portrait photography

Sharon How, pianist

Well, it’s a mysterious and wonderful calling to be a photographer, I find. You put yourself out there on Facebook and Instagram, you create a website, you do a little advertising with Google AdWords, and one day you receive a message from a young pianist asking for a one-hour studio session to produce a series of professional portraits. Of course, you say yes.

Sharon arrived straight from the hairdresser, fully made up and in the dress in which she was to give a concert (a Bach solo piece) later in the day. She refused coffee, tea and water in order not to mess up her lipstick. We talked for a while. She is Singaporean, studying in the US. She has beautiful hands and a lovely laugh. She showed me a photograph of her without the hairdo and the makeup.

Then we went downstairs to the little studio set-up I had created in our basement – a simple white drop, plenty of natural light and a couple of LED lamps, and on-camera fill flash. What an incredibly intense and intimate hour – for the photographer, trying to ‘see’ a stranger, and for the subject, trying to reveal herself to a stranger.

But I think we made it. I am proud of the results, and Sharon wrote me a lovely message to thank me for them: “I just managed to look through Sharon_web-best on my phone and they turn out really amazing, so much to the ideal portraits that I have always wanted to have for myself. In addition, I am amazed by the black and white photos (it is incredible some look nicer in black and white), it changed my whole perspective of the artistic potential of black and white art! The black and white photos are so artistic and incredible! I really really love them!”

The photos on this page are outtakes. They are not the ‘professional’ shots, but rather the ones that show Sharon’s playful side. She’s a lovely person, and I hope that we can stay in touch. One day, I’d like to shoot her without makeup and with her own short hair.

Running portraits

This year's Brussels 20km race attracted around 40,000 runners, who completed the circuit through the city's boulevards and parks in sweltering heat. At around its half-way mark the course runs throught the Bois de la Cambre, close to where I live, and I was there as the first contestants arrived. Soon, the road was packed solid with contestants.

Like all the best activities in Brussels, the 20km mixes participants and spectators from Belgium's Flemish-speaking and French-speaking communities with foreign residents and visitors, and it is conducted with universal good humour.

I love photographing people as they run. Their faces are concentrated and intense, expressing aspects of themselves that would often be hidden in posed portraits. But it is technically and emotionally challenging – I only had a second or two to select each face and focus, swinging the camera to track it as the person passed. I tried to acknowledge everyone I photographed, and exchanged smiles and a few words with many of them. At one point, firemen had tapped into the mains water supply to set up a makeshift spray, and I captured some fine expressions of shock as cold water drenched hot bodies.

After a couple of hours, I cycled across town to the Cinquantenaire where the race had started and where many of the people I had photographed were now arriving at the finish. I managed to speak with a few of them. I gave Claude my card and have since sent him the portraits that I took of him.

Photographing families – beyond the studio portrait

Last weekend I photographed a young family in their home just outside Brussels. It was the second time in a week that a client had told me: "We want something less formal, more spontaneous."

I had a great time, chatting with the parents, sitting on the floor with the children (aged three and one), and getting really close as they became absorbed in a story or a game. I started shooting the moment I arrived, and in the two hours I was there I don't think I even asked for a head to be turned more than two or three times.

A tripod or a flash would have made it much harder to get the children – and perhaps the parents, too – to relax and be themselves. So I was pleased that there was midday light pouring in through a big picture window. I shot fairly wide open in order to separate my subjects from the background clutter of furniture and toys. But despite that, I had to compromise with shutter speed and ISO, except for the 15 minutes when we went out into the garden.

Technically, the resulting images are not as perfect as those that a studio photographer would have produced. But nor are they stiff or stilted. They capture the personalities of four members of a family on a particular day in the winter of 2017, enjoying one another's company in their own environment. That is, after all, what my clients wanted. And they are super happy with the results.

I'm not posting any images of the children here, because the parents specifically asked me not to publish these online.