Striking Faces

A half a minute. That is all the time Dutchman Gerald Emming allows himself to take his portraits. He photographs people on the street with the Planar T* 1,4/50 –  fast and without any aids. Here he explains how he came up with this radical idea and how he creates such intense, uncontrived images.

Planar T* 1,4/50
An art student from Russia, taken during the lunch break in the crowded student cafeteria at the University of Groningen.

How did you get the idea to portray people in just 30 seconds?

The basic idea behind it is that when you capture a portrait in a studio or outdoors under professional conditions, the end result is normally fantastic.  But it takes a lot of time and preparation, especially for the makeup, hairstyling, clothing and light. I am doing this project to learn what I can achieve in a half a minute, without all that preparation.

What is your approach?

I try to spot people in crowded areas, for example pedestrian zones, shopping centers or train stations. I walk toward them, tell them I am working on this project, show some examples, and ask if I can photograph them quickly — just for one moment. The fact that this is not happening in a protected room but in public is part of my approach. It should be a scene from everyday life.

Planar T* 1,4/50
A young woman, taken in downtown Groningen. At first she hesitated because she did not think she was photogenic. Fortunately, the photographer was able to convince her otherwise.

How do people react when you go up to them and ask them to take part in the project?

Of course everyone is surprised at first. But in the meantime I am able to build up trust very quickly. I introduce myself as a photographer, show some other images from my series, and ask if they would like to take part as well.  Around 80 percent say yes and sign a disclaimer that I am only allowed to use their photograph on my website and publish it in connection with the project. The rest are mistrustful. Nevertheless, I always give them my card so they can look at the other images on my website and see what they are missing. Sometimes people email me later to ask if they can take part after all. But then it is too late of course.

Why? Because the spontaneity is lost? 

Exactly. The only thing that counts is that brief moment on the street with no previous knowledge of each other and no emotional connection.  Because I take people by surprise, they have no time to play-act and take on an unnatural pose.

Planar T* 1,4/50
A man shot in downtown Groningen. He was in a rush, questioned the usefulness of the project, but allowed me to photograph him anyway — a real asset for the picture series.

What is important for you to make a good street portrait?  

The eyes and the way a person looks are most important to me. They should look straight ahead, with the chin a bit down and no laughing or special facial expressions.  I first tell my subject that I will make one or two images to check the light, but in reality the purpose is to make them feel comfortable.  Then I shoot around ten frames. That’s it.

What kind of light and background do you like to use?

I like to position the person in the shade of direct sunlight, for example under a canopy.  This gives a special glow and light in the face. I like to frame it in an aspect ratio of 16:9 and cinema wide-screen format. I take almost all the portraits close-up and then crop them very close to achieve a stronger portrait and look. Sometimes I crop medium close in order to create more space around the face, as a composition. I always try to find a neutral or solid background, for example a wall or door, because I don’t like ‘noise’ in my portraits.

Planar T* 1,4/50
This shot was taken at Alexanderplatz in Berlin. I just asked her and she agreed. Thirty seconds later we were done.

You are using the Planar T* 1,4/50 lens for this series. What are your experiences with this lens?

Without exaggeration: For me it’s the best lens I have ever bought for my digital SLR camera with APS-C sensor (crop factor 1.5). It is fast, clear, rich in contrasts, and it creates a lovely, smooth bokeh. The sharpness is unbeatable. The manual focus of the Planar T* 1,4/50 is also extremely precise, and that is very important to me because it gives me optimal control over what I am doing. I always position the person around one meter in front of the background in order to achieve a nice focus/out-of-focus transition.  I focus on the lower eyelashes. The ISO value is 100 and I mainly work with an aperture of between f/4.0 and f/5.6. In order to be able to experiment more in the future, I have bought a digital SLR camera with full-format sensor and 36 megapixels and the Planar T* 1,4/85 to use with it. I am really excited about the initial results I have gotten from this classic portrait lens. With this focal length I can keep a similar distance to my subject, as with the Planar T* 1,4/50 and the camera with APS-C sensor. When choosing my equipment, it’s also important that my models do not feel they are being intruded upon.

How many 30-second portraits have you already made?

I have made portraits of more than 1,000 strangers since I started the picture series in 2009. Of that, I have selected around 100 for my project.

Planar T* 1,4/50
An acting student. This image was taken in downtown Groningen. She was really relaxed, thought the project was exciting, and immediately agreed to be photographed.

Is this a timeless project?

I plan to continue the project for many years. However, I have become a lot more selective than I was at the beginning of the picture series. Today I only approach people who immediately interest me at first glance.

Do you plan to exhibit your work?

Yes, that’s a possibility but it’s also a cost issue. I definitely hope to be able to exhibit photos from the project one day.

Planar T* 1,4/50
This picture of a dancer was made during the break of a show. The other dancers on her team had to convince her a bit to join the project. But then everything went very fast.

What inspires you and what advice do you give to young photographers?

Ever since I have been active on photography platforms like Flickr and 500px I have been in close contact with some other photographers.  I have received a lot of inspiration from the German photographers Ralf Wendrich and Dennis Gerbeckx. I really like the things they are doing in post-processing. At the moment I am very interested in the work of Erwin Olaf. He is a perfectionist. I like his approach and the mindset he takes even before he starts taking a picture. I can also recommend looking at recent work by Levon Biss – for example his project  “One Love“ – and Jacques Olivar. There are so many talented photographers. It’s important to have confidence in your own abilities and to experiment a lot from different angles.


About Gerald Emming

Gerald Emming is an award-winning photographer from Groningen, the Netherlands. He works mainly as a professional filmmaker at the University Medical Center of the University of Groningen. His portfolio ranges from portraits, design and architectural photography to film and music projects.


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  1. I've been following Gerald several years on Flickr and absolutely love the portrait work he does with the 50 and his newly acquired 85. He's inspired some big changes in the way I look at my portrait subjects. Keep on clicking, Gerald!

  2. Frank Effes

    erg mooi werk! op deze manier portretteren geeft een direct en ongekunsteld beeld van de persoon. Portret van de oudere man met bril vind ik minstens zo intrigerend en fijn om naar te kijken als de beelden van de mooie dames.
    Ik ben dan ook het meest benieuwd naar meer portretten van mensen die niet direct in de categorie 'young and beautifull' vallen

  3. Blijft gaaf om de portretten van jouw hand te zien, sluit me daarbij aan bij het comment van Frank Effes, niet alleen de mooie jonge dames passen wat mij betreft in jouw werkwijze, door de connectie met en de indringende blik van alle 'modellen' ook doorgaan met de oldies!

  4. Gerald

    @ Frank, Edwin: I totally agree, the old man beats them all. My all time favorite. I wish I could capture more of these, but it's more difficult to approach older people ...

  5. Ghufran

    Good job there, Gerald. With a Manual focusing lens , all i would be doing in 30 sec would be, focusing . I find it amazing how u can shoot 10 photographs all in 30 sec and achieve perfect focus. I try to do it with my Pentax M 50 1.7 , but i just cant be sure i nailed the focus until i return home and view them on my pc, by which time i realize most of them were out of focus any way .

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