Broadly speaking there are two types of portraits. The first is where you try to make the model look as beautiful as possible. You may need a make-up artist or stylist to do it properly. Most commercial photographers are paid to make their models look beautiful, and there are many links with the world of fashion photography.
The other is where you try and capture somebody’s essence, create character portraits. One interesting thing about this style of portraiture is that it opens up your range of models beyond people that are considered conventionally beautiful. It’s less complex because you don’t necessarily need make-up artists, stylists, or complex lighting.
Capturing character is a more simplistic, honest approach to making portraits. The techniques and principles behind it are simple but may take a lifetime to master.
1. Focus on the eyes
This applies to all types of portraiture but even more so when trying to capture their character. This idea goes beyond focusing your lens on your model’s eyes and making sure they are well lit and have a catchlight.
Eyes should be a focus conceptually as well as literally. They tell you a lot about a person. Eyes convey emotion, vitality, and life. The saying, “The eyes are the windows of the soul” has a lot of truth to it. Older people have wrinkles around their eyes that speak of experiences lived and wisdom gained.
2. Ask the model to wear their own clothes
Choice of clothing can say a lot about an individual, particularly if they have a quirky fashion sense. This is the opposite approach to fashion, where the model often wears clothes that don’t belong to them. When capturing character ask the model to bring along clothes that are meaningful to them.
3. Shoot the model in their environment
A common component of the type of portrait photography where you try to make somebody look beautiful is to place the model in an unusual or striking environment.
When capturing character you should try and do the opposite. Look for links between your model and the environment. If your model is the outdoorsy type, look for a place to take the portrait that reflects that. Or maybe their home or garden are decorated in a way that reflects their character. Or perhaps they have an interesting hobby or profession.
Think about how you can use these elements to create a portrait that tells a story about the model’s character.
4. Use prime lenses
Prime lenses are the secret weapon of the portrait photographer. Part of that is because of the practical advantages. We all know you can select a wide aperture to blur the background and create compositions with bokeh. But you can also set the aperture to f/2.8 or f/4 knowing the results will be sharp (compared to the softer performance expected from zoom lenses at those apertures).
Being restricted to a single focal length means you have to get creative with your compositions. You can create variety by changing the distance between you and your model, and by utilizing different points of view.
But most of all, the minimal approach to gear enforced by prime lenses lends itself to a more honest approach to portraiture. I often take just one camera, one short telephoto lens, and no lights to a portrait shoot. I prefer to rely on natural light (and reflectors). Eliminating distractions helps me concentrate on the next step – making a genuine and meaningful connection with the model.
5. Build rapport
The success of the shoot depends on the relationship you create with your model. You might only have a short time to do this. I’ve turned up for shoots with people who I’ve never met before, having communicated only by email or text message. It helps that I’m a naturally curious person and enjoy learning about other people and their lives.
Part of building rapport is getting the model genuinely interested in the photo shoot. If it is part of an ongoing project (and it should be, because projects are the best way to help you develop creatively as a photographer) let the model know about it so they can take pride in being part of your project.
Use conversation during the shoot to provoke animated expressions. Read the story about Yousuf Karsh photographing Winston Churchill for an extreme example of this!
6. Post-process appropriately
Think about your style of post-processing. For example, a portrait that expresses character probably needs far less retouching than a portrait that is trying to make the model look as physically beautiful as possible. A light touch is often best, when working in color.
You should also consider converting your best portraits to black and white. There is something timeless and special about a good black and white portrait. It’s ideal for expressing character and emotion.
Capturing character, rather than (but not necessarily instead of) beauty poses a challenge to the creative photographer, but the results are often more satisfying.
I find that an interest in capturing character rather than beauty marks an evolution in a photographer’s thinking, a shift from photographing the superficial to looking for deeper themes and human connections. But what do you think? What techniques do you use to capture character? Let us know in the comments below.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about portrait photography then please check out my ebook The Candid Portrait.