I’d almost given up on this part of this series.. so much so I’ve not written anything in a while because felt like I would have been avoiding the thing I’ve been promising to do for so long.
I’ve been trying to find a way to explain how it is that I feel I am able to capture personality in my images…but then I realized I was simply assuming you, the viewer, actually saw personality in my images, so I started to doubt whether or not I was actually doing it!
Then I realized it didn’t matter what you, as an outsider, saw in the image. Well, kind of. If your business is geared towards individual clients (ie portraits, weddings, lifestyle, etc), then yes, everyone else doesn’t matter, they don’t need to “get” it only the client needs to.
However, if you’re shooting for mass consumption (ie advertising/fashion/etc), then it does matter as your client is going to want you to convey a particular thing to their viewership. Since I don’t do the latter, I’ll focus on how I capture personality for those of you working on a similar, more personalized, level.
Capturing personality is a strange, important, and difficult to do. It's difficult because other than professional models and actors, most people aren’t used to being, much less exuding, ‘themselves’ in front of a camera.
It's strange because you're never sure if the viewer/client will 'see' the personality you've captured.
And lastly, it's very important because it shows whether you have an ability as a photographer to pull something out of a subject which might affect future client consideration.
So, what do you do if it's someone that called you out of the blue for a portrait session after seeing/hearing about the awesome (right?) work you’ve done before? Here are some suggestions:
Get to know your subject. Whether you spend 5 minutes or 5 years, this is really important to getting the most out of them. But how do you do that when one minute you get a call/email about a portrait session, and the next you're meeting the client for a shoot? There are a couple of things about every person you meet that after spending a bit of time with them you should be able to identify.
Mental interest. Focus on what it is you find most interesting about them or what about them that jumped out at you (in a positive way, don’t focus on their large nose or peg leg!). If, when you meet (and yes, you should meet your clients before the day you're supposed to shoot them!), and you’re immediately drawn to their laugh, or smile, or whatever.. focus on that! Get them laughing/smiling/doing the polka… focus the session on that particular thing, or feeling.
If the person is more demure or sexy, go down that road (photographically of course!). Don’t try to change what they exude just because you had another idea in mind, be flexible and adapt to them. Talk to them but let them guide the flavor of the conversation, they’ll relax and you’ll start seeing natural expressions and body language which will translate well in your images. It took a while chatting with Anna before she was willing to go kung-fu on my ass (see below right image)! And then she ran with it, literally running at the camera and jumping time and time again until it was "perfect". A mouth full of sand was totally worth it.
Physical Interest. Tattoos. Great hair. Piercings. Unique sense of style. Kick-ass shoes. Great body (like a bodybuilder or whatnot), Humpback…well, ok, maybe not that last one.. I think you get the point. Highlight that which the subject themselves have highlighted. Run with it. Even if the photo doesn’t even show their face, I bet they’ll love it if it’s a reflection of them! (see bottom left image).
Putting it all together
So what does all the rambling over three long posts actually mean? Where's the "for Dummies" short-cut? Glad you asked.
There is no one answer.
There is no single formula that ensures a good portrait. Quite the opposite actually, there’s a million ways to screw one up! I thought I'd be well on the road to helping you (and me) find the answer when I started writing this, but I was dead wrong (it’s what took me so bloody long!). Like everything photography related, you get out of it what you put in and sometimes you just have to get lucky.
Having said all that there are still some things you can do ensuring you squeeze the most of what few things you can actually control that can make the difference between a run of the mill snapshot and something that reaches out from the print (or screen) and bitch slaps you in the face.
- Confidence. Live it. Sweat it. Breathe it. Make love to it. But most of all, believe it… and so will your subject. Just don't be an arrogant git. And back it up.
- Simplicity. Remember what you’re doing. Have a plan. Stick to that. Focus on that. Don’t try too much. The rest will fall in place. Be prepared..always.
- Personality. It’s the surprise filling when you bite into that normal cupcake and find the warm melted chocolate goodness oozing over your tongue that elevates that cupcake into something you’d run over the old lady next door for. Pull that filling out of your subject and revel in it. Portraits are all about the people you're photographing, so make sure you make that connection!
Now get out there with your “I’m confident” trucker hat on, have a simple plan in mind and shoot the crap out of your subjects personality and tell me how it went.
Good luck kids!