10 Lessons for Portrait Photographers: The Art of Story

10 Lessons for Portrait Photographers: The Art of Story

home.jpegWhen I first started my studies as a portrait photographer, a friend introduced me to a photo book by Michael Franzini. This photographer created a book of portraits that inspired me to have very high standards for creating portraits that were true to my subjects and their life stories.

One Hundred Young Americans is a photo book that connects readers to the stories of 100 teenagers around the US. Franzini’s purpose with this book was to capture a true representation of American youth culture. Some of the stories are lively. Some are sad. All capture a life authentically and unabashedly.

Rarely will you come across a book that is so engaging and has such great variety of profiles. To this day I have not seen a portrait book that so successfully connects my heart to the heart and intentions of the photographer.

I learned several lessons from this book and believe it to be an excellent addition to the library of those studying the art of the portrait.

1. Dive into your subject’s life

Study the things they love. Look at their favorite things. Appreciate them.

2. Put yourself in their shoes

You may not have grown up the way they do. You may have different values. But for a moment, be subjective. Don’t allow yourself to be removed from their story.

3. Understand their perspective

Everyone has different viewpoints. Lay aside your preconceived ideas and do your best to really be true to your subject’s story.

4. Take the emotion of their story and capture it

A truly successful portrait photographer can take someone who is quiet and demure and capture that – even if the photographer is bubbly and vivacious. You add your style to the shoot, but in the end, a portrait is about your subject and not about you.

5. Go after energy

Use elements of movement and motion in your portraits – don’t be content with all your elements being still and static.

6. Use your subjects in their natural environment

Their favorite room. Their backyard pool. Their treehouse. Their farm. Where your subject is most comfortable, they will be most natural as well.

7. Go for the unique

Spitting skittles. Surrounded by stuffed animals. Surrounded by cosmetics. These are all scenes and settings from Michael Franzini’s portraits. Don’t be afraid of ideas that haven’t been done before. Those are the portraits that stand out most.

8. Establish strong connections

What experiences can cross over differences of age, culture, and upbringing? Focus on these to make your portraits strong.

9. Respect their story

Your subject may make choices that you would not. Your subject may come from a world completely foreign to you. What matters most is that you give respect to them and their story. If you can show this, your subject will be comfortable letting you into his or her life.

10. Create art

Above all, each person’s life is like a book with many chapters, many characters, and many unexpected twists. The beauty of creating a portrait is showing as many elements as you possibly can, in the most artistic way possible.

I’m grateful for these lessons Michael Franzini taught me on the Art of Story.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography www.BrideInspired.com and leadership with www.RevMediaBlog.com.

Some Older Comments

  • Paul March 25, 2012 06:20 am

    Nice inspirational article, wish I had more time to take on such a project?

  • Elizabeth L March 24, 2012 05:40 pm

    Sorry Exactly who and what my clients love and represent I know that this will help me in the future thank you!

  • Elizabeth L March 24, 2012 05:39 pm

    Love this.....Going to have to try something out... still need to figure out exactly what!

  • Jon Searle March 24, 2012 06:30 am

    This is great thanks - Yes, its all about telling their story in the image.. & movement is key to keeping it fresh and alive..

    Spitting Skittles! Love it!

    Keep up the great tips & videos - always look forward to my weekly dose in the newsletter

  • Mich March 21, 2012 12:31 pm

    emm....which lense is the best for potrait?

  • Hansi Trompka March 21, 2012 09:25 am

    great post! good tips...
    i realy like these lessons here

    check out my facebooh site, do you like it?


  • Calvin Jones March 21, 2012 05:12 am

    Great article - love all the tips. Not being a professional photographer I was a little hesitant when a co-worker asked me would I create a book for her kids after she saw a couple books I have published through Blurb.com.
    I read some articles from this site and a few others and the end result is a photobook entitled "@ Home With Taylor & Mya."

    I would welcome any feed back on how my project turned out: http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/2156912


  • Mathew March 21, 2012 12:05 am

    Thanks for these very useful tips.

  • gnslngr45 March 20, 2012 11:36 pm

    Great lessons.


  • Laurie March 20, 2012 08:23 pm

    One thing that I think is very important, (and is inline with what you say) is that you should sit down for at least a coffee, and preferably a meal with your subject before you do the portrait. Spending time talking with no camera between you is the best way to get a feel for your subject. Once you do that, the top 10 tips above will become much easier.

  • raghavendra March 20, 2012 01:26 pm

    Nice tips for portrait photographs,
    I have tried one , but this is not an exact portrait


  • Terri March 20, 2012 11:41 am

    What interesting timing - my daughter and her best friend (they're 16 and 17) have volunteered to let me take some pictures of them for practice. We're planning on going down to the lakeshore park near where we live - there are a lot of good props there, swings, climbers, sand, water, grass, trees, lifeguard towers, sculptures, other people exercising or walking dogs... I figure there are endless possibilities there for 2 teenage girls to feel "natural".

    These tips really help, in fact that's why I came here tonight - I thought I'd have to search for some pointers but I found serendipity instead.

  • ccting March 20, 2012 11:29 am

    wow. it looks complicated...

  • Egle March 20, 2012 09:18 am

    Great tips, especially when you are shooting people that you don't know. Very recently i took a shot of my dear friend and her partner, maybe because i know them, i was happy for the result i got, but their portrait makes me smile and shows how happy she is.

  • steve slater March 20, 2012 06:35 am

    A young girl who loves the countryside:
    I do not believe you need to have a face on portrait if the story works.


  • Alexx March 20, 2012 04:40 am

    Great post.

    I completely agree!


  • Erik Kerstenbeck March 20, 2012 02:31 am


    This is a great article and I love the Tips, especially knowing the story of the subject! We chatted with our Model and she has a Husband in the Marines and wanted a classy shot for him. We put her under a wing of a Fighter Bomber, got down to her level and asked to lower her Aviators just a bit...nice