Seeing the unseen: photographing the queer community

Non-binary photographer Louis Painter takes powerful portraits that both recognise diverse communities and showcase their subject's emotions
A portrait taken by Louis Painter of a drag queen, with long blonde hair and wearing a floral dress and brown fur coat, standing in front of an ornate building.

Loneliness and the need to belong are emotions that most people experience at some point in their lives, and they can be difficult to cope with. Today, representation and visibility matter more than ever, and seeing yourself in someone else's work can bring joy, and a sense of relief that you are being recognised for who you are.

Photography can play a significant role in highlighting diversity, and non-binary, queer and autistic photographer Louis Painter, who uses they/them pronouns, captures portraits that have a sense of humanity and vulnerability while maintaining a film-like quality. In a single frame, the images manage to intertwine a striking identity with deep emotions.

"There's a kind of loneliness that queer people tend to experience," explains Louis, who is based in Birmingham, UK. "Queer photography means everything to me. In identifying as queer myself, I want it to shine through in my work. This project is about me being more myself around queer-identifying people and my friends – something that other queer people can probably relate to, as well."

So what drives Louis, and where has their journey with queer photography taken them?

Combining fine art with photography

A person stands looking through a window, their brightly coloured hair complementing the greens of the window frame.

"I like the double exposure from the windows, and the different shades of green complementing the bits of red made the image come alive for me," says Louis who almost subconsciously employs colour theory in their work. "After framing, colour is my priority." Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.5 and ISO 320. © Louis Painter

A figure in a long dress stands on the edge of a rocky hilltop, facing out towards the fields and water in the distance.

Louis wanted this shot, taken in the Peak District, to look like a movie still. "I did some basic lens corrections and adjusted the exposure and highlights in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom1." Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R and a Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 320. © Louis Painter

Louis used to be a painter but decided to study photography at university after being inspired by a friend and now regularly posts their unique cinematic photographs on TikTok and other social media platforms, garnering thousands of views.

"I loved the technical side of photography, such as shutter speed and varying focal lengths," Louis says. "Slowly, I learned more about the history too. I became obsessed with it and I'd watch YouTube videos all day."

Knowing that their style of photography was a niche category, Louis came up with the queer photography project halfway through the first semester of their third year. "The few photographers who fell into this category didn't incorporate emotions into it, so I thought of combining the emotional part of myself with a cinematic aesthetic, and I started posting on TikTok where I got a lot of love from other queer people," they say.

Louis says that their followers often use the words "cinematic, queer, narrative and fantasy" to describe their work, and they have been inspired by photographers whose pictures also have a dramatic feel to them. Citing Sarah Bahbah and Gregory Crewdson as influences, Louis says that their images tell tales where words fail.

Finding and directing models

A figure stands dressed as a knight in metal armour, looking towards the camera, the background out of focus behind them.

Louis found this model through a callout on TikTok. "They enjoyed cosplay and I always wanted to do a knight photoshoot," Louis explains. "I wanted to show queer people being forced into cishet (cisgender and heterosexual) roles and how that can make us feel isolated." Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 500. © Louis Painter

A figure dressed as a princess leans against a wall looking wistful at a renaissance fair.

Louis took this photo at a renaissance fair, and in a similar way to the photo of the knight, wanted to portray a fairytale-esque scenario. Louis' images are left open to interpretation – they want their viewers to be able to place themselves in these scenarios. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 1600. © Louis Painter

At the start of the project, Louis asked their friends to pose for them, but after putting out some callouts online, they received lots of responses from queer people. "I made a point of not hiring professional models," Louis says. "I like the idea of using real people who exhibit authentic emotions."

When it comes to directing the models, Louis prefers to see how the shoot unfolds. "I'm quite impulsive when it comes to photography. I formulate a little storyboard but if I see a nice location which wasn't part of the plan, I'll say, 'I want to go there'. I think photography is about going with the flow and keeping an open mind."

Louis gives their models a prompt and then lets them interpret it how they want to. "I would ask them to think about their childhood or a defining moment in their lives," Louis explains. "Once they're in that state, I can focus on the composition and colours. I'd say it's about 40% my direction and 60% is up to the person I'm photographing. I want my models to feel comfortable because only then can you truly be yourself and reveal your inner feelings."

Building a kitbag

Trans musician Jay Page looks into a mirror, their hands behind their head, in a photograph taken by Louis Painter.

This image of musician Jay Page was one of the first portraits shot by Louis for their project. "Jay had been out as trans for a few months, and the idea was to show gender dysphoria," Louis explains. "I asked them to look in the mirror and think about how they identify, and it brought out some raw emotions." Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 800. © Louis Painter

Louis often photographs in changeable conditions, from dimly-lit alleyways and gazebos to open fields, so to make the most out of their shoots they have to be quick on their feet. Louis started shooting on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II borrowed from university and a selection of Canon L-series lenses but moved to the full-frame mirrorless Canon EOS RP, paired with the Canon Mount Adapter EF-EOS R, so they could continue using the EF mount lenses.

The compact EOS RP means Louis can shoot on the go, while the extended AF area instantly focuses on the subject and keeps portraits sharp. "There have been moments when I've got lucky with the shot because it's been in focus on the first try," Louis says.

Louis says a touchscreen is also essential. "I don't like looking through the viewfinder; I prefer looking straight at the model to build a connection with them," Louis explains. "I want them to look at me, not the camera, and the EOS RP lets me do that. I can simply tap the screen and I don't have to worry about losing the emotion in the shot."

When working on windy outdoor shoots, Louis has learned the importance of image stabilisation, and often uses the Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM lens to achieve shake-free shots. Shooting with a wide-angle lens also enables Louis to incorporate more of the background into an image, and show how comfortable the subject feels in their environment. "I like being able to capture the feeling of loneliness that the surroundings create," Louis adds.

Louis also uses the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens – their favourite focal length – which can capture sharp detail even in dark conditions.

Equivalent RF lenses would be the RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM and the RF 50mm F1.2L USM.

What the future holds

A person with short dyed hair and a nose ring looks towards the camera.

This image from Louis' second shoot was taken at the canals in Manchester's Gay Village. "I wanted to frame this picture like the last shot from a film where the character has been beaten down and they look into the camera to break the fourth wall," they explain. "I borrowed the 50mm lens from university and loved it because it really brought out the colours, even in low light." Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/2 and ISO 6400. © Louis Painter

Louis has big ambitions, hoping to continue photographing the queer community, widen their networks and find more unique stories and experiences. "Since graduating, I've wanted to explore emotions such as queer joy," Louis says. "I also want to photograph different sexualities and genders – I want to photograph queer people of colour, AMAB (assigned male at birth) people, and so many more. That's the next step."

One day, they hope to see their photos in print, perhaps in the form of a coffee table book. "It would be a good way to finish the project," says Louis. "I'm still a while away from achieving it but I'm taking more photos and working towards it every day."

Demonstrating the power of photography, Louis' portraits let people know that they are not alone and show how a single image can convey a range of emotions that can be difficult to express in words.

Written by Nikita Achanta

  1. Adobe, Photoshop and Lightroom are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Adobe in the United States and/or other countries.

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