EOS Pro portraiture photographer Karan Gurnani has a knack for capturing the expressiveness of his subjects’ faces. We go behind the camera to find out more about the man and his craft.
EOS Professional Karan Gurnani
Tell us briefly how you started in photography.
My first foray into photography was at 9 when I got the chance to fiddle with my mother’s camera on special occasions. At 11, I held my very first Canon PowerShot A400 which became my best friend. I’d went to the park to take photos of whatever I wanted to save as memory.
EOS 5D Mark IV | F/1.8 | ISO 100 | 1/6400s
At 15, my parents finally bought me my first DSLR: a Canon EOS 50D. I really started getting into photography at a semi-professional level then even though I hadn’t considered it a viable career prospect yet.
One day, I knew it was something I wanted to do. I called an old friend, Ryan Peters, whom I knew was a professional photographer for advice; one thing led to another and today, Ryan and I are not only the best of friends, but business partners in running Spectrum Photography as well.
EOS 6D | F/2.5 | ISO 250 | 1/250s
Your expressive portraits show your passion. What led you to this and why?
I find it incredibly strange that I am indeed a portrait photographer. I say this because for the first decade of photographing, I barely took any portraits at all – to the dismay of the females in my family who constantly wanted new profile pictures! My interest was landscape and wildlife.
EOS 5D Mark IV | F/1.6 | ISO 100 | 1/2000s
On hindsight, I think why I shied away from it was because it was so daunting! To take a portrait of someone is like photographing the world’s greatest critic – people are often too critical of themselves and getting past that is tough work.
What other genres of photography do you shoot?
I also do commercial and corporate work. It’s funny how the more genres you explore, the more you realise how they interact with each other. I tend to apply the techniques and skills required for a specific genre on a completely unrelated one.
EOS 5D Mark IV | F/8 | ISO 100 | 1/125s
I tend to approach photographing people like I do wildlife. Both genres require substantial patience and a fast finger. Both take time to get your subject to relax despite your presence, and the perfect shot only comes around once.
What do you look to highlight in your pictures?
No question about it: eyes. They’re probably the most important aspect of any portrait as they really tie the frame together. Another reason I pay so much attention to my subjects’ eyes is that my style of shooting portraits utilises a very shallow depth of field. It’s sort of interdependent because I shoot shallow so that the focus is on my subject, but that shallow depth of field forces me in turn to focus on their eyes so that they stay in focus.
EOS 5D Mark IV | F/1.6 | ISO 100 | 1/400s
The next thing is the story I’m trying to tell with it. I rarely ever publish a shot without a purpose to it. The challenge with portraiture is that there isn’t much context to infer from, which makes storytelling particularly difficult.
Still I’ve developed my own style through which the story I’m trying to convey comes through. One of my favourites is to fill the frame entirely with the subject, and make the crop as tight as possible (often at the expense of the top of their heads). I do this to bring attention on the subject’s expression to bridge the gap between the audience and the feeling I’m trying to invoke with the portrait. You’ll be surprised at how adept we are at perceiving emotions merely from facial expressions.
EOS 5D Mark IV | F/2.2 | ISO 125 | 1/250s
Finally, I pay close attention to colours. Being a photographer has changed the way I see the world around me. I’m constantly looking for colours that complement one another, or ones that accent a particular scene. It not only adds an additional dimension to portraits, but also communicates the mood of the moment.
Which gear do you often bring in your shoot?
My workhorse is a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. An absolute beast which I’ll never exchange for any other body in the world because it has gone through everything with me – from simple hour-long events to fourteen hour-long jungle expeditions in torrential rain – and never fails. My previous workhorse, a Canon EOS 6D, is my backup body. It was my first full-frame camera, producing great images even today.
EOS 6D | F/2.2 | ISO 400 | 1/640s
The lenses I bring depend on the situation. I never leave home without my EF70-200mm f/2.8 IS II USM, my favourite zoom. The primes I use range between 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. If I were to nominate an MVP, my EF50mm f/1.8 II USM would be it. They say old is gold and this lens proves it. It has brilliant optics. For its price and weight, it’s a no-brainer.
How do the features of your camera and lenses help or influence your shoot?
The EF50mm f/1.8 II USM is my “magic lens”. Its slightly longer focal length isn’t always popular with portrait photographers because its minimum focusing distance is quite far from the subject. So the set or venue needs to be long enough for the photographer to back up. But the reason I like using it is precisely because of its length; the background melts away and the subject almost always looks proportionate, if not slightly slimmer. It’s definitely a favourite with female subjects.
EOS 5D Mark IV | F/2 | ISO 200 | 1/2000s
My EOS 5D Mark IV is jam-packed with features. I can customise it to exactly the way I like to shoot. I’d say the most significant one is the back-button focusing. It takes a little getting used to, but once you do, it’s a shot-saver. Decoupling the focusing from the metering may not seem like a big deal, but given that the shot I need is often fleeting, those precious milliseconds saved helps me capture it. I also have each of the dials programmed to respond to the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, allowing me to change my exposure swiftly.
EOS 5D Mark IV | F/2.2 | ISO 125 | 1/4000s
Its brilliant battery life, weather-sealing, and dual card slots have also saved me more times than I’d like to recall. I never understood the importance of such features until I started photographing professionally. I’ve been on shoots where everything that could’ve gone wrong did. I really can’t do without them anymore
Any advice to photographers who want to try portraiture?
Don’t compare yourself to others. Looking at how well your competition is doing and feeling envious about it won’t make you a better photographer. Copying your mentors work won’t make you a better photographer. Scrolling endlessly through Instagram wondering why you don’t have as many likes won’t make you a better photographer either. Instead, take your camera out, whatever it may be, and shoot what you love. Don’t be afraid to fail, and choose to learn from your mistakes rather than be defined by them.
EOS 5D Mark IV | F/9 | ISO 100 | 1/125s
Specifically to portrait photography though, my advice is practice. One of the first portraits I made was of my mother. It remains to this day, one of my best portraits. So start practising with your mom’s face.
What trends do you observe in portrait photography these days?
The use of fairy lights to add accent to the scene. These types of portraits are generally shot wide open, thus turning the lights into pleasant “bokeh-balls” either in the foreground or background.
Using leaves and their silhouette to either surround or pattern subjects is also becoming more vogue. The biggest trend – though I wouldn’t call it a trend given how commonplace it is – is to use film emulations when editing portraits. The wide variety of presets that are available makes it a useful (and undoubtedly beautiful) tool in a portrait photographer’s arsenal. I personally don’t use it too much, unless I feel it requires that type of treatment.
EOS 5D Mark IV | F/2.8 | ISO 320 | 1/100s
What projects can we expect from you this year?
Something to do with tigers, body-paint, underwater, black-light, apparel, Hong Kong, Mongolia.
Check out these links for more works from Karan Gurnani: