Portrait photography is a diverse and intimate art. Discover how these five pro photographers capture the distinctive personality of their subjects and bring unique perspectives to their portraits.
The photographer Edward Steichen famously said, “A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.” Throughout his career, he captured some of the most iconic faces of his generation, from Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Walt Disney to Amelia Earhart, Willa Cather, and Winston Churchill. Regardless of his subject, he was somehow able to draw out a person’s most natural self, whether that meant photographing a laugh and a smile or a somber, piercing stare. And because of his work, we’re able to remember some of the greatest minds and personalities of the 20th century.
But what exactly happens “on either side of the camera” to create that perfect portrait? How do great photographers break down people’s walls and allow them to reveal something genuine and authentic about who they are? We reached out to five expert portrait photographers and asked them to share some of their secrets for creating images that feel honest and real, even in a contrived studio setting. Below, they tell us how it’s done.
1. “Projecting confidence and expressing enthusiasm goes a long way in helping assure your subjects.”
mentatdgt (DGT Portraits)
What’s the story behind this photo?
I enjoy bringing people together, and for this photograph, I introduced two of my MBA friends to a med school student friend over coffee. I like this portrait because it’s completely natural. My three friends continued the conversation after I introduced them to one another. In this portrait, they had just found out that Presh is a student of medicine, and they were listening to her animated and fascinating insights into her experiences. When there is this sort of chemistry, I can let myself fade into the background, where I find great angles and wait for moments to capture. Incidentally, this is also one of my best-selling portraits.
Part of developing an interpersonal connection with your subject is engaging them in conversation and doing more listening than talking. I have learned so much and gained some startling new perspectives from unexpected clients through our conversations. If you take a genuine interest in your subjects, they will sense it and open up to you and give you the opportunity to capture an authentic portrait.
Projecting confidence and expressing enthusiasm goes a long way in helping assure your subjects. Many people are self-conscious in front of the camera, and a well-timed and well-intentioned compliment can really help. If I see a particularly stunning portrait, I might break protocol and show it to them. There is almost always a perceptible shift in their mood and attitude.
Let the camera get out of the way. A subject can quickly lose energy and enthusiasm for the shoot if they notice the photographer spending a lot of time fiddling with their camera settings while they wait around. Quickly read the scene and get your settings out of the way so you can move onto focusing on interacting with your subject.