7 Ways To Create Authentic & Powerful Portraits

7 Ways To Create Authentic & Powerful Portraits


Create authentic powerful portraits 1by Steven McConnell

Do you remember the time you were learning to drive a car?

If you’re like most people, it began as a purely technical, logical activity. You had to think about your every move. You were reacting to your environment, rather than anticipating it.

Over time, that settled into a form of unconscious competence. You began to drive by feeling the car, rather than thinking about it.

Learning to shoot portraiture is similar. Beyond the mechanical, logical world of preoccupation with gear, ISO, f-stops and focal lengths is a realm of feeling your way around your environment, connecting with your subjects, witnessing their stories and sharing them with the world through your photographs.

It’s easy to say, I hear you say. But how do I start moving in that direction?

For me personally this has been a focus of my attention for the past few years and I feel like I’m just starting to scratch the surface. Every time I discover something new I see how much more there is left to uncover.

It’s my aim here to share some of my main discoveries with you. I hope that lessons I’ve learned on my journey to becoming a portrait photographer help you along in yours.

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1. Forget The LCD

I see so many photographers take a few photos and then bend over to check what they got on the back of their camera.

Meanwhile, their subject is just standing there. Their mood is collapsing. All kinds of weird thoughts are starting to run through their head.

Checking the histograms every now and then is important, but your main job as a portraits photographer is to be aware of, and manage, your subject’s headspace.

You can’t do it effectively if you’re spending more time with your camera than you are with your subject. You need to be completely present with the person you’re photographing.

It means you need to photograph a lot and often, until know with a reasonable degree of confidence when you’ve nailed the shot – without having to check it on the LCD.

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2. Explore Av & Tv [Aperture and Shutter Priority Modes]

There’s a sentiment in the photographer community that you must always shoot in your camera’s manual mode because “that’s what serious photographers do”.

Manual gives you great creative options in certain situations – for example, when you’re combining ambient light with strobes.

But be aware that you don’t always need it – and sometimes it will shoot you in the foot.

If you’re using only natural light, for example, and it’s likely to be changing while your subject is moving, the last thing you want is to miss moments while you’re chasing exposure.

Try shooting in aperture-priority mode (Av), using aperture to control depth of field as a creative element while dialling the exposure compensation in or out to fine-tune exposure.

3. Lose The Fat Lens

I shoot with prime lens because I like to have as few physical barriers between me and my subjects as I can.

If I can’t look them directly in the eye as I’m photographing them, then I want to look at them through as little metal, plastic and glass as possible.

Also, I think there’s a lot to be said about removing everything you can which will intimidate your subjects.

As photographers we tend to view gear as something to get excited about. But in doing so we forget that something like a 70-200 f/2.8 (even a 24-70 f/2.8!) on front of a DSLR can be unnerving to most people.

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4. Research Your Subjects

When I started photography, I did enough research about cameras to be able to quote the pros and cons of just about any DSLR body out there.

But if you asked me what the person I was photographing wanted to be when they grow up, I’d have no idea.

How can a photographer tell a story about a subject through the photos if they don’t know anything about them?

What are your subject’s dreams? Obsessions? Fears? Ice-cream preferences? Why do they get out of bed in the morning? What kind of personality they have – quirky, calm, strong, bubbly or intellectual?

Answers to those questions are a great departure point for your creative choices as a photographer.

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5. Put The Camera Down

I picked this idea up when I was watching this video of Annie Leibovitz photographing Keith Richards:

Notice how at 1:55 she puts the camera down to give him direction. It’s not accidental – by doing so, she injects a healthy dose of warmth and intimacy into their interaction. She reminds Keith that there’s a real human taking his photo.

6. Control Your Purpose

How you come across to your subjects is heavily influenced by your purpose in any moment. And that will determine how they act around you.

My default purpose is “Here I am, the photographer, about to photograph you – the subject”. Needless to say, it’s not very conducive to creating a connection of facilitating a particularly warm dynamic.

Before a shoot I literally have to shift the context through which I view the session to one which helps me set a warmer tone.

If I’m photographing kids, I’m likely to change to a space of “Let’s play – and I’m bringing my camera along”. If I’m with adults, I’ll probably take things in the direction of “Hey, let’s get to know each other – and I’ll take some shots along the way”.

Connection takes first place, photography second.

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7. Meditate

This looks odd as a piece of advice on a photography blog. But here’s why I think it’s useful.

As photographers, we tend to be quite analytical – we go through the world thinking about it, rather than feeling our way around it. We spend a lot of time preoccupied with our thoughts, which can give our emotional tone a somewhat distant edge.

Meditating 10-15 minutes a day will helps you settle down and feel more centred. You will come across as a warmer, more approachable and confident photographer. You will also be more present with your subjects’ needs and be able to respond to them (rather than react to them).

It’s important because your subjects will largely mirror your emotional tone. The easiest way to help them settle down and connect with you is for you to be calm yourself.

Steven McConnell is a family photographer at Family Photography Sydney. You can connect with him on Google+. and Twitter.

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Some Older Comments

  • Valerie August 22, 2013 01:53 am

    I found this to be so inspiring. I came to photography from the emotional side of it... rather than the technical side of it. I love to capture moments... not apertures, iso's and focal lengths but, the soul of what I see before me... so, for me..I've felt a sense of inadequacy because I'm uncertain about the technical...but, the more I photograph, I learn those things.. But, it's always been more important to me to focus on the person, place or thing..and try to tell the story of who they are through the photographs I take. And, your article has given me a bit of piece of mind about not being so technical. And the suggestion to use Aperture setting instead of manual is a great technical hint to help me along the way with that as well... thanks so much!

  • Jocelyn August 16, 2013 10:47 pm

    Great tips, all of them. Here's another idea that I sometimes use when I am photographing another adult: I sometimes hand my camera to them and suggest they can go ahead and take a photo of me. It helps equalize the situation and put them at ease.

  • Carlos Comesanas August 16, 2013 03:53 pm

    You do have a magic light in your pictures. They are so "different".
    If you don'tmind, what lens did you used in the picture of the little girl and the dog. It is incredible!

  • Patrick August 16, 2013 03:14 am

    On 'Losing the Fat lenses', I would say that some of my most beautiful portrait shots are made with a 24-70 2.8L lens, and have found that if one applies the 'Get to Know your Subjects', or at least take a few moments to Relax the subject, by small talk, joking a bit, or anything that helps them to forget that you're not there to intimidate with fancy equipment, but to capture some moments with them. - After that, you can play 'Director' with them and have it be a fun time.
    The longer lenses enable one to capture more casual shots without 'Getting in their Face' , with a prime lens by getting so close to them.

  • Jim Singler August 16, 2013 02:45 am

    Nice article, but I have to disagree with #3. I do agree that having your picture taken can be "unnerving" to many folks, but I think it comes down to being nervous about how they will look, not what kind of camera or lens the shooter has. That's where the personality of the photographer comes in. Making the subject(s) feel comfortable. We all have our own style and lens preferences. Personally, I like shooting with the 70-200.

  • Mridula August 15, 2013 03:32 am

    Second article on portraits this week and I think I need to explore this! I just run away from clicking people.


  • Brian Fuller August 15, 2013 01:01 am

    Setting the camera down for a moment I think is the best thing you advised.
    I need to infuse more of that in my sessions.


  • Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging August 13, 2013 06:37 am

    I totally agree that we, as photographers, tend to get lost in the process and the gear. It is fun and losing yourself in the process of doing something you love can make life worth living. We forget what it's like to be in front of the camera in that uncomfortable situation of "I'm stuck looking like this forever on film. Hope I don't look terrible." The gear and the process can seem like magic to us in all the right ways when it can also seem like magic in all the wrong ways to our clients: incomprehensible, inhuman, strange, frightening, and uncomfortable. I find that I have to remind myself of this every so often.

  • Ibrahim Gurel August 13, 2013 05:51 am

    4.Research your subject - This is so important. After researching my subject, I took a photo.

    If dog portraits are relevant, then you can check the first photo here on my blog: http://www.igurel.com/index.php/our-boxer-buffy/

  • klaus August 13, 2013 12:58 am

    Any tips for making inauthentic portraits?

  • Iris August 12, 2013 10:35 pm

    Great message. While we are taking photographs, we should never loose the connection with our clients during the shoot.

  • Irol Trasmonte August 12, 2013 05:55 pm

    Wow, indeed an excellent Article. Like the fact that meditation is included here. Very rarely do Photographers hear this advice to meditate, but its so true, your reactions or mood gets channeled to the subjects as you work with them. This is indeed odd but such a useful advice. Thanks for this Article.