A stunning portrait, one that stops you in your tracks and demands attention, is a beautiful thing. There’s something magical when a portrait intrigues and connects with us. It’s not about celebrity or beauty; it’s about humanity. For my money, the moment you capture truth and humanity in your portraiture, is when photography and art collide.
From the moment you raise a camera to take a photograph of someone, there are many variables to keep under control. It is easy to get lost and allow your focus to drift. This is the one time in photography when you need to be incredibly present.
Following this mini guide of seven steps, can help you to improve your portrait photography, and connect better with your subjects.
Step One: Photograph within your technical capabilities
The last thing you need to be worried about when you start a shoot is the technical side of things. Practice ahead of time and nail your technique. Get to know all of your equipment, and iron out any technical kinks before the day of the shoot. Your subject is bound to become nervous if you seem uneasy with your kit, or project any uncertainty. Things can still go wrong on the day, but the more relaxed you are overall, the more you will be able to handle it without panicking.
Step Two: See images of your subject beforehand
It can be handy to see images of your subject ahead of shoot day. I like to ask clients to send me a picture of themselves which they really like. This is useful in several ways.
You can get a good idea of their skin tone and the planes of their face, which helps you to consider your lighting set up and any adjustments you will need to make. You also get a good idea of how the client wants to be perceived, and what they want an image to say about themselves.
This will not always balance with what you see in them, but herein lies the magic. As a photographer, you are seeing the subject in a new light. When you add that into the process, alongside trying to capture what they like about themselves, you make a unique portrait.
Step Three: Have a plan
You absolutely must have a plan ahead of time. Use the what you’ve learned by having seen an image of your subject ahead of time, to help you plan your lighting and background choices. Obviously consider the weather if you are planning any natural light or outdoor shots.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that natural light doesn’t always mean you actually have to be outside. Being close to large windows or open doors can provide a beautiful light, but it absolutely depends on the weather. You should also plan what framing you might use. The goal is not to end up with a contrived shoot, it’s still important to stay in the moment. But, if session is slowing down, and you at least have some ideas in mind, you can refer back to your mental plan and get things going again by changing it up.
Step Four: Take charge
When you lift that camera, you must take charge of your set. This is a collaborative process, but you are definitely in the driver’s seat. It’s up to you to be vocal with your subject, to keep their energy levels up, and to make sure they feel good about themselves. It’s no good just shouting out stage directions, “left a bit, chin down,”. You must encourage them, and keep them having fun, because tension is not your friend! No matter how many times your subject has been in front of a camera, each one is a new performance and needs to be directed as such.
Wherever your shoot is taking place, you are in charge of that space. Define the space in your mind, and remove as many distractions as possible. Obviously if you are shooting in a public place, a park for example, you can’t remove everything. But if you can choose an area away from the main pathways, that will make life easier.
If you are indoors music is a must. It’s a great leveller, and helps everyone to relax. You can create a playlist specially for your shoots, include some cheesy music to put a smile on people’s faces. It’s a good idea to choose different genres/decades depending on your client’s age, style, etc.
Step Five: Learn to read people
Learning to read people is a skill you absolutely must acquire in order to progress as a people photographer. Try to connect with your subject and chat to them, tell stories – humanizing the experience is vital. The more they relax, the more you will get out of them, and the more authentic the photograph will be.
You must learn to pick up on signs and signals: Are they losing focus? Change up the setting. Are they uncomfortable? Try standing or sitting instead. You don’t want to waste shots on unusable images, where the subject is not present or is clearly not in the zone.
Another way in which you can learn to read people has to do with their personality. Determining early on that they are nervous, might mean you tell some jokes, or explain the setup to put them at ease. A giggly, happy person definitely needs to be represented as such, but there is always room for a more serious look, which will be up to you to direct them towards.
Step Six: Set the tone
So once you have gained control and confirmed that you are in charge, you must set the tone for the whole shoot. When you look at a portrait which you love, consider what you like about it and how you too can take this sort of image. Keeping in mind that any picture you take will have your own voice, and that develops over time. The connection or level of engagement in that photograph is entirely dictated by you, the photographer.
Your subject feeds off your energy and pace, so you must keep this in mind at all times. If they seem to be wilting, it’s your job to bring them back up to speed. Make sure to check your own performance so that you are giving out the right vibes.
Step Seven: take your time
This last step has to be one of the most important – take your time! Please trust me on this one, slow down and keep your head in the game. A shoot can run away from you in no time, and the last thing you want is to look at back at your shots and discover you haven’t captured what you wanted. You may find that you have spent too long on one look or background, and not captured another enough. Just as you want your subject to take mini breaks to refocus themselves, you must take the opportunity too.
Personally, I know that if at the end of a shoot I don’t feel a bond with my client, I haven’t nailed it – I’ll have some great images of them but it won’t be what I set out to capture.
Do you do portraits? How do you inject some truth into your portraiture? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments below. If you have any questions I’ll try and answer them as well.