2 men holding violins over their eyes

How I Shoot | Photographing People

Kaupo Kikkas

There is a saying that I love: “Good photos are taken with good cameras. Great photos are taken with your heart and soul.”

When you photograph human beings, I would say that it is probably the most dynamic and challenging field in photography. Photographers should never forget that posing for a photograph is an act of trust. It is a fragile and delicate art that you need to respect.

man in yellow shirt holding a clarinet © Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α7R IV + FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/500s @ f/2.8, ISO 3200

Sometimes my subjects say they like my confidence, as it makes them feel more at ease. That confidence comes from being well prepared, at least technically. If you concentrate too much on f-numbers and camera management for example, you simply don't have enough spare attention for your subject.

Know your gear and use it.

The great thing is, my camera does the thinking for me, allowing me to keep my attention focused fixed on the most important thing in my image – the subject. I have used all the Sony Alpha 7 cameras, but I am currently using the flagship Sony Alpha 1. Its high resolution sensor gives me all the detail I need for commercial and editorial work, with the speed to capture the slightest changes in facial expression.

4 musicians holding violin bows © Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α1 + FE 85mm f/1.4 GM | 1/800s @ f/5.0, ISO 1600

For me, one of the most important improvements in Sony’s camera technology has been Eye AF. I often photograph musicians in terrible lighting conditions. The Alpha 1’s Eye AF system means I can focus on a subject's eye, even when the lighting conditions aren't good enough for the photographer to see it with their own eyes. Previously, this kind of shoot would be shadowed by worries about whether the images would be in focus. I don't have to worry about that anymore.

A story in a frame

You must think of the image frame the same way a painter would a canvas. One of the most common mistakes that beginners make is focusing on the person they are portraying and forgetting about the rest of the image. That means they fill two-thirds of the 'canvas' with something inconsequential, and it shouldn't be like that. In that sense, I approach a shot by thinking that there is no background or foreground, only a single thing, or person, and that is the story inside the frame.

2 men dressed in black looking serious © Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α7R IV + FE 85mm f/1.4 GM | 1/160s @ f/3.5, ISO 3200

If I work with a person, I always try to figure out their story and emphasize this by thinking about how I will tell that through my lens. Even if it's a straightforward black and white close-up portrait, I still need to convince myself first why I'm here and what am I doing.

What the viewer will see in the frame depends on the focal length of the lens I use. I currently shoot at 135mm with the incredibly sharp 135mm f/1.8 G Master lens. I fell in love with the lens as soon as I tried it. I typically use it for full-length and closer shots – it has the smoothest bokeh. I also use the 85mm and the 24-70mm G Master lenses. The three lenses make up about 90% of the portrait images I shoot, with the 135mm being my lens of choice. However, if I am working on location and want to travel light, I will take a single lens with me, depending on the type of shoot.

portrait of a lady in a white shirt © Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α7R IV + FE 135mm f/1.8 GM | 1/200s @ f/8.0, ISO 100

Composition

Composition is a playful thing. There are just a handful of rules you need to know so well that they are almost subconscious. After that, you are free to improvise and let yourself get carried away by flashes of inspiration during the session. It's like in music; you need to know the score before you can start to improvise.

portrait of a lady looking across a lake © Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α1 + FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM | 1/640s @ f/2.8, ISO 320

If you don't have the basics cleared and start to improvise, you can have some odd compositions; the idea might be great, but the overall frame is a mess. I see that a lot, and it's especially dangerous for talented people who have lots of ideas and think they can skip the basics.

Lighting

Lighting your subject isn't just a case of on or off. Light has many qualities like colour, intensity, sharpness and direction. The main thing is to analyse and understand the existing light in the scene, before deciding what you want to do with it.

For me, the lighting process often starts with tiny moves rather than straight away, for example adding big lights, stands, and softboxes. If you move your subject even just by a few meters, it could be a completely different light. Changing the angle you are shooting at can also create an entirely different perspective and background, again changing the overall balance in composition and light.

portrait of a lady hiding behind 2 black boards © Kaupo Kikkas | Sony α1 + FE 135mm f/1.8 GM | 1/1250s @ f/2.5, ISO 100

I have a lot of freedom to work in natural lighting conditions as the sensor of the Alpha 1 can be used at high sensitivity settings without me having to worry about a reduction of image quality. I can shoot album, or magazine covers at ISO 3200, which gives me so much more freedom and space for creativity.

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Kaupo Kikkas

Kaupo Kikkas | Estonia

"Work hard and love what you do, everything else will follow"

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