The day of the family photo shoot arrives. The lighting is perfect, your camera settings are spot on, and the composition is perfect. You direct everyone to look at the camera and "say cheese". You rush home to find an SD card full of stiff looking people with lots of teeth and all the personality of a driver's license photo. What went wrong?
Sometimes we get so hung up on the technical aspects of portrait photography we forget about the subjects themselves. With visions of aperture and shutter speed dancing in our heads, we forget our job is to capture the essence of that person. We need to help them look natural and take a picture that reflects who they are. How do you do that? Read on for tips on capturing your subject's personality.
Every Shoot is Different
If you approach family shoots, senior pictures, bridals, you name it, with a cookie cutter approach the result will inevitably be boring. Your subjects are individuals and you need to treat them as such. If they wanted a picture that looked just like everyone else's they could line up at the local department store in front of the blue backdrop. You are their photographer - the perspective, background, and lighting you choose help to tell your subject's story. Your job is to catch them when they let their guard down and look natural. Figure out how to see beyond the "picture face" and capture their personality.
Know Your Subject
How do you do that? I suggest getting to know your subjects ahead of time. If they are strangers to you at the very least find out their ages, wardrobe choices, basic interests, etc. ahead of time so you can choose an appropriate location. Try to find out what kind of a look they are seeking. Do they want drama and romance, or are they after a more casual look? Not every subject wants a glamour shot. They may want a more laid back, lifestyle type shoot. It is your job to find this out ahead of time, and if what they want is truly incompatible with what you do then don't take the job.
Once you are actually shooting photos, try to break the ice with your subject. Compliments are always helpful. Most subjects do not consider themselves photogenic but will loosen up considerably with a little encouragement. If something is not working then move on. Try to ask questions of your subjects as you shoot, and if possible generate a little laughter!
If the background helps you to capture the subject doing what they love, then incorporate it into the pictures. Backgrounds that "match" your subjects help you tell their story. Use an aperture around f/8 to ensure good focus throughout and utilize it!
I definitely believe that less is more when it comes to props. Nothing creates an awkward family photo faster than tossing a couple of strange props in there. With that said, props that are meaningful to your subjects can be incorporated tastefully into photos. Think outside the box though and be creative with the use of a prop. If it adds artistic value to the picture, then it is a good addition. Particularly when you are photographing children, props may appear in the environment. If your subject is interested, go with it!
While I am on the topic of kids, let's consider this special case. Most adults you photograph have an idea of what they want and are invested in cooperating. Not so with kids! They may do everything in their power to make photographing them near impossible. If kids get unruly it is sometimes better to have their mom take a step back. They will often cooperate better for you if mom is out of the picture. If they are not taking your posing suggestions, just let them play. You will likely be pleasantly surprised at what you can capture in those candid moments. If you let them have some fun, they may be more open to some posing later. Kids will be kids, and their parents want you to capture the joy that is childhood!
You need good light in portrait photography, so you will likely be seeking that soft, beautiful, golden hour light. This lighting is flattering to every subject. Consider your subject's personality though when placing them with respect to the light. Soft backlight may add some romance to an engagement shoot. Sidelight and shadows may be more appropriate for a teenager in search of drama. Use the light to capture your subject's personality and mood.
Portraits should be of people holding still and looking at the camera, right? Not necessarily. It is okay to incorporate action into your portrait shoots. If you are photographing children, you may not have a choice! Now I am not talking about NFL tackle kind of action, but the playful action shot you can get when you let people interact naturally. Take some shots before, during, and after your subject is actually ready for it to increase your chances of "freezing" that moment. (If your subjects are fairly mobile be sure your shutter speed is fast enough for a sharp photo.)
Try Unique Poses and Perspectives
Now I am not suggesting you or your subjects tackle some advanced yoga maneuver. I just mean every now and then break away from standing directly in front of your subject and shooting at eye level. You will be surprised at the difference a little change in perspective can make. Shoot high. Shoot low. Mix it up! Try a hidden perspective for a feeling of intimacy in a romantic shoot. Look for a natural feature to frame your subject. Shoot down a leading line.
The take home message of this article is that there is no magic bullet for capturing your subject's personality in a photo. The most important thing is to let the technical stuff take a backseat and focus on the people. (This does require that you have a good mastery of the technical stuff because you do not want to capture their personality perfectly in a blurry photo.) Choose your aperture, ISO, and white balance at the beginning and then switch your focus to capturing your subject's essence. Take some photos with your subjects looking right at you and smiling, but work hard to make them comfortable enough to look natural. Tell a joke. Do something silly. Pose them in a comfortable way. Above all else, take lots of pictures. You can discard most of them later but you want lots of photos to choose from. This is as much about your personality as your photographic genius so brush up on those people skills!
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