Taking great portraits is as much about people skills as it is about technical ability, or using the latest and greatest photographic equipment. Sure, refining your technical skills and knowledge may expand the extent of your capabilities, and using superior equipment may indeed boost your edge. But, unless you can first see through your subject’s eyes, and understand her as a unique individual, and then build rapport with her so you can unveil and accentuate her finest qualities, your portraits will remain mediocre at best. Some lessons learned along my journey as a photographer may help those who choose to follow.
1. If using a tripod, compose your portrait and then take one step just to the side and forward from the camera. Do not look through the viewfinder as you capture your subject’s image. This allows you to make eye contact initially with your subject, and then direct her in mood, expression, position, and the angle of gaze you are aiming for. When your subject interacts with your camera, the result can be a cold or lifeless rendering, but when you engage your subject through eye contact, expression, gestures and words, the result can be a warm and candid reflection, charged with mood or emotion.
2. If you are not using a tripod, you really should redouble your effort to maintain constant interaction with your subject. Many photographers tend to keep their eyes in the viewfinder of the camera, but this leads to your subject interacting more with the front glass in your lens than with you. Again, you do not want the sterile and lifeless rendering that most often comes when the camera serves to isolate you the photographer from your subject. Interaction with an inanimate object (your camera) can never be a substitute for interaction with another human being (you), when your goal is to capture the essence of your subject, and reflect the attitude and emotion she was feeling at that moment in time.
3. Allow your subject to be herself. A little girl dressed up in fairy wings for a special picture is very cute, and I suppose there is a place in this world for cute. But, contrast this with the little girl who just loves to dance. You put her in her everyday clothes, stand her in front of a plain backdrop, put on her favorite music and say to her, “can you show me how to dance to this song?” You should have no difficulty in capturing timeless expressions there. Now imagine a jeans and t-shirt kind of guy whose true passion in all of life is sailing. You dress him up in a tailored suit; formerly pose him in front of a low-key backdrop, seated in a Chippendale chair, and use classic loop lighting. What would be said of this portrait years later? “Who was this guy, an executive?” But just suppose, you photographed this same guy in his favorite t-shirt and blue jeans, at the helm of his beloved sail boat, on a beautiful late afternoon, just as the boat was coming about? What would be said of this portrait years later? “This was Charlie, doing what he loved most! That was such a glorious day.” The point is, “keep it honest”. Fantasy can be cute, but your subject being herself, years later this will be much more meaningful.
4. Allow your subject’s expression to be honest. A frown or a grimace that is genuinely felt can be more interesting than a smile that is forced. I try to never just pose my subject and then say, “Okay, now smile for me.” If you want your subject to smile then tell a joke, put on a face, or perhaps merely smile at her and she will smile back at you. People generally tend to reflect in their face what they see in yours, but in my experience this is not always so. Nevertheless, interaction with your subject is the key. That being said, the next time you have a difficult subject ask him to tell you a joke, to bring out a smile, if that’s the expression you are after. If you are a professional, you know that smiles sell, but if you’re an amateur, you are under no pressure to sell, so make your portraits interesting. Not everything in the world is to smile about.
5. Direct your portraits. Take control of the composition of your portraits! Do not be afraid to tell or show your subject what you want. Sometimes showing is best. I often find that actually demonstrating a pose I have in mind, works better than trying to direct my subject through words alone. If you are photographing a group, your life will be easier, if you arrange and pose the adults first. Then, work your way from oldest (or more mature and settled) to youngest of the children. The point to remember is, as the photographer, you should take charge of the shot. The success or failure of the portrait will be your responsibility, so take charge.
Engage your subject to establish and build rapport with her, to take your photos to a higher level. Make your portraits more meaningful by keeping them honest, and natural. We all know a fantasy photo can be cute, and a formally posed portrait can be graceful and dignified, if that is your subject’s personality. But, a portrait that is true to the subject is always more meaningful. Allow your subject to be herself, and never force an expression. Learn to take charge and direct your portraits and you will move far ahead in your journey as a photographer. Practice your people skills with each portrait you take. People skills are the prerequisite to all else, if you want to take great portraits.
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