"You don't take a photograph, you make it." —Ansel Adams
When you look at a portrait of someone you know, you say things like: That is a great portrait of you, the photographer really captured your personality, or, You look nervous. But we rarely hear things like: Look how sharp the photo is. Or, It looks out of focus, doesn't it? People don't care about technical stuff. People care about how a portrait makes them feel.
At the beginning of the photo shoot, explain how the process works. How long will it take? How will you be directing them? What do they need to do? Be clear. They are looking to you for direction.
Similarly, choose locations that connect to your subject. Change plans if you need to. Be flexible. Make your subject feel comfortable.
The camera is a necessary tool to create an image but it often gets in the way of creating a great image.
The camera actually severs the connection you have with your subject.
Tip #1: Make eye contact. Keep your camera down as much as possible.
You are having a normal conversation, but as soon as you raise the camera to your eye you’re introducing a third person to the conversation, someone mysterious. Your subject sees the camera and starts to think about who is going to see the photos and what are they going to think about them. People get nervous. So, I try not to have the camera raised to my eye unless I am clicking.
What do you do when people get nervous?
I am genuinely interested in people. I am fascinated every time I get to listen to someone tell their story. People have amazing stories. So the time I have with them is usually spent getting to know as much about them as I can.The better the conversation we have, the better the experience they have with me making portraits—and I believe the better the final results.
Tip #2: Play games with your subject. (Ask them to change poses every time they hear a click, then snap photos in the in-between moments as they think of what to do next.)
It hasn't always been easy for me, though. I am an introvert. Connecting with someone I had just met used to be very difficult. But a few years ago I discovered the power of asking questions and really listening. People open up and feel comfortable when they feel like they are truly being heard.
Tip #3: When you see something that doesn't work, don't say, “That looks bad.” Say something like, “Now, let’s try this.”
When you believe the person in front of you has a story worth sharing, you pay attention.
"It is more important to click with people then click the shutter. —Alfred Eisenstaedt"
You make it about them. You don't interrupt the conversation with things about yourself. You listen with the intent to understand not with the intent to reply. You go with the flow instead of trying to direct the conversation—and they feel it. And when that happens, the energy between you and the person changes. It is empowering. You really click with people! To me, that is how you create a truly great portrait.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” —Leonardo Da Vinci
This can be applied to everything. Nature functions on the basis of simple laws. But if you dig deep, you discover high-level complexities behind everything. It is same with portraits: When you are looking at a portrait, if the first thing you notice is the setup, editing, color correction, composition, etc., rather than the person, it has failed. It takes a lot of time, knowledge, and hard work to create something that looks both simple and striking.
I think intention and motivation plays a big role here. If you are making portraits to get yourself noticed, you are going to make it about yourself. But when you care about your subject enough to make it about them, you’ll be absent—but succeed at the same time.
Capture the real. Who they are, not what they present themselves to be.
We all have a public appearance: we know what we'd tell and what we wouldn't tell if we were asked certain questions. But, those answers do not always reveal who we truly are.
Tip #4: Don't ask people to smile. (You will never get their natural smile when you try to force it.)
My biggest goal is to catch moments that feel like there is no one in the room with the subject. They are alone—this is what they do when no one is looking!
Tip #5: Don’t touch your subject.
My favorite portraits.
I like documentary portraiture a lot. Mary Ellen Mark was one of those photographers who cared for her subjects a lot. (She was an advocate for women’s rights.)
I also like Michelle Frankfurter’s essay called “Destino,” which portrays the Central American immigrants crossing Mexico in the hopes of reaching their promised land: the United States of America.
Mike Brodie is another photographer whose work is very beautiful and raw. The following images are from his gallery called Tones of Dirt and Bone.
Hannes Caspar’s headshots are the kinds I can stare for a long time without getting bored.
Portraits I made for Belief Agency.