The difference between an acceptable photograph and an amazing one is often made not in camera or post-production but in your ability to connect with your subject. This becomes especially important that when those subjects are people. While cameras don’t steal souls like it was once believed in some cultures, they do give us the ability record and revisit people, places, and things as they once were. In order to capture the soul of your subject, you will need to think about how we interact with each other every day and pay attention to the small details that make us each unique.
Be Authentic and Communicate
Before you even pull out your camera out, have a conversation. Be authentic and interested. Give your subject a reason to trust you so they can focus on interacting with the camera and with the other people they are being photographed with. I once had a whole shoot planned around a bridge setting but what I was talking to the couple, the soon to be groom mentioned that he was deathly afraid of heights. Needless to say, I ended up rethinking my shoot on the spot because had the man been silently been freaking out due to his fear of heights, he wouldn’t have been connecting with his future wife or my camera. That fact, changed my ability to capture their genuine affection for each other and all it took was a little time and some genuine concern.
Don’t Hide Before Your Camera
So often we get so used to being behind our cameras that we forget people aren’t used to being in front of them. Alternatively, they think that as soon at the camera comes out they are supposed to say cheese! Fake smiles, Chiclet teeth and all, do not make for soul baring photographs. While sometimes cute, they are transparent and lack emotional depth. This is especially difficult with children who have grown up with an iPhone in their face since birth. They either freeze up or act as though your camera is an alien aircraft or they start modeling, neither of which are going to produce the desired effect. Be patient, talk to them and if they seem uncomfortable, put the camera down or away. Give them a chance regroup and get used to your camera.
Take cues and make your subject comfortable
People communicate in a variety of ways. We use our words and our tone but our body language is also a big part of how we communicate. Pay attention to the way your subject is holding themselves and the facial expressions they are making, especially in between shots. They should be relaxed or interacting with the other subjects. Wringing of hands, hunching, or furrowed brows are signs that you might need to take a step back and reach out to make sure their comforts are being met and they aren't being asked to do anything they don't want to do. Bringing it up actively in conversation gives them an easy opportunity to say no.
Ditch the Clutter
Simplify your shoot. Use clean backgrounds and get rid of distracting objects that are going to pull focus from your subject. If you have a distracting background but a great expression try converting the image to black and white in post. Sometimes objects that are really brightly colored will blend into the background without their obtuse colors distracting the viewer from the subject.
Don’t add anything distracting to your photograph. Often a beautiful image is lost under a haze of presets and actions that add cloudy filters to a picture. If you want your viewer to connect to the photograph stop putting filters between them. The worst thing you can do is add something to a photograph that makes the people who are looking at it question it’s integrity. And definitely don't use that weird purple haze sunset action you bought in a pack of 100 other ones and does not occur naturally anywhere on Earth. Your viewers will spend more time trying to figure out how (and why) you did that than they will looking at the subject.
Focus on the eyes
The eyes have the ability to convey so much emotion. Hurt, uncertainty, mirth, confusion, sadness, and joy are just some of the feelings we communicate via our eye movements and eye contact. People who know each other well can often times have conversations without saying a single word, simply by exchanging looks and we all remember that look our parents gave us when we were doing something they didn’t approve of in public. Even as an adult, I still shudder to think of what my sister and I called the death glare. When trying to convey the heart of a photograph, it’s important to focus on the eyes, both figuratively and literally. Using the eye as a focus point is usually a good idea unless you have a specific reason not to. Eyes that are in focus allow the viewer to share a look and read the emotion of the subject, even though that moment actual exists in the past.
Catchlights are the shiny spots in your eye that are created when a light source is reflecting off the moist surface. Yeah, it sounds kind of gross but having a catchlight can be the difference between a vibrant portrait and a flat one. They add dimension and life to the eyes which we have already established as a very important part of a portrait.
Before you start shooting, think about why the photograph or series of photographs you are taking are important. How do you want to viewer to feel and how can you achieve that organically? Don’t shy away from honest emotion or connection, instead embrace that and find ways to foster it amongst your subjects. Keeping them comfortable with you, your gear and each other is the key to capturing their hearts and their souls in your photography.
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