How To Get the Most Out of Your Portrait Subjects
Celebrated South Australian portrait photographer Karen Waller reveals her top tips to help make subjects feel comfortable in front of the lens. After all, when your subject is relaxed, your job as a portrait photographer to capture something intimate and revealing becomes considerably easier. The challenge is to break down those barriers and put the sitter entirely at ease. The practical advice she shares will help take your portrait photography to the next level.
© Karen Waller, People category winner, The Mono Awards 2022
A portrait is so much more than a captured likeness of the subject. A great portrait helps reveal something about the subject; it conveys their essence, sparks a connection with the viewer, and sometimes leaves them with countless questions, and wanting to learn more.
What makes a great portrait? According to Karen, it’s a combination of technical skills, creative vision, and the ability to capture something that sparks an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject.
One of the first steps you need to take to produce captivating, engaging, and memorable portraits is the ability to make your subject feel comfortable in front of the lens. According to Karen, one of the simplest and most effective techniques is to spend some time with your subject prior to the portrait session. “You can’t just turn up, start shooting right away and expect someone to feel relaxed,” she says. “And when someone is not feeling relaxed, the chance of them revealing something personal about themselves is pretty much zero.” Spending time prior not only helps the subject, but allows the photographer the opportunity to also get comfortable.
Building trust is crucial. “If I am open, vulnerable, and empathetic to my subject, it helps create a connection,” Karen says. “I’ve also found that making the portrait subject feel that they have a story worth sharing by reinforcing the value of their story and their identity helps tremendously. Not rushing and allowing the session to unfold in its own time is also important.” Regardless of the content, as long as Karen can keep a conversation flowing, it helps even the most uncomfortable subjects relax and open up.
Tell your subject’s story
Be clear on the definition of a portrait and what it means to you. When it comes to producing amazing portraits, a little bit of planning goes a long way. “Start by defining the story,” Karen suggests.
Another important consideration to take into account includes deciding on the lighting that will best suit what you’re trying to achieve. Sometimes simple window light is all that’s required, while for other subjects and stories, studio lighting may be necessary, with anything from a simple one-light setup to something far more elaborate. When it comes to using a new lighting setup, it’s always worth putting aside time for testing prior to the portrait session. While studio lighting will always give you greater control, it might not suit your vision for the portrait.
Along with lighting, another key consideration is location. Will a studio setting work best for your subject and the story you’re trying to tell, or are you aiming for an environmental portrait.
Karen says that you’ll also want to consider whether the portrait will work best as a single capture, or whether, based on your post production skills, you want to introduce other elements after the session. thisAdditionally, including objects that are meaningful to the subject might also better help tell their story and provide the viewer with greater insight.
Black and white or colour?
Colour can be a powerful tool to communicate a story and convey the emotion in a portrait, but black and white might help simplify the portrait and reduce distractions, which Karen says can help strengthen the story. “I love both colour and black and white for my portraits. And sometimes the decision to go with one or the other is made by comparing the two versions side-by-side to see which version tells the story the best.|
One of Karen’s favourite portraits is her image of Ern Hendry from Point Turton on Yorke Peninsula, and she feels it’s successful because of the use of colour and its reference to a particular time. The image recently won a Gold award in the NZIPP Iris Awards and requires the viewer to spend time with it to understand how the details in the image tell his story.
“The image of Ern on his verandah holding onto the post suggests that he is connected to his home. It’s a home he shared with his beloved wife who had passed away a few years before the image was captured in 2019,” Karen says. “The green is so reminiscent of a particular era in Australia, but it was also his wife’s favourite colour. When he first met Wendy, she was wearing a green dress. He is bound to this house, and this is echoed in the graphic elements of his jumper, with the same patterns running through the roller shutters.”
If you’ve done a great job producing a portrait, you’ll have created something that people will be drawn to, they’ll be compelled to stare, and they won’t want to look away. But when they do, they’ll be left with questions unanswered, and that might act as a hook to draw them back into the portrait, searching for answers about the subject.
Sometimes great portraits are produced as a result of meticulous planning; other times, things just somehow come together. But, it’s not luck. It’s because you’ve tested, experimented, and worked hard on your craft every time you’ve picked up your camera in the past to shoot a portrait and attempted to encapsulate someone’s essence, captured in the briefest moment of time. Sometimes you might decide to push the boundaries, other times you might play it safe. Either way, all the experience counts, and it all helps to make you a better portrait photographer.
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