by Bart Arondson

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I'm pretty good at taking portraits of my family and friends; I know who they are and what they "really" look like. But if I'm asked to make a portrait of someone I don't know so well, I'm often unhappy with the results.

I know some tricks for getting people to be comfortable and to drop the cheesy smile, and for getting serious expressions. But beyond that, a portrait is supposed to capture the personality or essence of a subject. How do I get more than just a technically fine "picture with a person in it" when I've only got a short time with that person?

I imagine that this is something serious working photographers come up against all the time. When it's Winston Churchill (or someone else famous), one might research beforehand, or have the luck (and chutzpah) to do that cigar-stealing trick, but what about just normal strangers that I want to photograph in a single short sitting?

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On a guess, i'd say it'd come down to how you interact with the models and how 'at ease' you can make them feel... No doubt it varies person to person though... –  NULLZ Apr 10 '13 at 23:45
Short periods of time may be why the average Sears portrait session looks cadaverous... –  John Cavan Apr 11 '13 at 0:40
Well, if you were photographing me, serve a few whiskey water's in your studio and I'll give you all the personality you could ask for. –  dpollitt Apr 11 '13 at 3:01

4 Answers 4

You've hit the hard part, all right. And there is a distinct difference between shooting celebrities and cultural icons and shooting "real people". How many of Churchill's friends would have looked at Karsh's masterpiece and said (in today's vernacular), "that's so-o-o Winnie!!!" But it was very much the way the world needed to see Winston Churchill at the time, so if he only ever looked like that when someone had stolen his stogey or hidden his Scotch, it really didn't matter. He was an icon, and that portrait was an icon of the icon. In the same way, nobody wanted to know, really, what Archie Leach or Norma Jeane Baker looked like, they wanted pictures of Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe.

When you're dealing with "real people", it's difficult to imagine ahead of time what that picture is going to look like. And it doesn't help at all that you are hampered by what sociologists call the Observer's Paradox — sticking a camera (or microphone, or even a notebook) in somebody's face and saying "don't mind me, just act normal," almost always has the opposite effect, at least in the short term. But you're not after the Daguerreotype look (a technically perfect picture lacking life altogether), nor is this a model shoot. You don't want people looking at the picture and saying, "that looks just like George," you want them saying, "that's so-o-o George!!!" The shot can be perfectly lit and executed, and can have a "great expression" and still be a failure as a portrait. You want an iconic representation of that person; someone their friends and family would have recognised from behind at a distance at night on a crowded sidewalk, to stretch a metaphor slightly.

That takes engagement on a personal level. Ideally, you'd want to have a bit of a pre-photo-session session with them, but that's not always possible. Let's assume, though, that you have something more to work with than the poor buggers who do school pictures (two a minute at least — "sit on the stool, 'assume the pose' and smile" is all the time you get for two exposures per kid). You can train yourself to be "intuitive", but it takes time and practice. (I started out life with something on the autism spectrum, and that led to some major problems that made staying that way untenable. People tend to mistake me for a sympathetic "people person" now, despite the fact that I'd rather be solitary almost all of the time.) Start with good body language and cold-reading techniques books. There's no need to make a study of it; just get the gist. If you can get them talking about themselves on any level, you can steer them deeper into their real lives, and they will become "real people". And you can get that transition from "client" to "person" down to just a few minutes with a little practice.

If you haven't had the chance yet, I'd suggest looking at Peter Hurley's videos as a sort of a rough guide. Most of the magic happens during the first "look" of his sessions, where the subject is minimally made up and simply dressed. (Later looks stretch people out of the everyday. These are, after all, actors' headshots and need to show who they can be as much as who they are. The first look is probably closest to who they are in everyday life.) You might not have half an hour at your disposal, but you can work in a bit of banter — and the disarmament tools are priceless.

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Hurley's videos are great. I only watched clips, but they were enough to make me seriously tempted to spend the money to buy the whole thing. Still thinking about it too. –  John Cavan Apr 11 '13 at 2:57
Great advice. Wish I was better at what you outline so well. Here is some great Hurley advise: –  dpollitt Apr 11 '13 at 2:59
+1 for introducing the videos! –  Regmi Apr 11 '13 at 5:05

This is a lot easier if it's a group portrait because you can get them to interact with each other and see what they bring out in each other, but really, it comes down to people skills. Getting them comfortable enough that they let their guard down and being perceptive enough to quickly learn about who they are from how they interact. Figure that out correctly and you will be able to get what you're looking for.

Wedding photography is actually a great way to learn this skill if you get a chance to work second (or third) camera for one. You get a longer time to see people in a comfortable environment and see how they relax and what makes them tick. How do they celebrate, how do they hold themselves, how do they dance? What is their sense of humor? These are all little things that you can figure out pretty quickly in a setting like a wedding and then you use that to capture their attitude.

As you get more adept at it, you can even start doing things like altering your composition and shooting style to meet their views. For a stoic, rigid person, strong, standard documentary type shots (or perhaps fine art style) is probably going to fit what they want for the collection of photos as a whole. If they are fun and playful, going more casual artistic and fun with the style is going to capture what they will think is good.

Studio portraits are of course a lot trickier since you have less time to make a judgement about them, but interact with them. The principals are still the same and it will help them relax and give your more material to work with. You can also always try taking photos to emphasize a couple of different traits and see which they prefer to refine it if you're really stuck.

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Check out Strobist's Lighting in Layers. There's lots of great instruction on using and controlling light, of course, but there's also a great deal of insight to how he works with a subject to get such great expressions. Very informative for just your purpose, I think!

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What I do is I pay close attention to their face, their expressions, and their mannerisms. I observe for a while. Soak up the vibe. See what makes them who they are. Everyone is special and different. Then, when I look through the lens, I'm able to better make the split-second decision of "Does this moment right now capture that person's personality?"

In terms of live-music photography, I always prefer to go listen to a band play before ever picking up the camera and shooting them. I've found watching closely is just be best way for me to prepare.

If crunched for time, I have to rely on past experience with other people who might have similar attributes, which is, in essence, relying on a vast database encoded in a gray-matter neural network.

The more people you observe and photograph, the easier it becomes to capture in a photograph. As a bonus, you learn to observe people more closely in general.

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