Why do some photographers consistently capture compelling portraits that captivate the viewer? So, what makes these images stand out among a sea of sameness? Why do you feel a connection with the person in these images?
Possibly, because the subjects in the photos are actually looking directly at the photographer, and therefore at you, the viewer, through the lens!
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, and it makes the photograph real. You have to make the sitter feel like that camera doesn’t exist, and that they’re sitting face-to-face with you.
How Can You Make that Visual Connection?
They say that the eyes are the window to the soul, and nowhere is that more true than in portrait photography. When taking a person’s portrait, it is the photographer’s task to capture the personality of the sitter in addition to their appearance. When their eyes are in direct contact with the viewer of the photograph, with the photographer being entirely invisible in the process, you can say that you’ve made a visual connection. From one side of the lens to the other, across space, time, and generations. This is the hope when we try to make a good portrait photograph.
Here are some ideas about how you can achieve that connection:
1. Make a Direct Connection
To create a good portrait, the photographer must care about their subject and have a genuine connection with them. If the photographer lacks interest or care, it will show in the final photo and the viewer will not feel a connection to the person in the image.
2. Get The Technique Out Of The Way
When the photographer is constantly adjusting the lights or camera, it can make the subject feel self-conscious and nervous about being in front of the camera. To create a genuine connection with the subject, it is important for the photographer to have their technique worked out beforehand, so they can focus on establishing and maintaining a connection during the shoot.
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 keeping it on you as a person. When “you” become the “event” then the sitter is more likely to look at you, and not at the camera or the lens… You can take a cue from the previous tip.
5. Let Them Loosen Up
It’s not unusual for the best shots from a session to happen toward the end. Unless the sitter is a professional model, it’s always difficult for a layperson to open up and be themselves from the start.
Being in front of the camera is difficult if you’re not experienced, and it’s important to recognize that. Get the sitter to talk, chat, tell a few jokes, let them loosen up, and lose that rigidity!
6. Become The Subject
Understanding your sitter goes a long way to getting them comfortable in your presence, and in the presence of the camera. You can understand the challenges of being the subject of a portrait by being photographed by a professional portrait photographer yourself. While doing this exercise, don’t focus on what the photographer is doing technically, but instead be present as a client, as a model, and try to understand the challenges of the role. This will help you to empathize with your subjects, and quickly find ways to put them at ease.
7. Let 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 connections: because they’re not connected! So let it go. You can’t win them all.
More Portrait Photography Resources
This post was inspired by an interview with British Celebrity photographer Rankin. Do head over to his website to read the full interview and see his brilliant work.
Here are a couple more links to get you started off on your portrait photography!
- A collection of Portrait tips from DPS
- The portrait photographer’s motivation
- More Photography Resources for Portrait Photographers
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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