The Details Of Portraiture

Photographers, in essence, are storytellers. Instead of words, we use images to tell our stories. In traditional portraiture, we most often focus on the face of our subject to narrate the shot. We look to capture just the right curve of the mouth, the twinkle in the eye or the tilt of the head and rely on facial expressions to reveal the heart and soul of the person in front of our lens. There’s so much more to telling the whole story than that.

It’s not merely the details alone that will speak effectively in a portrait; it’s how the details are captured. Consider ways to best feature the key elements of your shot and frame them accordingly. When working with children, you have to take into consideration size and perspective. Getting low and shooting from near ground level gives you the ability to reveal details of your small subject in a way that not only is interesting, but relevant. Tracey Clark reflects, “Beyond a simple summer afternoon of play, this image is about my daughter growing up. Capturing this milestone by focusing on color, texture and the gesture of my daughter as she masters riding a two-wheeler, I was able to narrate the story beautifully, just as it was and just as I want to remember it.” —Photo by Tracey Clark

In our new book, Expressive Photography: A Shutter Sisters’ Guide to Shooting from the Heart, we introduce another approach to portraiture: focusing on the details. Although often overlooked, the small gestures and subtle nuances of your subject often can tell you more about them than any headshot ever could. Co-author Andrea Scher adds, “A subject’s spirit can live in the tiniest details—that perfect brooch, the gesture of her hands, the tiniest rose peeking out of a pocket. As photographers, we get to notice it all. As seers and story-framers, we get to make these powerful choices: What story do we want to tell? Where do we want the viewer to look? What do we want them to notice?”

When you’re a child, everything seems larger than life. Keeping this in mind as you shoot will help you focus on what’s important to your young subject. By pointing your lens at something as simple as a slushy, you can compose delightfully unexpected portraits while at the same time translating a scene that’s universally relatable. The color, composition and the gesture of the young girl work together in creating a playful portrait. “Beyond the blue drink and dirty hands, it’s the remnant of her one fingernail with the chipped polish that makes the whole photograph for me,” muses co-author Maile Wilson. “It goes to show that stories can be interpreted in the smallest of details.” —Photo by Tracey Clark

When challenging ourselves with questions like these, our entire perspective changes. There’s so much we can reveal about our subjects simply by shifting our focus, moving past mere facial expressions, taking a closer look at the details.

“We are walking on a thin muddy path that borders Agnes’ rice paddy,” remembers photographer Jen Lemen. “This is the land she works with her husband in order to feed her children. Before she obtained the seed capital from BEST, a locally founded NGO, she barely had enough to survive. Her house was nothing more than pieces of sheet metal rigged together with scrap wood and rope. Now she works this land and sleeps in a simple bed in a solid house with the profits of her own labor. “I try to wrap my mind around what it takes to keep this field, this family, alive and thriving. I know I should be watching her hopeful eyes and capable hands for a sign, but all I can see is her feet. How she carefully picks her way through the muddy field, how she knows where to step, how to walk, where to stand. How the immense strength of her spirit carries her, even as the frailty of her body dares her destiny and expands her hope.”—Photo by Jen Lemen

Tips For Discovering The Details

In this single image, Scher reminds us that “Beautiful and telling portraits don’t have to include your subject’s face, as often you can find enough of a story in gestures.” Hands can be a window to the soul, much like eyes can be. The expressions displayed by the hands alone will often reveal the truest and often unspoken feelings of our subjects. Paying attention to what the hands are saying can be one of the most useful tools in capturing nontraditional, yet highly descriptive photographic stories. —Photo by Andrea Scher

Posture: The way your subjects position themselves, with little prompting from you, can reveal volumes about how they’re feeling. Through creative framing of the elements of body language alone, you can capture an effective and emotional portrait.

Like with most things, in photography, there are always a number of smaller elements that make up a whole. Taking note of the little things and including them in your images can bring greater depth and meaning to your portraiture. —Photo by Sarah-Ji

Gesture: Expression comes in many forms. One good example of this is talking with one’s hands. Hands tell amazing stories, and when captured in a portrait, can tell us everything we need to know. Consider all the things people say using their hands and challenge yourself to use gestures like these to bring more feeling to your portraits.

Wardrobe:People express themselves everyday with their wardrobe choices. Whether it’s baggy jeans, polka dots or a tutu, let clothing help you paint the perfect portrait. Consider using your subject’s unique uniform as the main focus of your shot.

Portraits of children often evoke nostalgic, wistful emotions. These sentiments can be further explored and revealed by including the context of space and time in your shot. Sometimes the most effective details are actually added props that find their way into the frame (on purpose or by happenstance). The illuminated bouquet of dandelions is a symbol for wishes, freedom, whimsy, simplicity; all quintessential elements of the innocence of childhood. —Photo by Stephanie C. Roberts

Accessories:Shoes, although farthest from the face of your subject, can often tell a story all by themselves. Including shoes (or other telling accessories) in your portraits not only will create visual interest, but often will communicate a more inspired narrative of your subject’s personality.

“When I shot this self-portrait,” says Clark, “I recognized my tomboy side—comfortable in my soft cotton and denim ‘uniform’. I saw myself in my bathroom mirror, as I do every morning, getting ready to start the daily routine. What I didn’t see was my father, until I took the detai
l above. And then, all at once, in one thumb nail, I saw him. Undeniably. I’ve known I have my father’s hands for years now, but it’s one of those things I forget about. I’ll admit I have often complained about having masculine hands—my dad’s hands—but this time when I saw a glimpse of my father in myself, it made me happy. And incredibly proud. His hands are big and can still make mine feel small. They are exceptionally strong. And even amidst the cracks and calluses from years of hard work, they are soft, tender and loving. I can only hope that having my father’s hands means having all of the other wonderful things that they hold as well.” —Photo by Tracey Clark

All Of The Above: Sometimes you won’t have to choose just one detail on which to focus. As you begin to hone your eye to the details, you’ll find your subjects bring them in spades! You can include a number of these elements in creating unique and compelling portraits that are rich with artistic expression—both yours and your subjects’!

Who we are alone is only part of our story. Featuring connection and revealing who we are in our togetherness can paint a more complete picture. Co-author Lemen writes, “It is the job of the photographer to see the things that others often miss; the subtleties of expression, gesture, body language, the seen points of togetherness and those that are only inferred. It takes more than just a keen eye. It takes a lot of heart and the willingness to dig deeper and feel your subjects.” —Photo by Jen Lemen

Learn more about the Shutter Sisters on their community photo blog,, or in their book, Expressive Photography: A Shutter Sisters’ Guide to Shooting from the Heart.

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