Portraits are powerful. They give the subject a chance to be seen–however, truly great portrait photography gives the subject a chance to be understood.
That’s what Rembrandt did way way back before cameras existed, and that’s why he’s considered such a master–seeing one of his portraits was like meeting a new person, seeing their mannerisms, their gait, the way they talked, sounded, maybe even smelled. That’s what Rembrandt captured with paint and canvas.
And that’s what good portrait photography does. Anybody can take a picture of someone’s face, but very few can take a picture of someone and truly capture their personality.
Here’s 4 simple tips on how to do just that.
1. Get to know your subject.
The key to capturing their personality is getting them to open up to you. Do this by talking with them and trying to understand who they are. They need to trust you in order to open up to you (on that note, make sure you’re worthy of their trust.)
If they feel comfortable, they’ll be willing to let their guard down, and that will in turn give you access to a whole range of emotion that you otherwise would never see. This is the sort of material that produces great portraits.
A portrait of one of my old friends.
2. Be willing to experiment with them.
Do whatever. Seriously. Don’t let society dictate how you take your photos! But seriously, experiment with your subject, ask them to pull faces or whatever else it takes to get them to loosen up and feel like there are no “rules” to the shoot.
And experiment on your side, too. Try new techniques or angles or lighting situations. Weird stuff always looks better than the same smiling face with the same bokeh’d background.
A photo by Inez and Vinoodh, fashion photographers who excel at doing weird stuff.
3. Shoot them how they want to be seen.
It’s a huge temptation to just do whatever you want when you’re behind the camera, but if you want to provide really good results to whomever you’re shooting, you have to get into their mind a little bit.
I hate it when people take photos of me, because I feel like I don’t look the way I think I look in the average snapshot. Some photos capture the way I think I look, most don’t. Lots of people are like this–they have an image in their minds of how they look, or an idealised self. As the intrepid portraitist, you need to find out what that idealised self looks like, and then get it on your sensor and into a .jpg.
Try and think the way your model would think–how do they want to be seen? By themselves, or by others? What image do they idealise? What image do they want to present to the world?
Find out what their style icons/same-gender crushes are, and try and shoot them like that. Or take a look at what they consider to be the ideal of attractiveness, and make them look like that. YOU HAVE THE POWER.
4. Keep shooting.
I could add this to every post on how to improve your photography skills. Some great photographs are planned carefully, most are arrived at serendipitously. You can either meticulously calculate how to get the best shot every time, or just keep shooting until you get a lucky fluke shot. And then keep shooting, until you have 10 of them.
My first real photo shoot, I ended up with this gem:
Lo-Fi folk singer Lucas Modzelewski aka Animal Pharma
I had no real idea what I was doing, but I just kept shooting in different angles and compositions until my ancient CF card was full. Afterwards, trawling through the RAW files, I found this one–a total lucky fluke, and it looked great. Since then, I’ve usually tried to get as many of these flukes as I possibly can.
Some professional photographers will take up to 60,000 photos in one session. You’ve just got to keep shooting, and don’t stop–you don’t know if that perfect shot will be your next one, or 150 shots down the line.
Portrait photography is fun and rewarding, and above all, requires an understanding of and an empathy for the person you are photographing. You hold the power to change the way the world sees that person, and more importantly, how they see themselves.
How have you improved your portrait photography? What makes a good shot to you? Let me know in the comments below.