Would you like to make portraits that show more about the person’s character than what they look like? In this article, you’ll learn some new ways to look at your subjects so you can better understand them; and therefore create portraits with depth and more interest.
A portrait is a picture of a person. So, what separates the pictures we make from those made by a photo-booth?
Leaving discussions about mind-body duality aside, it’s safe to say that we’re all flesh and blood. Our photographs, therefore, are of surface appearances. But beauty is more than skin deep.
What we call character, or soul, or ‘I’ is the driving force that makes, shapes, and motivates our bodies; and our inner thoughts and emotions are often written on our faces.
This is my personal approach to portraiture and particularly portrait photography, gleaned from countless hours of reading, and a degree in Literature, Philosophy and Psychology. It’s compressed a lot here, but should be useful if you explore each area independently.
Reading your subject’s character
Portrait photography aims to capture and communicate some aspect of a person’s character. I think this shows itself in a few ways
What are their habits?
What we do often changes us; makes us. Whether it’s Aristotle talking about excellence as a habit, or Warren Buffett urging graduates to develop the habits of success, habits are an important part of who you are. If you exercise regularly, you get fit. If you eat well, you’ll be healthy. Habits are hard to fake, because they have to be consistent in order to have much effect. Look at your subject; how have habits transformed them?
What decisions have they made?
Satre said that making no choice is still a choice. If I let my beard grow, it can either be a decision to do so, or an unconscious decision not to shave; so decisions can be active or passive. Do they have an afro, or dreadlocks? Both take commitment to grow and maintain so why did they bother? Ask them about the choices that they’ve made with their bodies; it says a lot about their character.
A tattoo is a good example of a decision to pay attention to when making a portrait. It might indicate teenage rebellion, artistic expression or even affiliation with the Japanese underworld. It’s a choice to permanently mark the body; so it’s likely that some thought has gone into it. Likewise with piercings. Is it a yearning to be different? Or to be the same?
This is also a space to think about what they spend most of their time doing; and that’s generally going to be their career. Are they following their passion, living their dream? Or are they worn down in a job they’d rather forget? Both tell stories. Uniforms may be one indicator; but it’s not too difficult to tell a rock star apart from a senior diplomat.
How does the subject present themselves?
How are the subjects presenting themselves to the world? This can be intentional, like putting on a smart suit with finely polished shoes, or passive, when they are wearing clothes that were chosen ages ago. Chances are that they spent quite a bit of time choosing what they are wearing; at the shop, and on the day. Steve Jobs had his iconic turtleneck sweaters with jeans, and Doctor Who has his bow ties. Which identity have they bought (and bought into)?
Somebody might think of themselves as belonging to a certain nationality, a subgroup or clan; but photographs are silent, and you’ll want to look at the outward expressions of this in order to communicate this message. People often have ‘props’ that can say a lot about them. It might be an expensive watch; a necklace; a well-designed house; or if they’re young, a light sabre or cuddly rabbit. Assuming your subject isn’t naked, what have they brought with them? Ask them about what they’re wearing; you’ll likely be surprised by the answers you get.
Facial expressions and body language
Make them laugh! I met the chap who photographed the Beatles back in the 60s and he talked about making people say ‘cheese’. I always thought this was just a quirky thing to say to break the tension, but the idea is that the mouth forms a smile when you say the word ‘cheese’. This works better than telling someone to smile; but not by much. Mainly because expression isn’t just in the mouth; it’s a product of a whole range of muscles in the face. Ask the robot designers in Japan who are trying to replicate human emotions on an android’s face!
So the best way is to actually elicit emotions to create the gestures that you’d like to photograph. There are lots of ways to achieve this, but most need to be taught in person. It is worth noting that people are never just the face they show you; there’s a whole host of different identities that make up their sense of who they are. It’s a matter of bringing them to the fore.
Body language is also an incredibly revealing aspect of non-verbal communication. Every portrait photographer should have an awareness of different postures, and how they can help in reading a person. And of course, it’s possible to pose a subject too. One part of Holistic Photography (which is the philosophy that photography needs both craft/technique and art/vision) is a study of micro-expressions and how to see, and photograph them. Our faces will register emotions before we have time to control them. So you can photograph someone’s ‘real character’ by eliciting these micro-expressions, and then capturing them in the photograph.
Physical attributes – what can you focus on?
One thing I didn’t mention, partly because it’s hard to avoid doing, is the ‘flesh and blood’. Some people just have fascinating faces, topographically. It might be that their eyes are bright green. This is a rare and beautiful eye colour, so chances are other’s reactions to it will have influenced their sense of self – rather like Kafka explores in The Metamorphosis. Likewise, my ginger cousins have developed an identity around their red hair. People, unconsciously or otherwise, live up to these imposed identities. I’m 6’2″. It’s a number; my height. But does it mean more than that? What about a ‘Perfect 10’? It’s just an arbitrary measurement; but numbers are intrinsically linked to our self-worth in our consumerist society. Look for physical features that stand out, that are striking. How is your subject restricted by their physical identity? How are they empowered by it?
For more on portrait photography see this YouTube video:
Hopefully this gives you some different things to think about when you’re photographing people and want to make portraits with a bit of depth. Holistic Photography goes a lot deeper within each category but my writing isn’t good enough yet to properly communicate what’s pretty simple to demonstrate and explain in person. Therefore, have a look at portraits you admire, both photographic and painted, and look at each of the different categories to see what fits.
Then practice really going beyond the person-as-object photography by finding out more about your subject. Think like Sherlock Holmes. Push like Platon. Light like George Hurrell. And feel like Edith Piaf. Portraiture is like a game of chess; ‘you must think first, before you move’!