I’ve been in the photography business for over a decade, and I’ve shot all kinds of photography: boudoir photography, newborn photography, maternity photography, wedding photography, and fashion photography. I’ve noticed a few common patterns among great portrait photographers that I’d like to share here for your benefit. Although there’s more than enough information about the craft to fill libraries, if you take these three essential portrait photography tips to heart, you’ll be well on your way to capturing something really special.
- Emotional Content is More Valuable than Technique, Setting, or even Subject
I like this quote by the great 20th century photographer, Ansel Adams:“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” I think what Adams is getting at here is that there’s this kind of sacred connection between you as the photographer and the people on the other side of your lens. The picture isn’t taken, it’s co-created, and the quality with which it turns out is a direct result of the quality of your relationship with your subjects. Of course there’s technical skill involved in making the photo turn out how you want it to, but I think it’s more important that you can “click with [the] people than to click the shutter,” as Alfred Stieglitz once said.
There’s a shoot I did at Shipwrecks beach in Po’ipu on Kauai’s south shore that I’ll never forget. I was working with three women who had been friends forever. They had been through a lot together and that came across in their photos. They each had matching tattoos, and they called themselves the Tres Amigas. Capturing the chemistry they had on camera was awesome, but what really made the pictures turn out so well was how quickly these lifelong friends opened up to me; by the end of the shoot I felt like I was Amiga Numero Quatro. These are the kinds of connections that make for excellent portrait photography. The camera just becomes an extension of yourself when it feels like you’re shooting friends you’ve known for ages.
- Catch Your Subjects in Their Moments of Deepest Authenticity
“[People] put on a face they think is the one they would like to show to the world… What lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject knows or dares to believe.” -Irving Penn
“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” ― Susan Sontag
This tip follows from #1: the deeper the authentic connection I can build with my subjects, the more I know I can coax them out of posturing and expose their true beauty. A big challenge in my job is helping people feel comfortable in front of my camera. I have all kinds of tricks to get the best shots, but one of the most certain ways to take great portraits is to help your subject feel safe, comfortable, and at ease with you. How you achieve this can vary greatly. It might mean bringing a bottle of champagne to an engagement shoot or it might mean having a silly one-liner ready to tell the kids during a family portrait. I will do whatever I have to do as a photographer to help people let their guard down for the camera, and that is what helps me produce great portrait photography.
- Let There Be Light
“Much as the sculptor works with stone and the painter works with paint, the photographer works with light.” – Steve Barnes
These days I’m lucky to be honing my art on the beautiful island of Kauai, Hawaii, where the incredible natural beauty provides an ideal backdrop for my work as a photographer. Although not terribly large, Kauai has a huge range of climates that vary dramatically throughout the seasons. With these variations comes a vast array of natural light conditions. Light is probably the single most important element of any portrait I shoot.
Being aware of the intensity, color, and direction of the ambient light tells me how to position my camera, which settings to use, and where to place my subject for the best effect. In general, I try to shoot during those “golden hours” where the light isn’t too intense or too weak, but perfectly illuminates my subjects in the most flattering way. For example, I avoid overly intense, harsh light, because it creates a high-contrast effect which can accentuate shadowy eye sockets. I like overcast days because the clouds act as a “diffuser,” evenly spreading out the ambient light across my subjects. Real mastery of light can only come with lots and lots of experimentation and practice. The first step, though, is awareness of the importance of lighting.
I hope you enjoyed these portrait photography tips. Get out there and take some gorgeous pictures! Or, if you live on or are coming to Kauai or any of the islands and want to plan a shoot with me, I would love to hear from you. Fill out the form to your right and I will promptly connect with.