There’s unlimited reasons for portraiture photography but capturing someone’s essence through their face is similar to shooting beauty and when you’re starting out, models, make up artists and stylists may not be within your reach so you can start by practicing on less conventionally beautiful people by shooting interesting faces and learning how to capture the face.
Capturing someone’s character sounds simple especially if they have a very interesting face to begin with but here are a few tips that can help you capture anyone’s essence and learn some techniques that will later help you when you do have that beautiful model to shoot with.
1. Pay Attention to the Eyes
As the saying goes, the eyes are the mirror of the soul. Eyes can say so much, sometimes no words ever need to be spoken because there’s an entire story in someone’s eyes. Focus on really capturing the eyes by focusing your lens right on the eyes and not worrying if there is fall off on the hair or background.
Portrait of musician Willy Bones shot in Hollywood, California 2004
2. Have Your Subject Dress Themselves
Another saying, we are how we dress, applies right here. Remember, you’re not worrying about making a fashion statement, you’re training your eye and your photo skills to learn how to see a moment and capture it, all telling the story in a tightly framed shot. So let the person you’re photographing choose what they want to wear. They often times will dress how they see themselves; quirky, romantic, punk, bad-ass. How they dress will have an impact on how they feel and that helps lend itself to them emoting themselves to you and you capturing that emotion!
Portrait of Alex Ebert from Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros shot in Los Angeles 2003
3. Engage with Your Subject
Sometimes I will research someone before I shoot a portrait of them. Other times, I don’t have much information to go on and it’s a matter of building rapport in the short time frame before the shoot. I generally don’t need either, to be honest, because I look for the story in the face and try to capture that essence as best I can, which is really referring to Tip #1 in me paying attention to the eyes. I guess, honestly, paying attention to the entire face is important too. People wear their life on their face. Wrinkles, scars, they tell a story. But engaging with the subject is important as well. Laughter always helps warm up a mood. Music, that’s a big important element for my shoots. And if none of those things work, ask a lot of questions about your subject because you know why? People LOVE talking about themselves and when you are interested in their story, it tends to warm people up!
Portrait of musician Bonnie McKee for Icon Magazine shot in Hollywood, California 2013
4. Capture The MOMENT
What I mean is this: In beauty photography we generally will shoot in expensive studios, using expensive lighting and spend hours pre-lighting in order to ensure our models look absolutely incredible. When you’re training your eye through portraiture, the opposite rules should apply. Shoot your subject in their own environment! Shoot them in their home, or if they’re a musician, shoot them in their rehearsal studio. If they are a chef, shoot them in their kitchen. In other words, shoot them in their natural surroundings. Don’t take an accountant and put him in a Vegas situation. If he’s somewhat awkward, timid or camera shy, put him in an environment he likes being in like maybe he enjoys gardening as a hobby so shoot him in his garden. Remember, you’re training yourself to capture someone’s essence and not necessarily creating portfolio worthy beauty shots here. You’re learning how to shoot someone who isn’t used to being photographed but making truthful imagery. Once you can master this, you can obviously shoot the gorgeous, photogenic model who has experience emoting for you.
Portrait of singer/musician Nick Hinman from Palm Springsteen with his new “pal” in Chinatown, NYC shot in 2016
5. Prime Lenses are a Must
Did you know that the reason I am always going on and on about why I only use prime lenses is because I learned very early on in my career that they are the secret weapon of a professional photographer. The obvious advantage of setting your aperture to f/2.8 and relying on sharpness is a no-brainer. And you can’t get that same reliable sharpness with a zoom lens. Yes, Canon shooters, I’ve heard your argument. And still agree to disagree! But the real hidden advantage is that when you are restricted to a single focal length, you have to step outside of your comfort zone and get creative with your compositions. You can create so much variety by changing your distance between you and your model, creating an entirely different point of view. This is what makes a great image from just a snap shot. You know, image maker or image taker, which one do you want to be?
Portrait of Branden Bartsch because I found him in a bar and his face is so beautiful, I had to capture it. Shot in my living room in Hollywood, California 2014