I used to have difficulty in taking portraits – pointing a camera towards a person’s face always felt like intruding and I kept away from portrait photography, preferring instead “faceless” images of all kinds. A moment of epiphany and I set myself the task of bravely pointing my camera at people.
And here are some thoughts I have (I bet you never suspected me of having actual thoughts) on what has worked for me so far… When I refer to portraits here, I mean candid images and not posed studio work. If some of these seem embarrassingly obvious, please bear with me – for me, these are slow and hard lessons.
1. Think about your story
A great portrait, like all good photography needs to tell a story- it needs to make the viewer curious about the person behind the face.
The best kind of portraits, of course are of those who are naturals – people who like to pose, who like to be in the center of attention, who throw attitude right out of the frame… Like this lady in Sikkim – she was chatting with a couple of friends when she stopped and looked straight into my camera, blowing smoke into it as I went click, click, click. Or my other all-time favourite of this old lady with the ice lolly – this is from the Chatuchak market in Bangkok.
These two images are also interesting for the way they show unusual, or unexpected situations – there is no sense of apology or embarrassment on their faces – it is perhaps just that I saw them as unusual…
2. Make friends with your subject
The first rule that works for me is to talk to the person I am aiming my camera at. I think this is essential, unless it is a stolen moment or you have a great telephoto lens that lets you capture from a distance. Put people at ease – talk to them, get them to smile crack a joke (even if it is about yourself and your photography obsession) distract them where required so they lose that stiffness – sometimes it helps to show them the first pic you have taken so that they relax… The other thing I have learnt to do is to take several pictures – the ‘posed’ ones anyway and others when they let their guard down…
Do not force that smile: The other thing is about the smile – all that ‘say cheese’ business – surely you agree that natural expressions are more interesting than those plastic smiles. Anger, boredom, impatience, that scowl, that yawn…
3. Follow the gaze
A photograph taken when your subject is looking at something else that has caught his / her attention works very well – the ‘object’ in this case would be either completely out of the frame or in the background in bokeh or a mere glimpse of it is visible – the intention here is to draw the viewer into the frame with the question – hey, what is it that is so interesting out there? Alternatively, images where the ‘object’ is part of the frame also work well – e.g. a child looking at a ball in his hand, a mother looking at her child, a person staring at a painting…
4. Move beyond the mug
Portraits are often understood to be mug shots – the person looking straight at into the camera, only the face filling the frame and so on – that need not always be so. Try to include details in the frame – e.g. where they are looking at, what they are doing with their hands… these add a lot to the image.
Even if it is only a mug shot, try different angles – or have the person turn away from the camera, just the eyes looking towards you (even better, catch them when they are engrossed in their own world)…
5. Throw in context
Often in an effort to focus on the face / eyes, we tend to miss out other aspects – what is the mood? what is your subject doing at that time? And more importantly, where is the scene set?
Take this portrait – of a kushti wrestler from Varanasi – while we see him exercising, the larger story of where he is (in his akhada) and why he is doing this (as a warm up before the kushti practice) is missing. And while this works as a larger photo-story on Varanasi’s akhadas, it does not so much as a stand-alone portrait (even while being interestingly composed).
On the other hand, this image, for instance, is clearly from a tea plantation – her costume, the background in bokeh establish this.
Even when your composition requires a tight focus on the face or a part of it, I think it is worthwhile adding a bit of background – put it out of focus if needed but offer glimpses to spark the viewer’s imagination – like the bits of make up and paint in this image.
6. Capture people at work
This works very well especially when they they are engrossed in what they are doing; the story that emerges is interesting. Related to this is the idea that in good portraiture, it is essential to focus on the eyes – but there need not always be direct eye contact…
Like these, for instance – the boatman from Rajasthan and the cap-seller from Delhi – they looked at my camera and decided they could not be bothered and looked away pointedly. The real story is when I had finished taking pictures and their faces broke into smiles as I showed them those – and how I wish I had managed to capture those expressions.
Sometimes, a portrait becomes dramatic when you let the context rule… I have tried it often, especially when the idea is to capture the sense of that time and place overall…
Compare these two images of the boy with the bubbles – which do you prefer and why?
7. Experiment and enjoy
One of things you need to do consciously is experiment with angles and perspectives (like all other types of photographs, portraits can become repetitive and predictable) – for instance, if you notice that you tend to usually shoot in landscape mode, then consciously play with the vertical format. Try shooting from unusual angles (experiment with the same image from the top and at eye level), including interesting objects in the frame or experimenting with light.
Above all, have fun!
What are your tips for portrait photography? Do share them here…
Also read: the extremely insightful and interesting What the Mona Lisa Can Teach You About Taking Great Portraits