the growth of photography at all, especially when it comes to learning the creative side, as well as technical mastery of the camera.

All images were taken with Olympus DSLR E-5 and Olympus ZD lenses 11-22mm F2.8-3.5, 50mm F2 macro and Sigma 30mm F1.4.

Olympus 50mm: 1/80sec, F2, ISO160

Sigma 30mm: 1/320sec, F1.4, ISO200

Olympus 50mm: 1/125sec, F2, ISO160

Well to be honest, I have attempted arranged portrait shooting before. You can find them in my portfolio here, here and here. Oh dear, the last arranged portraiture session was probably more than 2 years ago, and that is indeed a LONG, LONG time. I have nothing against these kind of model shooting really, the only complains I usually have are: 1) paid models - usually you are looking at RM100 per person on average if you want to participate in such a shoot, well, models need to eat to keep skinny also you know, I just do not find the point of paying for portrait sessions, when I can obviously shoot FREE portraits on the street, no? 2) Fighting with the crowd to shoot a model: imagine you have 10 hungry lustful photographers wrestling amongst each other for that sweetspot of perfect composition for one model, 3) I don't know the model, even if I tried my best to shoot a good portrait photograph of her, I would not do well, mainly because there is no connection between me and her. This connection is not easily established, and it takes tonnes of experience and knowing how to work with the model to bring the best out of her facial expression and "how she looks into your camera". Then again, having 10 more photographers stabbing each others eyes off just to get to the best shot, kind of neglected this important point of establishing good connection with the model. And sadly but true, I don't think any of the photographers would care to create such connection first and to have that captured in their photographs.

Olympus 50mm: 1/400sec, F2, ISO400, Super FP - TTL Flash bounced off ceiling

Olympus 50mm: 1/500sec, F2, ISO200

Olympus 11-22mm: 1/320sec, F4, ISO200

Olympus 50mm: 1/800sec, F2, ISO200

Sigma 30mm: 1/30sec, F2, ISO200

Olympus 50mm: 1/250sec, F2, ISO200

Seriously, what can you get away from a model portrait shooting? You can set your camera to Auto and still come home with nice photographs. You just need that RM300 cheap budget 50mm F1.8 portrait lens, and you have that creamy bokeh to blur the background to oblivion, and nice flattering outcome. There is no high-tech advanced techniques needed, unless you are talking about studio photography or other more sophisticated lighting equipments, which none of those portrait sessions would delve into anyway. Shooting portraits ONLY will not gain you better technical understanding of the camera, and worse, I do not see anything artistic in it at all. If your model is already beautiful, all you do is to re-tell the story of her beauty. You are not creating art, you are just copying her beauty and in hope your viewers will like that beauty, which did not exactly originate from your own artistic vision, or anything your camera can do. Yet, portrait photography remained the most popular photography genre here in Malaysia, you will never fail finding all photography forumers actively organizing and participating in portrait shooting week after week. Perhaps while doing portraiture shooting, most of us photographers here imagine that we are shooting for some high profile fashion magazine. If I were to choose to fantasize in such manner, I would prefer shoot some hungry skinny kids on the streets and imagine myself shooting some African kids for National Geographic. Would that not be more glamorous?

Of course, at the end of the day, it all comes down to preference. If you are happy doing what you are doing, there is no stopping to it, as long as you are happy.

Sigma 30mm: 1/100sec, F1.4, ISO250

Olympus 11-22mm: 1/40sec, F2.8, ISO1600

Olympus 11-22mm: 1/40sec, F2.8, ISO1600

Olympus 50mm: 1/100sec, F2, ISO160

Olympus 50mm: 1/50sec, F2, ISO640

A friend from PEN Lovers organized his first Portrait shooting session for the group, hence I decided to give a show of support. I for one, am lacking experience when it comes to such arranged portrait shoot, so my participation to the event was nothing significant. I just followed the flow and motion of the activities, and just merrily snapped away without thinking too much. There is little that we can do to control the light, since we relied on the ambient available light that could be rather uneven and harsh. I did not exactly like the idea of using reflectors, because often the effect can be rather unimpressive and instead of improving the overall exposure, it sort of made the skin look cartoonish and glow unrealistically. Flash without proper diffusing was not a good option to improve the lighting, and I did not intend to burden myself with too much equipments. Bear in mind that I was merely participating in a group activity, and I must not over-step my boundaries by doing whatever I want and control the situation as I please.

I shot mostly with the Olympus 50mm F2 macro, followed by the Sigma 30mm F1.4, and did some wide angle shots with the 11-22mm. I did not have anything pre-planned, I just composed and arranged my shots on the go, spontaneously judging on location. I did use flash in some situations, mainly to overpower the sun, to lift up some shadow areas when I shot against the strong backlit situation. Shooting location was actually an abandoned house. We had two storeys to play with, and the upper floor with many wooden structures which provided much useful texture and background. We used mainly window light and played around it in different angles and composition. Surprisingly, I came home with mostly full body shots of the model, and many 3/4 body or at least half body shots. My preference has changed over the years, previously I did plenty of head and shoulder shots, and obviously with very tight composition. I do think that the elegance of the model should be shown, not only their facial features but also their body figures.

PEN Lovers in action

I admit, this portrait shooting thing is not exactly my forte. But hey, I am learning, and slowly I am improving. If I were to venture deeper into wedding photography, portraiture is not something that can be overlooked.

So what do you guys think of my once in a pink moon portraiture attempt?

Special thanks to:
Osanna Chin (model of the day)
Ian Lee (organizer and host of the event)


  1. I would not have guessed that you are learning. They look top class pro to me. Keep it going robin


  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Hello Chris,
    You are being too kind !! There are sooooooo many flaws in the portrait images in this entry. I think the composition was too messy, and the lighting control was extremely bad. Also I failed to made good interaction/connection with the model. Aaaahhh....

  4. Hi Robin,

    I don't wish to sound uncomplimentary, but I much prefer your street photos to these portrait shots. There is nothing in these shots that identifies them as "Robin Wong" photos, whereas in your street shots I think your individual personality as a photographer shines through.

    Having said that, I do like the last photo - the one with all the other photographers on the stairs and in the windows. However, that's not really a portrait shot!

  5. hello newzild,
    no worries, i have also mentioned that those shots are far from good, with many flaws. But hey, its one step at a time learning process. I also did not suddenly be able to shoot street like i can today, it took countless shutter therapy sessions.
    But yeah i like the last shot!!

  6. Funny, I was exactly thinking about portrait photography lately. I recently made one of these blurred background, face close-up shots and my subject was quite happy with it. But, I believe this kind of photos is really limited, because it all really depends on the facial expression. Or posture, if full body shot.

    A real portrait, as I see it, should be representing who the person is, and in that sense, taking a shot of someone working (for example) would be what I would call portrait photography. Or to put it more correctly, the environment of that person is very important.

    And I agree completely about getting to know the person. This way you can see which part of their environment represents them the best. It also gives them time to get used to you taking snaps.

  7. Robin, I'm just learning too so I liked seeing your settings. F2 on the 50mm makes sense to me. Are you using AF or manual focus? That lens is sooo noisey that I seem to use the manual focus. I would think AF in a portrait situation would be way too annoying.

    Peter F

  8. Hello Vladimir,
    You were spot on when you mention about what portrait should be: it should be about the person you are shooting. That is not an easy part, to tell the story about the person through the photos takes time and lots of communication with the subject.

    Hello Peter F,
    I used AutoFocus all the time. The hunting of the 50mm lens on E-5 was minimal, if used under good lighting conditions. So far most of my shooting of the portrait session was under considerably bright light, with lots of contrast on the subject so no worries there. Even if it did hunt, it was for a very short while.

  9. it's hard to find portrait fotos with oly pen. could you post a link to where i can find the fotos?

    i'm not a portrait photographer. but i do respect them for their ability to direct the model. communication is key.

    the only portrait and model photographers I bash talk are horny photographers who make it look like an introduction to porn.

  10. Rcferraris,

    Do join us at PEN Lovers in facebook:

    Some of the PEN users who joined the portrait shooting session have posted up their photographs, you may check it out through the group.

  11. You have some nice work here. Good use of the environment and light. As an environmental portrait artist and street photographer, it's difficult for me to see why you don't find anything of artistic value in model shooting.

    Of course, group photoshoots are mostly a pain, jockeying with the others to find a worthy shot. But I enjoy the challenge of finding the light, location and flattering pose of model photography, just as I enjoy the spontaneity and energy of street photography. I'm also fortunate to have discovered some great friendships by building relationships with the models/MUAs and other artists I've met along the way. I suppose I'm really just puzzled that you would be so dismissive of model portraiture. There are hundreds of ways to shoot the same person uniquely. When I shoot models, my images are my interpretation of how I see them, and so they are truly unique artworks to my mind. If others like them as well, fantastic. If not, no skin off my nose.

    Ah well, differences are what make the world go round. ;)

  12. Hello Justin,
    Thanks for the compliments on my photographs !!

    I think I might have confused my readers when I mentioned I do not quite support an arranged photoshoot session for a portrait. Yes, I was solely referring to those arranged portrait sessions where 10 photogaphers attacked a model, with little if no opportunity at all to communicate or direct the model at all. They just click and click, and yes they do come home with nice photographs but those photographs do not represent real portraiture: to tell the story of the person. How can it happen in the first place since minimal communication and interaction took place?

    Of course, if you have the effort and time invested in making that connection between the photographer and the model, and you spend time bringing out the best of your portraits, it is an entirely different story. In those earlier mentioned arranged photoshoot sessions with many photographers, the model might not even look into your camera that often because there were 10 to look at at the same time !!

  13. I could not agree with you more! There is almost nothing artistic about "fashion photography". If someone fixates only on doing "glamourous portraits" it hampers his progress as a photographer.

    Novices like portrait photography because it gives them acceptable results without any kind of learning about technigues etc.

  14. @Robin
    I hear ya, lol, group shoots don't give you much time with the model, and you get the same shot that 10 others are getting.

    @Bartosz Dawidowski
    Wow, that's a lot of assumptions and definitive statements, with which I disagree completely.

  15. Robin...if I may suggest, there was this famous photographer (can't remember his name now) who was famous for his portraits. One thing he did was always to ask his subjects to jump - since they had to concentrate on jumping, their posed face dropped away...and revealed their true self.

  16. I like combining both stretching and yoga into my early morning home fitness routine.

    A firm backside or solid thigh and calf muscles are just some of the things that toning the body may accomplish.
    Putting the fork down is this best way to avoid the over
    indulgence of certain foods.

    Also visit my web site :: tap the hinh nam