The Eyes Have it
A good portrait is emotion caught in a moment; a split second of truth, remembered. To catch it you need to be ready. Or, at least, so says portrait and fashion specialist, Robert Wolanski, who’s made a career out of seizing these moments and turning them into superb portraits.
© Robert Wolanski | Sony α7R II + FE 85mm f/1.4 GM | 1/100s @ f/2.8, ISO 800
“For me, pure portraiture is about emotion,” he explains, “and the art is in capturing that moment. That’s how it differs from fashion and beauty where makeup and styling are more important. I still care about the appearance of the people I am photographing, but a portrait is about their character...their story. I like modesty and simplicity, but most of all the truth.”
For Robert, getting to this truth starts with communication, but ultimately relies on the ability to react decisively. After all, these moments can be fleeting.
The better your relationship with the subject, he adds, the more communication there is, and the easier it is to find those moments. But it can be difficult when shooting iconic names.
© Robert Wolanski | Sony α7R II + FE 85mm f/1.4 GM | 1/25s @ f/3.2, ISO 320
“The most important thing for me is to have contact before shooting, if possible, but that's a rarity. After all, it’s difficult to imagine Pierce Brosnan or Sting would have a moment to have coffee and a chat with me!” he laughs. “Such opportunities are almost always spontaneous, and accompanied by a project, like a concert or film premiere. But paradoxically, this is often the time when there’s a moment to speak.” Whether it’s at a break for makeup or costume fittings, “there is no rulebook,” he says “but if you can exchange a few words, before shooting, even if only about the weather or children... that’s when energy flows.”
© Robert Wolanski | Sony α7R III + FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA | 1/160s @ f/5.0, ISO 80
Being ready means reacting to the moment, and for that, Robert relies on both his camera gear and his mastery of available light. He is seldom without his Sony α7R III or RX1R II, saying “I thought the α7R II would be hard to beat, but despite the seemingly small – but great – changes, the α7R III is truly a photographer's dream.”
One mode in particular, is huge for Robert’s work. “I often say that I'm not a ‘technical’ person – I don’t know the entire camera menu back to front – but out of all the helpful features, one really stands out for me – the Eye AF. It’s a big deal because it means focus is perfect at the moment you need it – that one second of truth as it appears in the eyes. Eye AF takes the risk away, and it lets me get on with communicating, the process of getting to the moment. I can’t imagine working without this function now.”
© Robert Wolanski | Sony α7R II + FE 85mm f/1.4 GM | 1/125s @ f/5.6, ISO 160
Another aspect of the α7R III that attracts Robert is “the physical size when compared to its vast possibilities. It’s amazing that top-of-the-range professional gear with huge technical capabilities can be less than half the size of what I had been using before. I always want to have a pro camera with me regardless of time and place, so I need one that doesn’t take up half a suitcase!”
With his α7R III he mostly twins the FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA, “because of its quality and that it meets 95% of my needs. The remaining 5% is met by the FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM lens which I often use between 105-135mm.”
© Robert Wolanski | Sony RX1R II | 1/160s @ f/3.2, ISO 50
To take opportunities when they present themselves, he also carries a small LED light as part of his kit, but admits, “ever since I started working with a Sony, my entire approach to lighting has changed, because I know I can get great quality at high ISO settings. And the lack of complex lighting creates a more intimate and friendlier atmosphere.”
This means it’s far easier for him to work with available light, something that he took to a masterly level while working in film and television: “I personally prefer to use fixed, film-style lighting in my portraits – continuous lighting rather than flash. I like to see the effect, or build it up. I like to create an atmosphere where the light is a natural accompaniment.”
© Robert Wolanski | Sony α7R III + FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS | 1/160s @ f/4.0, ISO 80
So how does Robert know when he’s caught the perfect moment? When the truth of the subject has been found in his portrait? It’s back to the eyes, says Robert, “which can be like a compass, pointing in the right direction. Composition is almost always in the background for me, because I’m concentrating on the eyes. Just waiting for the moment they may forget themselves, open up, and look at you with truth – the image of the soul.”