Shooting portraits on film

I didn’t take many portraits when I was was shooting 35mm film in high school and college. I focused more on vérité or journalistic shooting, trying to capture spontaneous moments on the fly. But since diving back into film photography this year, I’ve had a huge amount of fun shooting portraits of friends. I’m still aiming for spontaneity and life in every shot, but I’ve come to really love the vibe that comes from setting up a special time to meet a friend and take their picture.

I think that life during an ongoing pandemic has made these sessions particularly special to me. Looking back on these photos, I find myself marveling over how happy everyone seems. I started shooting these portraits when meeting friends in person was still incredibly rare for me, so each moment meant a lot.

I also think that folks can respond in a special way when they know you’re taking their picture with 35mm film. The camera looks cool. The process takes a little more time and care. And there’s a sense of permanence, legacy, and history that comes with having your picture taken on actual film. So the moment generates a kind of quiet excitement that can contribute something lovely to the images you capture.

Finally, the fact that we always meet outside for COVID safety reasons and often go for a walk gives everything an organic, natural feel that’s good for the body and soul — and the final pictures.

Joe Illidge, Brooklyn, NY.

In May, I did my first comic book signing in over two years, and the great comics editor Joe Illidge came by to say hi. It was an outdoor signing hosted by Anyone Comics in Brooklyn, and we could not have asked for a more glorious day — breezy, cool, and lovely. I think we all felt pretty great, and I love the way this photo came out. Shot with a Canon FTb and a Canon FD 50mm f1.4 on Tri-X.

Marc Guggenheim, NYC.

I shot this photo of fellow STAR WARS comics writer Marc Guggenheim with a Canon T60 and a Canon nFD 50mm f1.8 on Tri-X. The sun was going down and I shot pretty wide open, so there’s a nice narrow depth of field and a lovely glowy effect with the park lamps in the background. Folks generally prefer the Canon FD 50mm f1.4 for portraits, but the plain vanilla f1.8 did great for us here.

Evan Narcisse, Austin, Texas.
Becky Cloonan and Michael Conrad, Austin, Texas.

Comics creators Becky Cloonan, Michael Conrad, and Evan Narcisse were awesome enough to come out to say hi during my outdoor signing at Dragon’s Lair Comics and Games in Austin, Texas, this June. We found a cool place in the shade on that blazing hot day to shoot a few pictures. Evan was fun to frame with the funky shopping mall architecture in the background. The height difference between Becky and Michael made a horizontal photo tricky, but turned out to be absolutely perfect for a vertical shot. I forgot to change my ASA from 200 to 400 for this roll, but Tri-X is a forgiving film and a lab in Garland pulled it a stop to great effect. Shot with a Canon FTb and a Canon nFD 50mm f1.4.

Fred Van Lente, NYC.

I’ve hung out with my INCREDIBLE HERCULES and MAKE COMICS LIKE THE PROS co-writer Fred Van Lente more than just about anyone else in comics, so it was a total pleasure seeing him in person in April for the first time in a couple of years. The moment was made even more special because this was the first roll I ran through my newly repaired Canon New F-1, the camera my mom bought me back in high school. I’m pretty sure I used a Canon 50mm f1.8 for this shot.

A few practical pointers that work for me

  1. I like black and white for portraits. Feels special and timeless and somehow zeroes right in on emotion and character for me. All of the portraits on this page were taken with Kodak Tri-X 400.
  2. Lots of folks love 100mm or even 135mm lenses for portraits. But I’ve had a ton of good luck with a regular ol’ 50mm lens. You have to get a little closer with the 50mm, but that’s felt fine and maybe even preferable when photographing friends. Someday I do want to get my hands on a 100mm prime, though, just to see!
  3. Lower f-stops create narrower depth of field and allow you to separate the subject from the background in a lovely way. I try to avoid the very lowest f-stop, since that setting tends to be less sharp on most lenses, so most of these images were probably shot around f2.8 or f4.
  4. I try to avoid harsh direct sunlight on my subjects to avoid losing people’s features in shadows. But I also try to find interesting frames with some interesting light in the background, like the dappled light on the leaves in Joe’s portrait above. The trick is avoiding too extreme a difference between the light on your subject’s face and any other light in the image. But black and white negative film tends to have pretty good latitude and can handle a decent range without blowing out.
  5. I often photograph friends after we’ve talked for a while or taken a walk. That gives us a chance to relax and bond a bit, which almost always makes for better, more natural photos.
  6. I try to shoot a lot of photos in a pretty short amount of time so I get a decent number of options without tiring folks out. I don’t generally shoot dozens of images — I’m a little more selective, trying to stay in the moment and press that shutter release with intention when that magic happens. But I also firmly believe in shooting more than I think I might need, because you never know what will go really right or wrong. I probably shoot five or six frames for every image I really love.