To celebrate our ongoing Portrait Awards, we reached out to dozens of former winners and finalists from prior editions of the LensCulture Portrait Awards to ask them for their advice on how to shoot a great portrait.
We ended up receiving so many insightful and inspiring replies, that we’ve decided to split up their responses into two separate articles. Keep an eye out next week for part 2 of this series. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this collected wisdom. Happy shooting!
I believe that the most important part of portrait photography is building an intimate relationship with your subject. Don’t be shy: get close and take the time to engage with them. Build trust, and always approach them with respect! I usually hide the camera at first, so the people I’d like to photograph are more relaxed and show their real selves. I approach them in an honest, open and friendly manner and always try to make them smile! Also, the story the portrait tells is just as important as building a relationship. Every person has a story, and every picture should tell part of that story.
As for advice on making a great portrait, I would say to focus on the eyes—they really are the window to the soul; make them communicate with the viewer. Think about the setting into which you will place your subject, and try to show whatever you believe would help the viewer to connect with your subject.
I have learned two big things about portrait photography: first, take time to shoot a lot. I make time to talk with my model and really hear his or her story. I never take a photograph until I know the model inside and out—that leads to a model knowing me. The more you talk with them, the more depth will be added to the photograph.
Second, respect the model. A portrait photograph is a collaboration between the photographer and the model. The work cannot reach a conclusion without mutual respect.
Peter van der Hayden
I would say that the most important thing (especially when working on projects or series) is to choose a subject that is close to your heart. That connection will add an extra dimension to the final result.
Always remember that you started this profession because you love taking pictures. When you hit a rough spot, try to focus on that feeling.
Also, when you have finished your shoot, spend a couple of minutes freestyling. Do something crazy. Everybody is relaxed and the pressure is off. Often you will be amazed at the results.
Whenever I take portraits of someone, I think of myself as a messenger. I am a messenger who will capture the inner feelings of my subject rather than their appearance. I want to be a mirror that reflects their lives.
In order to make my subjects open up about their deep feelings, I talk with them both before and during the shooting. The photo is just a tool for communication, a tool for making a relationship. I am always sincerely interested in my subjects. In a sense, it is like psychotherapy: often my subjects discover hidden parts of themselves. I also find that music helps the environment if I’m photographing in a studio.
A portrait for me is a meeting, a moment where the power of the human mind and the physical condition meet—alongside it is a reflection of myself. It tells us something about where we are in our lives. Personally, I often photograph people who are seldom in the foreground. I find myself lovingly attracted to the “invisible.” My view is that everyone deserves to be noticed. I search and research the unpolished life.
When I take a portrait of someone, I always get a knot in my stomach. There is always a feeling of insecurity, a question about whether I will manage to capture their essence. Repeatedly looking for that insecurity, seeking to cross that threshold: that is the driving force for me. I need that knot in my stomach. I only feel it for a short while, but it gives me energy and keeps me sharp. Sometimes I literally break a sweat, but I think that’s good. The process should not always be fun and games—often there is some tension involved.
I take my time when I take portraits. I like pushing the limit, pushing and pulling, turning and twisting until something happens—until ‘it’ happens. Or until someone has had enough. That process—the searching and the moments that follow—are often the most interesting. I’ve noticed that the people I photograph appreciate that I’m sincerely interested in who they are. Maybe that’s why I often have special people in front of my camera. I generally shoot people that make me think afterwards, “How did I make that happen?”
Portraits are extremely complex and often vary from an intimate experience with a close individual, to photographing a stranger—perhaps for the first time. Whatever the case may be, I find following your intuition is the best advice when beginning any portrait project. Even if you do not always know what you are doing, the more you listen to your own drive and intuition, the more original and unique the results can be.
In terms of career advice, I would say that being able to contextualize your work is key—especially for fine art photographers who are seeking gallery representation, publication, or even awards from various competitions. The more you know about what has come before you, or what is happening in contemporary portrait photography today, the more you can distinguish yourself. Be careful of derivative work. Jurors are some of the most well-informed industry professionals in the world, and if your work too closely resembles another photographer’s, it will prove to be detrimental to your endeavors. A few key ways to stay informed: look at major photography fine art blogs, scan past portraiture competitions, and visit local museums and galleries that show portrait work whenever possible.
I am acutely aware of how emotionally exposed the subject feels standing in front of me. Nowhere to hide— literally or metaphorically. There is a beautiful honesty and truth in that moment…and a great deal of trust. If I have been given any gift in my life, this trust is the greatest—far greater than whatever minor gift I possess as a photographer. From the perspective of the viewer, the message should transcend the image itself.
You never know where your career path as a photographer may take you. In the midst of my life as a professional fashion and beauty photographer, I had no idea that I would one day be fully dedicated to long-term, personal projects depicting the very antithesis of fashion: severely wounded soldiers, scarred women, terminally ill people, grieving children, etc. Life’s experiences alone will create shifts in you as a photographer, and you must be willing to accept that and evolve. Trust in these shifts and move forward.
Shooting someone’s portrait is about making a connection and telling a story. For me, a portrait is like a documentary, and it’s very powerful when done right. When I photograph, I try to feel the portrait and make sure it connects. You can look at famous painters to see how they use light or create tension in the face. The professional side of you should know how to create this feeling in your photographs; the artistic side can then break these rules to create something new. Comfortable, angry, vulnerable—these are all emotions that you can’t put into your picture with composition or light. For me, this is the most inspiring part of portrait photography.
I believe it’s good to have a clear idea of how you are going to capture your portraits. Like a painter who starts drawing with a clear idea, you should know where you’re going. Be open and see what works, of course, but start with a clear focus and plan. This means you must take control of the shoot. Being photographed is scary, so your subject wants to know that you have a sense of what you want. Then, he or she can give you their trust. This is important, as you then have the room to pursue your vision.
When I create portraits for clients, I always work the same way, with one exception: I always have a safe-shoot planned as second location. This allows me to be creative in the first few shots, because I know that nothing will stop me from delivering a great photo.
Editors’ Note: The LensCulture Portrait Awards are now open for entries! Enter now for a chance to exhibit your work at Photo London and in Arles. There are also a host of other great awards. You can find out more about the competition on its Call for Entries.