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How to Take: Dramatic Portraits



Michael Butler reenters the world of portraiture with the Tamron 70-180mm F/2.8 Di III VXD lens.


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By Jenn Gidman
Images by Michael Butler



In his early days taking pictures in his native Memphis, Michael Butler concentrated on portrait photography. He fell away from that a bit as he refocused his efforts on street photography, taking pictures at local restaurants (he used to run a local blog), and destination photos, but he recently decided to get back into portraiture with the help of the Tamron 70-180mm F/2.8 Di III VXD lens.

Although Michael typically used prime lenses for his early portrait work, he decided to try out the 70-180mm telephoto lens and immediately fell in love with it. “It’s so versatile—not only for my portraiture, but also for the street photography that I still do,” he says. “I can take it anywhere, because it’s compact, and it has macro ability, with a maximum magnification ratio of 1:4.6. That makes it very useful when I’m shooting portraits in my studio, which is pretty small.”

His approach to taking portraits remains the same as it always has, with his main goal being to tell a story. “When someone looks at one of my pictures, I want them to think about what my subject is doing, or what they may be thinking,” he says. “I also like a more dramatic portrait, rather than the brighter, airier ones you might see on Instagram. I embrace shadows, and to achieve the look I want, I’ve been using one large, continuous light source with a modifier on it. When I’m photographing men, I’ll usually place the light directly overhead, because I want more shadow in their faces. For the women, I’ll angle the light a bit to bring out more detail in their faces.”

Read on to see how Michael used his 70-180 for some recent portraits around his hometown in Tennessee.

© Michael Butler
116mm, F2.8 1/160 ISO 500
Click image to view larger

I had just received the 70-180 lens, and this was my first-ever portrait taken with a continuous light source. I had seen another photo my buddy Dalton had taken of himself against a pink background, so I asked if I could use him as a model against that same background. It was hard to stay serious, because we’re friends and were laughing and joking around during the shoot, but I didn’t want him smiling in the photo. I wanted a more rugged, serious portrait of him—especially against that pink background, which I think made his ruggedness and masculinity stand out even more.

© Michael Butler
96mm, F4 1/125 ISO 400
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I used the same pink background for this black-and-white photo of my girlfriend (I shot both of these images the same day). She hates having her picture taken, but I convinced her to do it—I promised her I’d guide her the whole way. To pose her, I showed her a picture I love of Halle Berry, where Halle is framing her face with her hands like that, and she absolutely loved that look. It made it much easier having a pose she could reenact.

© Michael Butler
111mm, F2.8 1/200 ISO 2000
Click image to view larger

I had a shoot scheduled on this day, but it unfortunately got canceled at the last minute. I didn’t want to completely scrap my plans, so I contacted a model I knew on Facebook who lived right around the corner and asked her if she wanted to meet me and take some pictures. She showed up with this gorgeous mask, and I decided to use as my backdrop an abandoned warehouse in the area to contrast and complement the mask. It was an easy, natural shot, taken in ambient light, with her simply leaning up against the building.

© Michael Butler
70mm, F2.8 1/100 ISO 2000
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I was photographing this model for her birthday at a train station here in Memphis. I went to the restroom, and as I returned, she was standing there waiting for me, basking in that beautiful, natural light coming in through the windows. She had this regal, stately look about her, and I was able to capture that in a totally candid image.

© Michael Butler
131mm, F2.8 1/250 ISO 200
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This is my buddy Phil, who’s also a photographer. He has a look about him that I adore, almost like an old Wild West vibe, but he doesn’t let me take his picture very often. We were out one day taking pictures together, and he was checking out one of the trolleys we have here in Memphis. When he turned back to say something to me, I was able to capture this candid. Guys are sometimes more intriguing to photograph, because they often aren’t as comfortable in front of the camera, so it’s always interesting to me to see what I get back.

© Michael Butler
136mm, F2.8 1/60 ISO 320
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This is Sheleah, who’s on the Shelby County Board of Education. She was sitting in one of those big wicker egg chairs, and we’d already taken a bunch of wide shots when I said, “Hey, let’s try something else.” I zoomed in and shot right through the chair itself, creating a veil of sorts. It adds a little mystery to the photo, especially when I converted it to black and white.

© Michael Butler
88mm, F2.8 1/160 ISO 500
Click image to view larger

This is also Sheleah. She wanted a headshot, so we went to a local strip mall, right outside where there was a small corridor under the exterior covering. By using bokeh to my advantage, that location provided me with a clean, white background, which helped make my subject pop in the photo.

© Michael Butler
70mm, F2.8 1/200 ISO 200
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This was a style shoot, and this woman was one of the models. She and a couple of other models were hanging out by the pool, waiting for one of the other models to get ready, and while I was playing around with my camera and setting up, I noticed her sitting there and simply started shooting. I was able to zoom in with the 70-180 and capture this candid shot, in all-natural light, before the main shoot even started.

© Michael Butler
104mm, F2.8 1/320 ISO 320
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This is the same model who was wearing the face mask. We shot this at a loading dock around the corner from where we captured the mask photo. I’m shooting through a railing on the stairs, which creates a vignette of sorts around the photo. I loved the vertical lines of the pillars, as well as the way the green and blue in the background complemented what she was wearing.

See more of Michael Butler’s work on Instagram.








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