So, this turned out to take quite a while writing, and it is loooong, so get your caffeine pills ready people, today we’re talking about making people look like individuals in portraits.

A portrait is more than a topographical description of the face of a human being. It is indeed a topographical description, but it is more than that. A portrait says something about the depicted human being’s attitude, their emotions, their personality, their passion, their job, their life and it makes people who see the portrait go “That’s the person I know right there”, and people who don’t know the person feel like they know a bit more than just how the person look. Getting this into a portrait has very little to do with technical stuff, and a lot to do with personal interaction. Obviously in order to create a technically competent image, or at least to make an image look the way you want it too, you have to be technically competent. Googling for 2 seconds will give you a ton of guides to technically good portraiture, that isn’t what we’re talking about today, we’re talking about making people look like individual human beings, so get ready for fuzzy subjects, weird ideas and stuff that generally intimidate the hell out of technical introverts like myself.

Don’t be the dentist

Image of girl standing behind a tree, visible from stomach down, toes pointed inward looking insecure. What a lot of people feel like when they’re about to have their portrait taken

You positively, absolutely HAVE to make sure everyone feels good about the shooting situation. For a ton of people, ranging from completely ordinary people who just need a portrait, to famous actors or politicians, my experience is that everyone feels intimidated when in front of a camera. For some people it is the unusual focus on them, for some it is that zit they got the day before, for some they’re born pleasers and are afraid of looking bad in front of the photographer, for some it is the memory of a bad portrait they once had taken and for some it is being confronted very directly with self-confidence issues. Whatever the reason, these people all have one thing in common, if you want to best image of them, you need to make them feel safe, secure and positive about the situation. Since you’re the authority figure and the one who supposedly has everything under control, no matter how freaked out you yourself are, this is your responsibility. And let me tell you, I’ve been pretty damn freaked out, especially during my first portraits, and my first shoot with someone I looked up to.

Make sure you’re the one in control, and taking responsibility

One common feeling people experience when having their portrait taken, is that they don’t know what to do in front of the camera, and gets into this tailspin of fearing they’re sitting the wrong way, looking weird, sweating or whatever. Some people verbalise this and tell you, others don’t, either way make sure you let people know that you’re in control of the situation. I often tell people what my plan for the shoot is, what kind of images I’m looking to make, lay out my different ways of working with people etc. so they know what’s going on, and then I tell them what I’m doing while I’m doing it. So for instance I’ll go “One of the best ways of drawing out your special gestures, facial expressions and all those things that make your face… yours, is for us to simply talk while I shoot. So I’m gonna ask you a bunch of questions, and we’ll probably end up having an awesome conversation since I love talking to people, and I’ll shoot while we talk. Now I might correct you a bit now and then, move you a little, turn you a bit or such, but unless I’m actually telling you to do something, you’re doing just perfect, mkay?” With this I’ve told people what to expect for this part of the shoot, they know that they’re implicitly doing a good job and that if they need to change their pose etc. I’ll let them know. Then I start a conversation, but more on that in the next section of the article.

Compliment stuff you like

The “stuff you like” part is just as important as the “compliment” part. False compliments just makes everything awkward, and throws even your genuine ones into a light of dishonesty. So the important part here is to learn to verbalise your positive thoughts about the shoot. For some this comes naturally, for others not so much, but you can teach yourself. Just try to be mindful of putting words to your positive thoughts. So if you get a framing where the jawline of your subject looks amazing, say it out loud: “Oh, your jawline looks perfect right now, this is going to look awesome in the image”, or if the subject move their head in a way that makes their lips catch the light perfectly, let them know that too. “Woah, the way you just moved your head made the light fall juuuuuust perfect on your lips, very nice!” This is completely free! You don’t have to make up shit or anything, you just have to verbalise positive thoughts. It’ll make the subject feel good, and more at ease, and let them know that good images are being created.

The pre shoot talk

This is where you get to alleviate some of the anxiety a subject might be feeling before the shooting has even started, do not waste this golden opportunity to get rid of a lot of what will get in the way of creating good images. Rushing into the shoot and getting all this human interaction stuff done with, so that you can be safe amongst your gear, is something I’ve done a ton of times, and a really terrible idea. Instead make sure you go over at least the following before you start shooting. Obviously this is a list based on my way of working, so modify it to fit your needs, but it is a good set of general guidelines.

  • Get some coffee, tea or whatever floats you and your subjects boat, and chit chat about your subjects life, their work, what they care about. Generally get to know them a little bit. This’ll both make them at ease, and give you a list of themes, motives and ideas you can work into the portraits beyond what you’ve (I should hope) already planned.
  • Go over which images you’re trying to create. It is always a good idea to make sure you and the client agree on what you’re trying to accomplish. Make sure you make it clear to them that you’re the one responsible for making the images happen, all they have to do is take your direction and trust you. Never leave people feeling like they are responsible for making the images.
  • Get a few laughs, share some weird stories from your life, crack a joke at some contemporary news issue or something. This is very much down to your personality, I usually end up telling hilarious stories about terribad beginners mistakes I once made, and being blessed with the ability to convince people that it is all in the past, while sort of opening up, I usually end up having people respond by opening up and sharing too. But really, you know how you share, and what you’re good at sharing, way better than me, so just think of this part as “share stories, get them to share more, make everyone feel even more comfortable around each other”

Dealing with different anxieties

Image of two girls, implied naked by bared shoulders, looking sincere and serious These two girls write a lot about anxiety, I figured it would be fitting to put them here

There are a couple of things that I find to be super common amongst most portrait subjects. They always look bad in photographs, they always look fat / weird, or they have a zit, scar or some other particular thing they hate about the way they look. Besides the fact that usually this has less to do with how people actually look, and more to do with society smacking everyone over the head with ridiculous beauty ideals, you need to take the responsibility for dealing with these things off the subjects shoulders. Usually for me it goes something like this. Again, obviously you need to use your own words, but the gist of what needs to be put across is pretty straight forward.

  • Subject: “I’m always bad / ugly / silly / stupid in pictures”
    You: “Luckily It isn’t your job to make good images, it is mine, so you just let me worry about making good images, and making you look good, it is out of your hands, besides I can already tell that getting your personality into these images is going to be easy peasy :)”
  • Subject: “My body always looks fat / weird / flabby in pictures”
    You: “That is probably because usually people who photograph you don’t know how light works. The same light can work in very different ways on different people, and in this situation I’m in control of the light, so you have nothing to worry about.”
  • Subject: “I have a scar / zit / stitches / skin condition, can you make sure it isn’t in the photo?”
    You: “Of course, and even if it is, I’ll make short work of it in photoshop, don’t worry the least bit about it, I’m not here to document the absolute truth about how you looked today, but to create a portrait of you that shows you from your very best side.”

During the shoot

So, after all that prep word we’re finally ready to get into the shoot. The first and most important thing you need to understand is that to get the best images of your subject, you actually need to take an interest in the person on the other side of the camera. You need to look at the way they move, the way they speak, the way their eyes flare up when you hit a subject they care deeply about, the way they gesture with their hands when they’re explaining something, and you need to capture these things. It isn’t enough to simply figure out which angle they look best from, and how to light them in the most flattering way, you need to capture the person in front of you in an image. If you are only focused on beauty and getting a perfectly sized iris, you’ll completely  miss the part that makes a portrait different from a mugshot; the personality.

Hard posing, soft posing or no posing?

There are, as I see it, basically two ways of going about posing your subject. Either you manually pose them, tell them exactly how their body should be, move their head etc. Alternately you just let them hang out in the lighting setup and talk etc. while shooting, and then there is a sort of middle road where you roughly position your subject but tell them that they are free to move unless you tell them otherwise. I don’t think you can say either is “the right way” because I’ve seen amazing results from all three, so you’ll have to figure out what works for you, but you should be aware of the risks and rewards of each way of doing it. I tend to go for the middle of the road approach for most situations, but the choice is yours.

  • Hard posing (telling your subject exactly how to stand, where to look etc.
  • For some people this is very reassuring because you’re basically taking away all responsibility for them, for others it is stressing because they get afraid of doing anything wrong.
  • You can precisely control how the light falls on them, which is very useful for doing intricate lighting situations (shooting strobes through window blinds, snooting specific areas of the face etc.)
  • Tends to lead to more artificially looking faces / poses, which can be both good and bad depending on what you’re aiming for. It is great for classic deadpan looks, and horrible for natural smiles.
  • Can be very uncomfortable for the subject due to forcing their body into holding poses that are straining, using muscles they don’t usually use etc.
  • Requires less social skills on the photographers part since you don’t have to fight awkward silence like you were storming the Alamo.
  • No posing
  • Gets the most natural expressions, gestures etc. from people if you manage to get the subject relaxed, makes everything look artificial and forced if you don’t get the subject to relax and feel comfortable with the situation.
  • Forces you into setting a lighting that is more general since you can’t set super precise lighting, for most portraits this isn’t an issue but for stuff like window blinders and snooting the eye it just doesn’t work.
  • Requires more social skills, you need to be able to control the mood, atmosphere etc. much more for this to actually work.
  • Soft posing
  • You don’t get the precision of hard posing people but you can tighten the light setup a bit since you can give the subject a more tight are in which they move their arms, head etc.
  • Can sometimes lead to insecurity on the subjects part because you’re giving them only basic rules for how they pose, giving them a feeling of more responsibility for the image, you need to kill this insecurity with fire.
  • Gives you a mix between, obviously, control of the light and pose, and more natural expressions etc.

Music is really important

Awkward silence sucks, it is the bane of good portraiture and the easiest way to kill it with fire is either conversation or music. Conversation is awesome for some situations, and for others you don’t want to deal with all the weird images you get when shooting someone mid-sentence, for those times, music is king, queen and a bunch of bishops. Have it loud enough to make you “feel it”, and low enough to make conversation possible, and watch the awkward silence slither away. Unless there is a specific genre the subject likes or whatever, I usually tend to go for very inoffensive musical choices like Imogen Heap, Bat for lashes, William Fitzsimmons, Goldfrapp and those sort of artists. While I’d be happy as a pea shooting to Bikini Kill, Dessa and The Sonics all day long, some people will actively hate it so it isn’t really a good idea.

Cheap conversational tricks

Besides being able to carry a charming, interesting etc. conversation, there are a bunch of cheap tricks you can use to get some specific reactions from your subject. Now obviously you need to be able to pull these off without it being obvious that you’re “doing a neat trick”, but they tend to provide a shortcut to getting some awesome expressions. Now if you do all of these right after each other, you’ll probably come off as a some sort of psychotic loonie, so yeah… use your judgment on when these are appropriate.

  • “So, when did you last kiss your boy/girlfriend?” This is a favorite, because you get this process where first you get a bit of a surprised look, then usually as the subject actually considers the question you get that wonderfully subdued secretive smile and sort of intimate look, if you release the shutter at the right moment, it is just… magic. 
  • “What to you is the most important thing in life?” Another very nice question since usually you get both a very flattering “thinking” look, but since what the subject of this thinking is positive, you also tend to get smiles, subdued giggles and nice sparks in the eyes.
  • Ask a completely nonsensical question, like “So thats pretty purple huh?”, for some the puzzling look they send you is simply wonderful, for others it just makes you seem odd.
  • Start giggling / laughing and shoot the moment they smile sort of puzzling at you.

Basically they all go along the lines of figuring out a way to make your subject think, laugh or smile sincerely. I’m sure you can figure out more of them on a situation to situation basis, I tend to.

Keep on explaining

Like in the pre-shoot talk, it is usually a really good idea to keep explaining to your subject what you’re doing. Instead of just going “ok so try pushing your hip out a little to the left, and then move your hand to the right”, go “Lets get a little more coolness and attitude into this shot, you have this awesome energy about you that I really want to catch. If you try pushing out your hip a bit to the left it’ll make you look way more relaxed and as is you own the room, and it’ll make your energy show up way better in the image”. Not only are you sneaking in a bit of flattery without coming of as insincere, you’re also making the subject take part in the creation of the image, and reassuring them that they don’t have to know how to make it look right, because you’re telling them exactly what’ll happen to the image. I also tend to explain why I’m moving lights around, pushing knobs and buttons and so on and so forth.

Be the kid, and let it show!

Image of kid sitting on top of fathers shoulders with clenched fists and a hillarious pretend angry expression

I’m a pretty sort of… well I guess you could say that I’m somewhat like a 5 year old with expressing emotions, it is really easy to tell what I’m feeling at any given moment. I use this to my advantage when shooting, I let myself make outbursts of joy and frustration while shooting, like “Oh damn this is so awesome, you’re going to be sooooo happy about this shot” or “what the hell was I thinking when I put that lamp over there, let me move that right away before I molest my camera with more terrible shots like that”. And while it might seem counter intuitive my experience is that it is very relaxing for the subject, because you’re actively moving all blame for bad images onto your shoulders, and sharing the glory of good images. That might be a completely bogus analysis of the situation, but whatever the reason, it makes my subjects more relaxed and at ease.

Random thoughts and tidbits

So, that turned into quite the novella, I actually think I’ve covered most of what I wanted to cover, but hey, if you have any good ideas for making people look like actual people in portraiture, or other small tidbits about getting the best headshots EVER, let me know in the comments. And tear into me if you think I’m completely wrong, I’m always open for debating :)

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