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Powerful Portraits – Look Through the Lens

Some photographers just seem to be able to take powerful portrait images time after time. So, what makes them stand out and look you in the face? Why do you feel a connection with the person in the image?

Possibly because they are actually looking at the photographer, through the lens, and therefore at you!

Powerful Portraits Connect with the Viewer

When you’re taking portraits, the most difficult thing to do, and the most important, is to get a great connection between you and the sitter.

The photographer’s intention is to convey the personality of the person in front of the lens. How do they do this when the sitter is usually preoccupied with their makeup, their hair, their clothes… whether you’re going to show them as they are, or going to show them as they don’t want to be shown… How do you, the photographer, get them to get out of their shell so that you can get “The Shot”?

When Do You Get ‘The Shot’?

When your sitter looks at you… Not at the camera, not at the lens, not at a black something… When the sitter looks at you; through the lens! Then you’ve got it.

That’s when your connection with the sitter comes through… Through the lens, to the photograph. It gives them life, it gives them personality, it makes the photograph real.

How Can You Make that Visual Connection?

A powerful portrait of a girl, by Top Gun 2000 on Flickr

1. Keep It Real

Keep that inter-personal connection real. Make it last. If you don’t care, it becomes apparent that you don’t really care about your work; they’re not going to either.

2. Get The Technique Out Of The Way

If you’re constantly fiddling with the lights, or your camera, your sitter is constantly reminded of the unnatural situation that they’re in… In front of the lights, or in front of a camera. It only helps them get more nervous. Get your technique worked out in the days before the shoot, and you’ll be able to focus more on that connection!

3. Make Them Laugh

Laughter helps create a bond, especially when the time in which to create that bond and bring out those really interesting expressions is very limited. Keep your session light-hearted, and you’re likely to gain their trust, and get that photograph.

4. Take Many Photographs

If you take only a few photographs, it’s likely that each of those photographs is going to become an “event”, bringing your sitter’s focus back to the camera, and not to you. When you become the “event” then the sitter is more likely to look at you. Not the camera, not the lens… you can take a cue from the previous tip.

A powerful self-portrait by Simon Pais on Flickr

5. Let Them Loosen Up

Usually, the best shots from a session happen towards the end. Unless the sitter is a professional model, it’s always difficult to open up and be themselves. Being in front of the camera is difficult if you’re not experienced. Get the sitter to talk, chat, tell a few jokes, let them loosen up, and lose that rigidity!

6. Let It Go…

Some people just don’t like to be photographed. They may have come to you for a portrait, or for a commercial shoot, but sometimes, they just don’t have what it takes to be themselves in front of the lens. This is usually where the photographer’s people skills and experience come into play, but sometimes, you just can’t get a photograph with real connect, because they’re not connected! So let it go.

More Portrait Photography Resources

This post was inspired by an interview with British Celebrity photographer Rankin (some of it NSFW). Do head over to his website to read the full interview and see his brilliant work.

Here are some more links to beautiful portraits which connect with the viewer.

Here are a couple more links to get you started off on your portrait photography!

I hope that this article gets you started off on some really interesting portraits. We’d love to hear from you if you have some more ideas… Do mail me, or leave a comment.

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Published: April 3, 2008 | Last Updated: August 19, 2021

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