The most meaningful portraits tell a story; they not only memorialize a person at a specific time and place, they give us insight into that person as well. Really great portraits tell us as much about the photographer as the person they photographed. The significance of the portrait you take today may not reveal itself for years and the portraits we really care about get better with time.
Everyone’s face tells a story. Sometimes a photographer’s goal is to make a person look better than they look in real life, but for documentary photographers, the goal is more often to find some truth and to let that truth come out in the portrait.
Our most well-known portraitists who shoot celebrities for high-end clients sometimes have budgets in six digits, with assistants, lighting techs, hair and makeup, groomers, creative directors and catering. Their productions look more like a movie set than a portrait shoot. Their images can have a polished, produced look. They can make someone look any way they choose. It takes significant skill, planning and budget to craft an image of this magnitude. They control every aspect of light and location.
For the most part, I find these types of portraits to be the least interesting kinds of portraits. Portraits that stick in my mind have an organic, authentic quality. The moment depicted may feel quiet, frenetic or contemplative. The best portraits are sincere. We connect.
Not many of us have those resources at our disposal, nor do we want to produce a shoot on that level. We want to make a simple, yet meaningful portrait of our friends and family. Even so, think of shooting a portrait as building an image from the ground up. You make the key decisions of location, light and body language.
Lighting, clothing and location communicate ideas, and it’s up to the photographer to consider it all and use those tools with as much care as one uses one’s camera.
As a photojournalist, more often than not, I’m thrust into a situation where I have no advanced notice of a subject or his or her environment. I arrive at an office or a home I’ve never seen before. I quickly find a spot I think will make sense and get to work. When you have to work with what you have, the trick is to recognize potential. It could be something as simple as a wall. It could be next to a window or in a hallway. It could be shrubbery. It could be a walking path.
The key is finding a space that provides context, but doesn’t overwhelm the subject. It’s a fine line. Sometimes it’s self-evident and other times, a struggle. It takes practice, but eventually you’ll know it when you see it.
Context here is key—if your subject is being profiled for their award-winning rose garden, that might be a better place to photograph them than in their kitchen. On the other hand, if you’re photographing a story about someone who was under home arrest for a long time, it could be equally compelling to photograph them in the confines of their home or out in the freedom of a large open meadow, depending on the message you’re trying to convey.
It’s important to apply all the other general principles of design. It’s about finding shape, color, texture, angles and composition. It can be about isolating a person or integrating them into the background. Choosing a location, finding the very spot you want a person to occupy, is key to the creative process of making a portrait.
Advanced selection of a location and bringing a person to that spot is the preferable way to go. You’ve taken charge of the problem.
If your subject is photographed in wilderness near a waterfall, that tells us they have a connection to nature and we see them in that way. If they’re photographed in a downtown alley, we’ll think of them as being connected to the urban lifestyle.
I’m oversimplifying the thought process, but that’s the general principle. The viewer of this photograph will consider the way the subject is dressed, their age and their body language. All these factors give us important clues.
It’s important to make clear that sometimes the absence of a background can be as powerful as a carefully chosen one. What we’re talking about is context. Clothing can make as much of a statement about who someone is as much as the location. When someone is photographed against a blank background in a formal way, we’re also adding context. We’re saying to the viewer, “Look at this person and try to understand who they are.” We’re eliminating any clues of their location. We force the viewer to confront who they are seeing. We eliminate distractions.
Photography is about capturing light, and the lighting on your scene is every bit as important as location. The decisions we make can communicate many different things. On a simplistic level, we can make a person appear warm, open and soft, or intense, moody and hard. Lighting can make someone look more attractive than they are or far less attractive. Lighting can transform a location from a drab generic office into a dance club.
When you’re starting, it’s good to keep things simple. If you have a flash, the first order of business is getting it off the camera. This will require a TTL cord and/or a radio-triggering system. Flat light directed at the subject from the top of the camera is usually the least interesting light you can add. Getting it off the camera gives it direction and depth.
That’s not to say you can’t make a good portrait with direct on-camera flash; it’s just that as a general rule, it’s good strategy to create some direction in the light. Fashion/celebrity photographer Terry Richardson has a made a career out of shooting with direct flash on point-and-shoot cameras. For every rule, there’s someone breaking it and making it work.
Sometimes what we consider “bad light” is the perfect light for the situation. It’s important to be adaptable, fluid and open to trying things you aren’t comfortable with.
A simple white foamcore board used as a reflector can do wonders. Whether you bounce ambient light off it or point your flash at it and bounce its light, a reflector is your friend. Collapsible manufactured reflectors that have a gold, white or silver surface are even better and not horribly expensive. I use a version that comes with a diffuser, as well. I have four different lighting kits and use a reflector more than all of them combined. It’s the tool of choice if walking or hiking is involved.
Now that you’ve settled on the perfect location and light, it’s time to shoot photos. You need an approach or strategy. Do you carefully control every aspect of the subject’s body language? Do you give them specific directions or let them do what they want?
Every situation requires some sort of direction on your part. It might be specific or just a framework. Sometimes I just talk to people and shoot as we go. In the middle of that, I might see something and ask them to do it again. If it’s not as I hoped, I’ll intervene. Sometimes I’ll ask them to make their face completely blank and have no emotion. Other times, I’ll say, “Laugh! Be happy!” This almost always works. If they aren’t buying it, I’ll give them more specific direction. I may ask them to belly laugh like Santa Claus. I’ll ask them to look up like their best friend walked in the room.
Deciding where you want the subject to look is a key decision. Where they rest their gaze can influence the way we think about someone in a portrait. The default of many photographers is to have the subject look directly into the lens. I often prefer to have them look out past me maybe to the left or right over my shoulder. They’re looking out beyond me. I feel like they’re looking to the future….or past.
If someone is uncomfortable or stiff, I’ll have them shake it out or I’ll tell them settle their body. I’ll say “Posture!” and they will straighten up. I may have them gently close their eyes and breathe in. If they’re blinkers, I may have them look at the ground and then quickly look up. I may ask them to slightly squint their eyes and move their chin forward. I often ask them to raise their chin. Once someone has agreed to be photographed, they’re usually cooperative. A portrait is a collaborative process with the subject. Sometimes they have better ideas than the photographer. I always ask, and the answers can be surprising and helpful.
Having a portrait subject doing something can sometimes work very well or be a complete disaster. If you’re intentionally trying to make a portrait and you have someone do something—a basketball player shooting hoops, for example—the photo can very easily become an image of someone doing something and not be a portrait whatsoever. Again, it’s a fine line, and it’s up to the photographer to find a moment in the action where they show us who they are.
Let’s say the subject is a potter and you have them make some pottery; typically, they will have their head down and be concentrating on the task. I often ask someone to perform a task and then stop them and ask them to look up at the camera. This can help move it closer to portrait territory. When I arrive to photograph someone, I’ll sometimes ask what they would be doing if I wasn’t there, and if the answer is something like, “I was going to make a clay pot,” I’ll say, okay, let’s do that.
However you decide to approach the subject, just remember that almost everyone is in someway self-conscious and critical of how they look in photographs. Your goal may or may not be to make them look their very best. It may be more important to show them in their environment. The key is to remain confident, nonjudgmental and open to ideas.
- Location, location, location! Look for a space with interesting light, color and texture.
- If it’s an environmental portrait, think about what will help tell the story of the subject.
- If you’re using available light, look for windows and skylights. Don’t be afraid to turn off the room lights.
- Use a reflector and bounce light into their eyes.
- If you use a flash, get it off your camera with either a cord or wireless remotes.
- Decide key factors like body language, light and location, but be open and fluid to changing ideas.
- Don’t be afraid to tell someone exactly what you want, but listen to their ideas, as well.
- Move in close and then step back.
- Experiment with the subject looking into the camera lens, and also past you and even at the floor.
- Have a plan, and be fast. Shoot tests without the subjects before they arrive. Even your best friends will have a limit on time.
Thomas Boyd is a commercial and editorial photographer, and spent more than twenty years as a staff photographer at The Oregonian. thomasboyd.com