Making Better Portraits.
Forget the camera. Forget the technical details. It's time to focus on the less tangible stuff that goes into making better portraits.
It's not always so easy to push yourself with portrait photography. I know from personal experience that it can be a little daunting to work with others at times. I've always felt intimidated or found myself second guessing everything. No one likes to be unsure that feeling like you're hiding behind your camera. Confidence is key, but for many (myself included) it isn't a quick turnaround. It's gained through lots of experience, and a desire to grow.
My biggest weakness is sometimes taking a passive role in creativity. To sit back and not have a strong voice in the conversation. I can't tell you how many times I've left a shoot asking myself "why didn't I go for it?".
So, what can you do? Explore your intentions.
What is your intention when you take someone's photograph? What did you have in your mind when you planned your shoot, or dreamed about it? I don't like to be too controlling over creative processes, if it's flowing, and it's good, then I always go with it. Having said that, I always like to go into every shoot with some idea that I'd love to see happen in my work that day.
When I first got into portrait photography I was always told to keep some inspiration photos on my phone. This way I could show the model what I wanted, and I could reference these for myself, not having to worry about what to do. It works, but I always caution people that it's way too easy to weaken your own vision, your creative voice. It's not a rule, and your experience may vary, but it's something to think about. That's not to say it's bad to feel inspired by others, that's great too, of course. But after a while you sometimes notice you're drifting away from what was personal to you.
One of the biggest questions I had for people back then was "how do you make your photos look like that?". I wasn't talking about editing, or even lighting most of the time. It was the emotion, the look on their face or the body language. I felt like there was something hiding there that I couldn't see in my own work, how did these people achieve this? When you're starting out, the gap between where you'd love to be, and where you are, can feel so big. Big enough that it's hard to see, or have a sense of the countless small steps you need to take to get there.
I begin all my shoots roughly the same way: I send the person I'm photographing a message about what I'm hoping to do. Days before the shoot is ideal. It gives time for you to pick out some clothes, or discuss other details you feel are important. It's an easy way to get your intentions across. It's not a rule book to follow, but a simple place to start from. Usually it's photos of my own, but it could be photos that someone else shot. I've even sent photographs of paintings or other visual art I saw, and felt moved by. I'm not instructing anyone to recreate, or copy something. It's more about having a starting point to get you on the same creative wavelength. I want to inspire them, but also put a large emphasis on personal experiences they can draw from. Having something to relate to is important, even if it's abstract.
When it comes time to take the photos I'm always a little anxious about things. I wish I wasn't, but I am. That is a whole other topic on it's own, but I promise you that it gets a bit easier over time. Work towards getting the better images, sometimes things start slow on a shoot, or feel a little stiff. It can take a bit of extra time to loosen up and settle into a groove, not only for you, but the model as well.
The photoshoot is a conversation. Sometimes it's back and forth, sometimes it's talking more, sometimes it's listening more. But it's always a conversation. Be honest with yourself, what did you come to this shoot to do? What did you want to make? Deep down inside you have answers. It could be meaningful and very personal, or it could be fun, and carefree. Making things doesn't always need to have a higher purpose. If you have that spark, that excitement when you're shooting, then that's all you need. Don't be afraid to push yourself and work to create what you saw in your head.
In so many ways, it's also about acting. Forget posing (I dislike that word, it feels too stuffy and controlled), it's not about that. In all kinds of ways we project emotions and body language in a variety of situations. We can dig deeper and explore the ideas. You can even think of it as creating a still scene in a film. What kind of film are you making? What are the themes? How do you translate that to the photograph?
While we shoot I'm always watching how the light moves, or shapes the scene and the person in it. Think of the scene in front of you as a photo, printed and hung on your wall if that helps. If you step back and take a moment to examine it, how does it look, and why? What about the person inside your photo?
Between rolls, while talking or loading film, I will see the model move a certain way. I'll pause and get them to hold that look or feeling, and try to photograph it. Always pay attention and stay in the moment. Sometimes I get the most natural and beautiful things out of people while we're not shooting.
I also think it's been beneficial for me to act out, or at least be expressive with my body as well, showing the model. It can be fun to relax and ease into what you want to work on. Don't be afraid to use your body to communicate. It's exciting when someone feels comfortable with moving and acting for you. But it's not always like that, and sometimes you need to take a bigger role. Being able to know what you want to do, and finding your voice to express that is so important. Things can be difficult too, there are times when you won't get what you want. When things aren't going how I like, I always take a moment to collect my thoughts and try something else. Often moving to a different room, or different area to photograph in. Usually a completely different looking shot from the one we were working on. I like to express that things look great, but I want to try something different. In those situations you need be constructive with your words and actions. It's too easy to sit behind the camera and do things you like, but don't love. Be decisive.
Do I show the model photos, as I go? If I'm shooting polaroids that day, then I will almost always show them some. It's for fun, but also nice to see how things are progressing. I don't shoot polaroids on every shoot, so it's not a given that we will see anything that day. If you feel like it can help you, or you think it will help the person you're photographing, then I say go for it. I know that a big disconnect for people is what you're doing with the camera, and what the final image will be. Aperture/depth of field, shutter speed, focal length, light, and metering are all part of what makes a photo. But most people you'll photograph won't understand that stuff. Don't bore them with technical details; help them see what you're doing. It can build confidence and steer things in any direction you want. If the polaroid is not a good shot, I usually won't show those too early in the shoot. I've found there is a very fine line between building confidence up, and breaking it down.
There is no simple solution or secret list of steps that everyone can follow to get better portraits. Each person is different, each journey is it's own. There are no right or wrong ways, as long as you're trying. After a while you won't have to think too much about it, it will become second nature to you. The stuff you've read here will all fade into the background. You'll stop wondering about specific poses and more about how everything in the image makes you feel.
There are still many days where I struggle with this stuff, please don't let any of it discourage you. No matter what, it's important to shoot. You won't grow without it. There is always more to learn, always more to grow. Experiences will shape you, and that's the only way you're going to get what you want out of your portrait work.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: SANDY PHIMESTER
Sandy Phimester is photographer from western Canada (Edmonton, Alberta). He discovered photography when his father bought him a camera for a cross Canada tour he was doing with a band. A few years later he moved from digital to analog and never looked back. Falling in love with the process of shooting film and working with his hands to develop at home in the darkroom.
All images and words by Sandy Phimester