How To Capture a Dynamic Portrait
This week’s Blog Post is directed to the photographer in all of us.
Have you ever found yourself browsing through some material that is loaded with images of people and discover that some of those shots keep pulling you back to look at them again and again? What’s so magical about those pictures? What do they have that the other photos lack? Well, those images are where the photographer went beyond just taking a picture of someone standing in front of them. These photographers went deeper than seeing what was just on the surface. These photographers went for the “essence” of their subject - and were able to capture it for all time.
So, how did they do that you ask.
Let’s first start with this disclaimer: not all photographers approach their subjects in the same manner and with the same intent in mind. I can only relate what I have experienced in this process and what I have gleamed from other successful photographers that I have had the pleasure of knowing and sometimes working next to.
For me it all starts with this simple concept:
Who is this sitting in front of my camera? What makes them tick, what is behind those eyes, what secrets are hidden behind that smile, what life’s experiences do they have that we share in common and what is unique to them?
A good many questions, I admit …. The answers to which are what makes this person quite different from any other person. It is the combination of all the above(and more), blended in their own way, that makes this person who they are. And as a portrait photographer it is your task to capture in your camera this one-of-a-kind blend sitting before you.
I can say without any doubt what a true portrait is not: It is NOT “A Likeness”.
If all that was needed was a likeness of the person in front of your lens, then a driver’s license type photo would do the trick. That is “a likeness” (and often times not a very good one).
You, as the photographer who has been selected to create a memorable portrait of a subject in your studio (or location), need to know – really know – who this person is. And, the only way to really do this is to take some time to get to know them. Ask them questions, chat with them about life in general, and get them to smile, to laugh and to be at ease with you. And all the while you should be taking notes on how they truly look when they are laughing, smiling, talking about a topic they are passionate about and are in “the moment”. Make mental pictures of this person… study their movements, their eyes and mouth. It is during this little informal session that they will be more relaxed – being themselves - and will be revealing to you who they are really are by way of their body language.
Then when the day and time comes for the actual photo session, you’ll know what you are looking for – the true them. You will be able to recognize the genuine smile, the natural look in their eye, the turn of the mouth and the body posture. When you see that in front of you again, you will know you are about to begin to capture the essence of this subject.
Now, does this mean you should just let this person sit and gesture in any way they feel like? The simple answer is: No. You should suggest and make slight adjustments to their posture – adjustments that should to be made that will be more flattering for your particular camera angle. But it needs to still be a position that feels natural and comfortable to them. If they are relaxed and comfortable then they will project that to the camera. If on the other hand you force them to sit the way you want them to, pose the way you like and gesture in a way that is pleasing to you – then what you will get is them imitating you.
When I teach classes in portrait photography and studio lighting I often turn the reigns of the shooting part over to them and watch their interaction with the model. I notice quite often a lot of “direction” coming from the student photographer. I also notice a very uncomfortable look emanating from the subject. When we review the final shots from all the students, some observed that the resulting images where the photographer let the model be themselves, the subject looked more believable and natural. The shots where the subject was overly directed appeared “posed” and un-natural. The lesson these students took away from the session was: let your subjects be themselves and only make minor adjustments to tweak what is natural for them; if they are comfortable then they will look comfortable.
Now, all that has been talked about up to this point is about making portraits of your clients. These are not about images that you are creating for a model/actor or for your portfolio. Where you are the creative force for your own concept, you can be as creative as you like; twist and shape your subjects anyway you like – it is your vision of a subject, so create to your heart’s content. In portraits the rule is: keep it real and authentic. In fashion, glamour, fantasy or fiction the rules are: there are no rules. Go for it.
As to the element of wardrobe and accessories, here is my suggestion:
Let the subject wear what they normally wear that makes them feel comfortable and at ease. Case in point:
I had a student bring me in a portrait she had made of a friend of her family who lived South Georgia. She was very proud of the image she made of the family “Grandpa”. He was in his 80’s and the family wanted a nice professional portrait to remember him by since he was in the “autumn” of his years. She had him put on his only suit and tie and brush his hair and all the fixings. She thought he looked the best he ever had since she had known him. (I felt he looked rather uncomfortable in this image, but didn’t say anything as I wanted to see what her point was of showing it to me.) She stated the family didn’t care for it – they felt he looked “stiff” and “unnatural” and her feelings were hurt. I asked what Grandpa had done for a living in South Georgia. She stated he was a farmer. I asked did he farm in a suit and tie. “Don’t be silly,” she responded, “he’s a farmer and worked in the fields”. So I had to ask, “Then why did you make him wear a suit and tie?” From the look on Grandpa’s face, I would think the only two times he would agree to wear the suit and tie would be: 1) at his wedding and 2) at his funeral. She had forced him into wearing something she liked and not what he would normally wear. And the resulting image was a nice picture of who she wanted him to be and not who he really was. The family could see this picture did not reflect the “Grandpa” they knew and loved. She simply missed the essence of the man. I suggested that she should have let him wear his bib overalls and red flannel shirt and let him be who he really was and not who she wanted him to be.
All too often I listen to photographers talk about how they control every aspect of their photo sessions – from the location to the lighting, from the poses to the wardrobe and countless other elements of their creation. Some of this you are responsible for and should handle those components. Other elements – like their personality and their very being – you should let them control. They know who they are better than you, so give up the power grab just this once. I think you will see portraits that better portray your subjects – and your clients will be much happier with the results.
The simple thing to remember here is this:
Know them and show them – as they really are.