Portraits and Places: Photographing People in Their Spaces | Benjamin Heath | Skillshare

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Portraits and Places: Photographing People in Their Spaces

teacher avatar Benjamin Heath, Photographer

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Your Assignment: Create a 5-Photo Essay


    • 3.



    • 4.

      Subject and Storytelling


    • 5.



    • 6.



    • 7.

      Bringing It All Together


    • 8.

      Explore Photo Classes on Skillshare


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About This Class

Photographer Benjamin Heath (benjaminheath) is passionate about portraiture and storytelling. As a result, he often combines the two in his work, creating compelling narratives and visuals of people he comes across in his life. In this class, Benjamin will provide instruction for creating a photographic narrative of someone. Each photo will require different considerations when it comes to composition and lighting, and the variety of class challenges will build your photography skillset from any level—novice, intermediate, and pro alike.


What You'll Learn

  • Portrait photography. Ben will teach you how to use cameras, lighting, composition, and your subject’s personality to create a series of photographs that tell a story about your subject’s life. . No matter what your skill level, Ben’s online photography class will help you hone your creative process and inspire you to shoot more authentic narrative portraiture.  
  • Creating your own. When you learn photography online, it’s still important to get hands-on experience! In this assignment, you’ll dive right in by shooting a photo essay on someone from your own life that you find interesting. Once completed, you’ll upload your favorite photographs, and optionally, your least favorite, for constructive criticism and positive advice.
  • Engaging your subject. Your subject’s comfort is a critical part of a productive shoot. Ben will walk you through the ways that he approaches his subjects to puts them at ease and encourages them to be a part of his artistic process.
  • Working with setting. Choosing a setting that is inspired by your subject makes your photography more impactful. You’ll learn how to select the right setting, and how to manipulate it in order to frame your subject and reduce unnecessary visual distractions.
  • Framing and composition. Shooting at different angles will keep your photo essay dynamic and fresh. In his photography class, Ben will explain the variety of techniques that he relies on to create energetic compositions in any situation. You’ll learn about wide-angle and overhead shots, the lenses Ben uses, and other industry tricks to help you avoid common framing challenges.
  • Shooting outdoors. Ben will discuss the importance of lighting, and how to work with diffused outdoor light, like natural cloud cover, to pop your colors, avoid unflattering shadows, and create sharper photographs.
  • Shooting indoors. You’ll learn about the challenges that often come with shooting indoors, and the technique Ben uses to successfully troubleshoot pitfalls. He will teach you how to bracket and use shutter speeds to make sure you get your exposures right – whether you’re using a digital camera or film.
  • Editing and sequencing. Ben describes, step-by-step, how he works with his photographs after they are shot. You’ll learn about how he processes film, edits digital shots, and selects his favorites before sequencing them in an order that best showcases his subject’s story. Ben will also discuss what you should consider when you establish a narrative arc with your photographs, and shares a special tip to help ensure your creative decisions are made with “fresh eyes.”

Meet Your Teacher

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Benjamin Heath



Hi. My name is Ben and I'm a photographer based in San Francisco, California. My work can be seen here:




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1. Introduction: My name is Ben Heath, I'm a commercial photographer based in Los Angeles, California. I'm teaching a class at Skillshare on portrait photography, and not just straightforward portrait, but more of a photo essay on a person. So, I'm hoping to show students how I approached this sort of task and I try to tell us who every person is. What they're interested in? Where is they work or what their work looks like? How they go about their work? You need to kind of make your subjects comfortable, and interested, and kind of at ease with what it is that you're doing. I think, that in itself is a challenge and an art form of its own. This class is for anyone. If you're just starting out, and you want to figure out how light works in a photo, or how to make a strong composition, or if you've been taking photos for a while, and you want to learn a little bit more about what it is that I do, and how I create my photographs. I'm hoping that everyone can learn a little bit something from this class. I think it's important to tell those stories through a narrative of photos instead of just trying to get the job with one frame. Maybe, I can spark an idea of their own and make them take what I do and and run with it and figure out what it is that they want to do. 2. Your Assignment: Create a 5-Photo Essay: I chose this project because this is something that I really like to do. I really like taking photos of people and taking portrait photographs and because it blends in something that I want to learn more about which is to create an effective essay that shows who a person is in a more robust way than a single photo can. The final assignment for this project is to create a photo essay on someone that you find interesting. I'm hoping students can learn the fundamentals such as light and composition, finding someone that you find interesting. A friend, a friend of a friend, someone you may know through social media and reaching out to them to more complicated tasks like making someone feel comfortable and at ease getting their photo taken. The time commitment for completing this project could vary. It might take you a little while to find a subject that you're interested in. Actual shooting time shouldn't be too long, maybe an hour, two hours at the most. When you finish with your project, you should upload to the site a couple of things. First, I would like to see your final set of photos that are part of your photo essay, and an optional upload would be kind of your outtakes. I think it would be cool to see the photos that you took that maybe you didn't like so much, and that way I can kind of see what you didn't like versus what you did like and how you got there. Thanks so much for signing up for my class. I'm so happy that you're interested in what it is that I do. I'm really excited to see what it is that you guys do on this project. Let's get started. 3. Setting: Setting is really important. I think it contributes to a photo in a big way. I think you have to connect it to the person in a way, and I think that's what makes what we're trying to do today interesting. So, you think about who the person is and what they do and why they do it, and you figure out some place or some thing that's connected to that. So, with Noah today, as soon as she said like, "I make these giant pomegranate sculptures because I found a pomegranate in my backyard, and I thought that the way that it was formed was really cool." This is the actual pomegranate tree where she got the idea for the glass pomegranate seeds that she's going to have in her next installation. So, it was having a kind of talk. This little space right here wasn't just a neat place to put my lens. So, I'm getting the tree in kind of blurred in the foreground. But I'm going to have her under the tree where she's explaining compression of the pomegranate and structure and how it works. I've never really thought about a pomegranate so much but it's interesting to hear what inspires her to make her installation. So, I just thought it was kind of a neat shot right here in the yard. The setting is often an obvious choice but sometimes I think you can work a little harder and get something a little bit more interesting. But I think it's really important to show that setting, instead of just a three-quarter portrait. Say, this is a chef. All right. That's neat, that's a great photo but like, what's it look like where they work? Show me them working that energy, and those kind of photos, I think, it can be really cool. If a student likes a particular setting and they think the light is cool or they think there's some kind of energy there, I would encourage them to try that out. I don't think you need to determine 100% that it's going to work. If you're feeling good about it, that's good enough for me. I would say, go ahead and try that spot out. The next thing to think about is framing. So, when you're walking around shooting, there were some stuff that didn't quite work because the background was a little messier, a little noisy. Angles didn't quite work when we're in her studio. I had to change lenses because I couldn't quite get the long lens to work in there, I couldn't stand where I wanted to stand. I think that's what happens a lot. If you feel like you can't stand where you want to stand to get the photo, then you have to rearrange things a little bit and make the setting a little bit more yours. Some other examples are we wanted to see her talk about a pomegranate. We tried that over in her studio there but determined that the light wasn't that great and it wasn't that pretty over there so we move again back into her yard and I think it landed itself to a little more photogenic setting. 4. Subject and Storytelling : To make a subject comfortable, that's a great question. I think that's probably one of the most important things at least for me. I think one thing I like to do is put the camera down for a little bit. Really, if ever, just come in and start taking photos right away because I think that sets of s like a weird mood. You have this barrier between you and the subject right away. So you're trying to take that barrier away and trying to make the subject and you, the photographer, comfortable. So if you hold a camera up in between you, just physically there's something in between you and it just doesn't really feel right, right away. So, I just keep the camera down and just talk and see who it is that you're talking to and say hello. Today, for example, Noah was telling us about her work and who she is and the kind of stuff that she's building, and that gave me a few ideas. So, through talking to Noah, I had a few ideas of shots that I wanted to take, and I was able to say, "Hey, Noah, I think this might be a cool shot over here." and then telling the subject what you want to do and what your idea is I think in a way it gets them involved and gets them excited about taking photos as well. So, take your time, get to know the person a little bit, let them get to know you a little bit. Share an idea or two. I think if you make the subject part of the shoot, your teammate in this, which they really are, then they're going to be a little bit more excited. 5. Shooting: So, when you're shooting your subjects there's a few different style of shots you might want to keep in mind to help you tell the narrative. Beyond just kind of the three-quarter portrait, which I encourage you to go ahead and do one of those and get a nice photo of your subject. But think about some different approaches in different compositions that you can make that kind of show the person working and kind of has a little bit of energy. So today for Noah, she has a couple of the different workspaces that we worked in. In her studio where she works with at the computer. This is certainly not my trademark shot by any means. It's a really popular show and I think it works for a lot of reasons but you kind of do an overhead of the person working, and so you kind of have a perspective play. So, you're kind of in the person see like seeing them. So in Noah's example she's working on the computer. We had a nice desk in the windows behind her computer and it was really neat to kind of take that overhead shot to kind of get that perspective. I think that's a really effective shot. Perhaps not the most original, but I think it works in a really neat way. Outside here we had that really strong thing. One of the first things she said to me was she was inspired by the objects in her garden. So it became obvious that okay, so we really have to get some neat wide angle shots of her in her garden. So if you meet this person it's like, oh this garden really inspired me to create all this stuff and then you have just a three-quarter portrait of her against a tree. Well, you don't really, well, what's the garden like. So she had some really interesting things here. She has these chickens and these kale plants and all these beautiful greens that are behind her home. So I thought it really made sense to get kind of a wide shot of that stuff, kind of showing this area that she spends a lot of time in and is inspired by. So I would encourage students to kind of think about, "Okay, what inspires this person and how can we get kind of a nice photo of them in that area that inspires them and around the things that inspire them". If they played music and it's a specific instrument, well, try to think of creative ways to have them work with the instrument and create a little bit of energy there. So, I brought two prime lenses; a wide angle and more of a longer lens. So that's going to let me shoot both environmental stuff and then maybe a few closer portraits. Can we pull this bench? Yeah. Up to like here. Yeah. I should probably take these off. Sure. Yeah. How much does it cost to make one them? How about 600? Okay. Probably should have asked that later. Yeah. The labor and material costs. Wow! Okay, so let's maybe set it down here and throw off the balance of the composition. It just helps me kind of, I mean that camera and the iPhone aren't even the same aspect ratio, so it's not perfect, but it helps me kind of see if it's going to look good inside of a frame. I can exclude whatever and just kind of see what the balance looks like. So when she said she wanted to move the bench to the side, I just looked at the phone and just realized that that was going to throw the balance off and I wasn't going to like the shot anyway, so we just bagged that. So now we are going to try something different to kind of show the same work but in a different way. When composing a frame, I trust a lot of my instincts at this point. I don't really spend a lot of time checking any list but I certainly used to. One thing that I find that I do is I always look through the frame. There's always something in the background that bothers me. It used to drive me crazy when I would get photos back or to film backroom or put photos on my computer I be like "I wish that wasn't there. Why didn't I see that." And so that was kind of funny were talking about this now because that happened today. I was shooting Noah in her space, in the garage area and there was this thing hanging down in the background and so when I was taking your photo it looked like this bar was kind of coming out of her head. Just was driving me crazy. It's not very clean. So when you're taking your photos, think about composition, and think about the framing front to back. So in other words, if it were a 3D box, think about everything that's in the photo from the foreground, to the middle ground, to the background and say what well is there anything in there that's really bothering me there. It's messy and just clean it up out of there, keep it neat. Do you have any pomegranates that are kind of ripe right now or? I have one that I saved but it's a little past its prime. That's okay. Should I grab it? Yeah. Yeah. Let's see what it looked like if you grabbed maybe one of the smaller ones and then the real pomegranate. Okay. Perfect. Okay. Maybe kind of lean on your bench a little bit. That's perfect, stay just like that. Can you brush your hair back on your right side, so that I can see your face. Perfect. You can use lines in a really nice way. I have a golden ratio of tattoo, so I spend some time thinking about how you can use leading lines to really draw you into a photo and how shapes, different shapes make sense. So when we shot Noah in her garden, I found something that I really liked because the vegetable boxes kind of led back to her, but there was also a nice shape at the top from the tree kind of overhanging. So, it's kind of a lot of stuff coming by to frame her and kind of perfectly in the center back of the frame. But also having like the pomegranate tree above me and the greens beside me and that's the stuff that really inspires her. Yeah, kind of right there. Kind of face forward towards me. So I'm putting my camera right kind of under her face to get a good light measurement for where she is. There's a neat arch in the tree branch behind you that I kind of want to fit you in. Three, two just kind of relax. Maybe shake your hair a little bit. So I just want to push this one out a little bit to give it a bit more balance. Kind of flap her. Yeah. Can we do that again. So I think that kind of made, hopefully made for a strong composition because we had these, it's just really easy for the eye to get to her while kind of getting to see the stuff that inspires her. So again, keep your compositions clean. Think about shapes. Think about how it's going to lead your eye into the photo. Look at the corners, like is there anything messy in the corner? If you're cropping the photo, don't land on something weird like should it be in the photo or should be out of the photo. It shouldn't really be half. So, you want to just keep it clean from front to back and in the corner. So again, keep the photo, keep your compositions clean, keep the shapes interesting and dynamic. Think about who it is that you're shooting and create a shot list that kind of matches that person and what it is that they do. I think working with a person can lead to some unexpected results. You never quite know what they're going to say, what they're going to do or what the photo will look like. To work with someone and to get a set of photos or even one photo that just really shows who they are and is a beautiful looking photo and is interesting to look at and I think that's really hard. I like to learn, I like to mess up. I think I've made so many mistakes. I've taken tens and tens of thousands of really awful photos, and I will and I'll keep doing that because that's how I learned to make good ones and I think when you're shooting with people you make a lot of bad photos and their mouth is open and their eyes look weird or the movement is not right, the composition is a little off and just didn't quite nail it. And it's kind of that chasing the dragon of the perfect portrait photo that keeps me kind of fired up and doing it. 6. Lighting: So, when I'm setting a shoot up late, what I think about the most. Today, we ran into two things. It was really cloudy day. So, outside, the light is really nice and even. We talked about that a minute ago. But, inside, it was very dark. There wasn't much light coming through her windows. So, we won and lost today. So, light, obviously very important. I think the light right here is really cool. Even though it's going to hurt us when we go inside, there's a big, soft box in the sky, right now. So, imagine a room full of lamps and none of those lamps have a lamp shade. That's like a sunny day at noon is like, right? I don't know what is going on in the sky, but it is right, kind of where that plant is, is just really a nice proper light right there. Then, if you put a shade on them and the light isn't diffused and really soft and even, there's no shadows anywhere, today. It's very soft light. Easy to work with. It's going to make the photos sharper. It's going to make the colors pop more than not going to be washed out. It's just more soothing to the eye to look at, I think. If you're using natural light, then you're bound to the space. Like, her front room is really cool and the printer is really cool and seeing where she works. I think that make a rad photo, but there's no light coming in. So, that can handicap you a little bit. I mean, lean back a little bit. That's good. That's cool. So, it's neat to see a whole display. We'll try a few more in different exposure. So, this is called bracketing. So, a lot of people bracket for HDR. Now, take the same shot at different exposures and then I'll stack them together. What I'm doing now, she's filming. This room's a little dark and I'm a little nervous about it. So, I'm going to shoot at different shutter speeds, to shoot them wide open. I'm going to shoot it at few different shutter speeds. One that's pretty slow, and that might make the photo blurry, and one that's a little faster, and it might make the photo dark. So, that way, when I get to film back, I can see, I held it tight and it wasn't as blurry as I thought, or it's not as dark as I worried. So, I'll have a few options. So, I always like to, if I'm nervous about an exposure, I'll shoot it a couple of different ways. So, I don't like mixed light. So, I want to expose just for the natural light that's coming into the garage and I don't want the mixed yellow, quite messing up the exposure. I'm thinking, I always hate when those go together. I think it looks bad. Then, in the chickens, the way that the plants are as a natural line down that will lead the eye coming back to her. The reason I pushed her so far back in that space is because the tree that I was under was blocking the light closer to me. So, what I hope it looks like is I'm going to have the branches from the tree on the top frame line, and at the bottom frame line is going to be the lines are the plants leading to her. That's my idea. We'll see if it works. It's the fun of film. 7. Bringing It All Together: What's a capture a photo? A couple of things happen. It depends on if I'm shooting film or digital. If I'm shooting film, I have a lab that I like to have them processed at. Usually, I'll just get them processed and I'll scan them myself. There's not really much that's kind of the beauty about film. It saves you a lot of time because there's not a lot of editing that really has to be done. Maybe just a little touch of contrast here, clean up the edges, make the crop look a little bit better if you didn't quite nail it in camera. Small tweaks to exposure and that's pretty much it. I really don't color correct film at all. I think it really looks beautiful on its own. If it's digital, there's a longer workflow, I'll upload everything onto my computer and to a hard drive and then I'll bring it into light room. I use light room to process, and I'll just do a run-through and I'll delete a bunch of obvious knows. I'll take another pass through where I'll pick my slacks. So, you go through maybe a 100 photos and they'll be 40 that you liked. So then I'll go through those and I'll do one more pass where these are the ones, out of those 40, these are the five that I really like and I'm add those to my quick collection which is a neat feature on my room, and then once I've done then I'll edit those five and maybe I'll batch up, edit the other 35, just to have them all looking alike. It's like whittling down obvious knows. Okay. These are kind of interesting. These are the ones I really like and maybe this is the one that I think is probably the winner from this whole set. So, using photos it's tough, it's a really hard skill to learn, I think there's a lot of stuff to think about. You think you have the photos flow together from beginning to end. Every story has a start, a middle and an end. There's kind of an arc to it and you have to keep the photos in an order that keeps that art true. It's very basic in a way because you just think about, well, how does the story of today go? What makes sense. For the photos to look like, so it can be in a linear fashion. This is the beginning of the day, end of the day, end of the day. Or you can sequence it in a way that the colors and the light is in order, the shapes flow together. So maybe you're missing something. So, usually I'll have a friend, take a look with me if that's something I'm really working hard on, because by the time you, from a photo is born and a little gleam in your eye, until you can drop the shutter down until you edited it or got the film back. That you've thought about that photo a lot or spent a lot of time by that photo. So there's price and stuff that you're missing and maybe your [inaudible] so much. You're not really looking at it with the fresh eyes. I think it's important to have maybe a friend or two take a look for you and help you out. Students can self evaluate their own work and process on this project in a couple of ways. I think the first thing I would ask them to do is pick one photo that they shot that they really really love and ask, why does it work for them? What do they like about it? What makes it really interesting to them and where do they think they succeeded in that photo? Then second, I would ask them to pick one photo that just was so bad it was just a complete failure really mess it up. It didn't quite work out the way he had in mind and exposure isn't good or the composition isn't good and just think about the reasons why you don't like that photo. I think it's important to spend some time looking at your messes and thinking about what you did wrong because then you start to think about how you could have done it differently next time. When commenting on each other's work, I would just ask they be nice, keep in mind that everybody's doing the best that they can, or trying hard. I think constructive criticism is important part of art and we should all be able to offer help to others in a constructive way without being afraid of being critical. I think the same time you got to be nice and respectful of the person and who they are. So, I think if you're going to say, you have some negative criticism, start to think about some positive things that you have to say as well so you're not just being negative only. 8. Explore Photo Classes on Skillshare: