Let’s talk about portraits in photography…
First of all, what is a portrait?
Portraits are images that are intended to capture the “personality, identity, and attitude of a person” with the ultimate goal being to create a connection between the photograph and its viewer.
How do we as photographers do that in our photos?
Many photographers think of taking portraits only as setting up a backdrop or finding a beautiful natural setting, creating the “perfect” studio lighting or waiting until the “right” time of day, giving direction after direction until their subject is posed in the most unnatural natural way, and then they start clicking the shutter. Technically, when executed well, this creates a portrait, but will this image accurately reflect the “personality, identity, and attitude” of the person being photographed? Often not. Why? Because the conditions under which the photos are taken are artificial and contrived. No one feels natural and comfortable in situations where their position, posture, and facial expressions are choreographed. Thus, emotion and connection are often missing in portrait photos.
Some photographers scour Pinterest looking for perfect poses to use for their next portrait session. Without knowing the essence of their subject, however, setting out with a prescribed list of poses may also yield emotionally flat images. Maybe that pose or that setting or that kind of lighting is antithetical to the personality of that next subject. Maybe the newly engaged couple is uncomfortable kissing in front of the camera. It is unfair and somewhat presumptuous of photographers to assume that one set of poses fits all, that we can mold people like Play-doh into the image that WE want to create. Heading into a portrait session with everything planned out will likely yield uninspired results.
Why do people want portraits taken?
Portraits are taken for many reasons - to mark a moment in history (birth, graduations, weddings), personal branding (the dreaded professional headshot), and some portraits are taken simply for pleasure. (These are the fun ones!) As photographers, it is important for us to be aware of why this particular portrait is being taken at this time. The “why” should inform everything we do during the photo shoot. Portraits that are taken to mark history should include as many relevant details to that moment as possible. Professional headshots should “sell” the person, and portraits taken for the pleasure of it should be…pleasurable.
This following discussion is not about the professional headshot. It is about taking portraits when the photographer has unlimited creative license.
Also, The photos that I have used in this post are all family and friends because I don't have permission to use others.
You have probably figured out that I am not a fan of “traditional” portrait photography. I have seen very few “typical portrait session” images that feel natural, reflect the beauty and uniqueness of the human beings in the photos, or create an instant emotional connection with the viewer. Posed portraits often feel “clinical” rather than creative. What I mean is that technically speaking everything is right in terms of the camera settings and lighting, but the photos are void of authentic personality and emotion.
Much of the lack of authenticity felt in portraits is because they are “too perfect.” Everyone’s clothes match. Every hair is obeyingly in place, no one has blemishes or crumbs on their faces, and synchronized smiles are abundant. For those for whom this is the way their life really is, congratulations! For most of us, however, life does not look like this. Imperfections are part of our everyday. They are part of who we are. Bumps, bruises, wrinkles, unruly hair, sweatshirt instead of pressed shirt, or an absent smile all define our personality and our attitudes at that particular moment.
Therefore, they need to be a part of an authentic portrait. If imperfections are “edited out” the photo becomes a fairytale, not a true picture of a real person. When imperfections are edited out, people are then portrayed as how they, or we, wish they’d been rather than by who they actually are. Doesn’t that defy the real reason for taking portraits?
I have taken many photos that by definition appear to be portraits, but in reality are candid shots. When I am asked to take portraits for someone, I will tell them that I don’t “do portraits,” but I will happily take photos for them. In technical terms, the approach I use to taking pictures of people is more akin to lifestyle or street photography.
What does this mean?
Lifestyle and street photography places all of the responsibility for capturing a “good image” on the photographer. There is no posing your subject, no “say cheese,” no hold that smile…none of the things that make people uncomfortable. Taking portraits this way is much harder for the person behind the camera and much easier for the person in front of it.
How can you make this work?
I almost always have those being photographed choose the location for the shoot. This means that they are comfortable and relaxed in their surroundings from the beginning. I ask them to tell me about why this place is special to them and then I ask them to show me around. This gives me an opportunity to get to know the people a little better, especially if I am meeting them for the first or second time. It also gives me a chance to scout out the location and take note of the specific spots where I need to get a shot because it is special to them; and, I can look for other possible backdrops. The caveat her is that I am not a professional and don’t charge people for my time. If you are on a strict schedule, this process may require more time than you are willing to give.
Once we are all familiar with one another and the surroundings and it’s time to start taking photos, the process is all about being and seeing in the moment. If the surroundings are outdoors, I suggest that the person visit their favorite spot or go for a walk. If it is group shot, which is actually easier, I ask them to interact with one another as naturally as they can, move around, do what you normally do. Be goofy, be serious, be romantic, be you! Then I watch. I work to position myself to capture the most natural photos that I can. I am not going to lie. This is much more difficult than setting up a posed shot where you know conditions are in your favor, but I believe the work I put into this kind of photo-taking is definitely worth the energy and effort in the end.
The street photography approach to portraiture is similar. Again, as the photographer, you have to place yourself in the right place keeping in mind what the ultimate goal of portraiture is…keep it real. Keep it authentic.
Next time you want, or are asked, to take a portrait, skip Pinterest and the posing apps. Get to know your subjects and surroundings as best you can. Then, use your eye and your creative spirit to capture the unique personality, identity, and attitude of the person in front of your camera in that moment. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the image that you are able to create.