5 Tips For Shooting Portraits In A Bar

Having a photography assignment inside a bar may sound like the easiest thing in the world: Grab a pint or a glass of wine, build up some liquid courage, and strike up a conversation with your neighbour. Proceed to capture award-winning images.

But as anyone who has ever tried to shoot photographs of their friends inside a dimly-lit room will know, you’ll need more than a smartphone and dumb luck to make a memorable image.

Image by Giulio Magnifico

For three years, 27-year old photographer Giulio Magnifico has worked on portraits of frequent patrons to the local osterias in his home city of Udine, which lies in the north-east of Italy.

Osterias, which are kind of like pubs but with surely better food, are popular places for town residents to chat and read the newspaper with good wine and charcuterie.”The osterias represent the soul of the ancient traditions of my region. And the people who drink there fit perfectly in the environment.”

Seeing Giulio’s images got us thinking of things to consider if we were to attempt his project in our neighbourhood bars:

1) Ask The Owner For Permission

Image by Giulio Magnifico

If you are planning to do a lengthy photography session, it may be a good idea to get acquainted with the owner and the bartenders so that everyone knows you aren’t just there to be a creep.

Call ahead, or go to the bar/pub a bit earlier so that you can talk to someone there and make sure that the management are okay with what you intend to do.

2) Bring The Right Gear

Image by Giulio Magnifico

Although that 70-200 F2.8 will help you get a sneaky shot from across the room, be a pal and leave it at home. I don’t think anyone is really going to appreciate you resting that loaded gun on the bar table—equal parts conspicuous and obnoxious.

Ideally a light, fast prime lens would be best. It won’t cause alarm or make anyone smirk, which is important when you are trying to get your subjects to be candid and to relax.

Most importantly, fast primes will be able to go up to 1.4, 1.8, or 2.8, allowing you to use a lower ISO and achieve a slight depth of field.

Image by Giulio Magnifico

Considering the length however is also vital. If it is a very crowded afternoon, opting for a slightly longer length like a 50 or a 85 might be useful for isolation.

However, there is little point shooting in a beautifully rustic bar if you don’t get any background detail. Therefore I would suggest something like a fast 35 lens stopped up to 1.8-2.8 to get the subject in their environment. To get a good shot that will fill your frame though, you’ll have to get in close and personal.

An alternative is working with an ultra-wide lens, which would make a small, narrow bar appear much larger. It could be interesting to see a number of subjects inside on frame, although be careful of both distortion and a messy composition.

Lastly, I’ve had some interesting results shooting with old film cameras because the gear itself ends up being a great ice-breaker when photographing older subjects, who might recognize those exact cameras from their youth.

3) Know Your Lighting

Image by Giulio Magnifico

“I want to try to transport the viewer so they feel they are inside the osteria with me and these friendly characters; maybe even accompanied by a glass of wine.”

You definitely won’t be wanting to use a flash as that will most likely annoy everyone inside the bar, so knowing how to make the most of ambient light is ideal.

Try to position your subjects near a window, which can serve as a diffuser for your subject. Harsh light isn’t bad, but it just means you’ll have to utilize the contrast effectively, as Giulio does very well.

Try to avoid dark corners of the bar, unless they have interesting lights such as in the image below. There, Giulio uses the brightness above to almost spotlight his subject.

Finally, when finding a target to meter, try aiming for the darkest part of their face. A portrait is only a portrait when the subject is actually illuminated. Blown out backgrounds aren’t as bad as underexposed faces.

4) Get Acquainted With Your Subject

Image by Giulio Magnifico

Giulio mentioned that a lot of his subjects were elderly men. Buy them a drink, mention your project, and ask them questions about themselves (if they seem open to the idea). This might ease up your subjects so that eventually they will accept your presence and know you aren’t out there to just bother them.

If you plan to do this project over a period of time like Giulio did, revisiting the same bar to talk to the regulars might be a better idea than bar hopping in hopes of a willing subject.

5) Know When To Stop For The Day

Image by Giulio Magnifico

The characters in Giulio’s portraits are mostly elderly because he went to the osterias during the day, before any dasteredly youths arrived to disturb the atmosphere.

This is important. Sometimes you’ll have to judge the mood to see when people are feeling chatty or private. Sometimes it’s just better to sit quietly with a glass of wine and observe the room, planning certain shots for another day.

And don’t be discouraged if you find that your photos aren’t immediately as captivating as Giulio Magnifico’s stark portraits. He did his work over the span of three years, so along the way there were surely many shots that never made the cut.

To view his entire project: