Portrait photography with Jörg Kyas
©Jörg Kyas. Taken using a Canon EOS 5DSR with an EF 35mm f/1,4L II USM lens; the exposure was 1/160s at f/9, ISO 200.
It’s one of the most common photos we take, and while it seems easy enough, adding your own spin to a portrait photo is deceptively difficult. We spoke to renowned portrait photographer and Canon Explorer, Jörg Kyas, about his work with portraiture and how he juggles his personal and professional photographic pursuits.
The Early Years
There are a lot of different paths people take to become photographers. Some can remember the exact moment they knew they wanted to pursue it as a career, but for Jörg Kyas, his obsession came in waves.
“It all started when I was a teenager, I gained an interest in cameras – but it was more in the technique than in the pictures. Me and a friend of mine had a competition about who knew more about cameras and we started to spend a lot of time in the forest shooting birds of prey…very unsuccessfully. Later, I started to develop black and white films myself in a self-built dark room. I learned early on how a mistake in the beginning could ruin the final result.”
This finite way of working with film made Jörg start to pay more attention to things like image selection and composition. “I started to regard things more exactly and this trained my view and got me more interested in photography as a profession. So when I was deciding on a career, I asked myself what makes me happy? What am I good at?”Jörg laughs, “I had to be true to myself that I maybe would not be able to earn my money with football…so it became clear to go the photographic way.”
© Jörg Kyas. Taken using a Canon EOS 5DSR with an EF 70-200mm f/2,8L IS USM lens; the exposure was 1/1600s at f/11, ISO 100.
Finding his groove
And that’s exactly what he did. Jörg’s path might seem quite traditional. He studied photography at art college in the late 90’s, and began his career as a photographer’s assistant before then returning to the University of Dortmund, Germany, to successfully complete his studies in visual communications.
Starting as a freelance photographer, he cut his teeth with various music companies who took him all over the world to photograph interesting artists and musicians, in backdrops the likes of Cuba, Sao Paulo and Paris.
This access to the famous and almost famous, gave him a crash course introduction into the world of portrait photography.
Portrait photography is a unique form. A lot of people are shy in front of the camera, or aren’t used to being the centre of attention. It’s not always easy to capture a person when they feel vulnerable. When asked how he gets his subjects to relax, Jörg says it’s all about the atmosphere.
“It’s very important to have a relaxed atmosphere on the set. It´s always a cooperation of photographer and model and the better the cooperation is, the better the result in the end. I seldom see good results when there are ‘bad vibes’ on the set.
The key is to communicate a lot and to be honest with the person you’re shooting. Tell him or her exactly what you want. If the model agrees, it’s much easier to work together.”
The advent of digital photography, Jörg says, has also helped subjects feel more inclusive. “You always have your display to show and to explain what´s good or bad and then to improve your image together.”
Communication is key
When asked to dive into the intricacies of portrait photography, Jörg expands on the importance of communication. “For a good picture you need to be close to your subject. For portraiture that means being informed about the person you take pictures of. Before shooting, try to get as much information about your model and, if you have the time, speak with the person before you shoot or during the preparation of the shooting.”
Jörg is also a firm believer that you should evolve with the times, but to always be true to yourself. “You can´t avoid being influenced by the styles of the time. It’ll always find its way into your work. But what I’ve learned through all these years in the photo business is that every style and each new trend will pass, so, in my view, it’s a good thing to try to find your own style and not to be too trendy.”
©Jörg Kyas. Taken using a Canon EOS 5DSR with an EF 50mm f/1,2L USM lens; the exposure was 1/160s at f/8, ISO 200.
Professional or Personal?
Shooting personally and professionally obviously presents different challenges for Jörg, though he says the main difference is the time.
“It’s rare that when you’re shooting professionally you have complete freedom with what you’re shooting”, he begins. “Even if you do, you still have to plan ahead. In the end, you have to make sure, you have some usable results and that you’re not wasting time. If you get all the prepared and planned shots, then you can start opening it up to more freestyling, which people love.”
When he’s creating personal projects Jörg relished the leeway you get. “You have more time and space and that dynamic between planned and freestyle shots is changed. In personal projects I plan more time for freestyle pics, just to have more fun on the set.”
Time is the enemy
Jörg explains that time was his biggest enemy. “It´s always the lack of time that keeps you from shooting all the things you´d like to. But I’m working on it to have more time to shoot things for myself or for an exhibition, at least the wish to create your own ideas and pictures is what drove me into this job in the first place.”
He told us about an exciting project shooting girls with freckles. “A very good photographer and friend of mine, Michael Neugebauer, had this idea years ago and has published already a book on the theme. Sadly the publishing company closed and so the whole project died. Last year we were talking and couldn´t find any reason not to revive this project and work on this, everybody in his own style, together.”
©Jörg Kyas. Taken using a Canon EOS 5DSR with an EF 135mm f/2L USM lens; the exposure was 1/160s at f/7,1, ISO 200.
The Last Picture He Took
“The last professional picture I took was for a campaign about account management fees for a German bank. It sounds boring, but wasn't at all because the model we picked was from an agency called “ugly models”, a so called “street cast“ agency, and he had never worked as model before. He was an American, living in Berlin for twenty years and playing drums in a band. It was such fun to shoot with him, cause he was so unconventional; his humour and all the stories he told. I´m sure that the good atmosphere we had is visible in the pics we did.”
Jörg’s Kit Bag:
EOS 1D X Mark II
EOS 5DS R
EOS 5D Mark III
EF 85 mm f/1.2L
EF - 50mm - f/1.2
EF 35mm 1.4 MkII
24-70mm f/ 2.8
Speedlight 600 EX-RT
Battery grip BG E11
Interview credit: Written by Martin Fleming