What's in a Face? The Best Advice for Taking Killer Portraits
My best tried-and-tested methods for getting remarkable portrait shots.
What's in a face? In short—everything. Here is my best tried-and-tested advice for taking killer portraits
I met her while traveling through Mexico. I saw her coming down the street with a basket full of artisan dolls she had made. Her face was beautiful, and framed with such character by the round straw hat she wore.
I knew I wanted to take a portrait photograph of her, so I made a plan with my partner, who speaks fluent Spanish. We would introduce ourselves and ask her if I could take her picture. We would pay for her time, as well as purchase some of her beautiful artwork.
She accepted our request, so we spent about an hour talking with her, listening to the stories that she seemed eager to share. While we spoke, I took several portrait photos of her. Of all the shots I got, the one above was my favorite. The story in her face, the lines, her contemplative eyes, and her longing expression made for a truly remarkable photo.
I won't go into detail about her story, as that was a private conversation. But, I will say that the story she told was well-captured in her face in this photo.
And that's all we hope to accomplish as portrait photographers—the story behind the face.
There are so many ways to take great portraits, but the ones I truly connect with are those that give you a glimpse into the history and life of the person captured. This requires a certain level of connection between the photographer and the subject.
However, achieving that connection is the hardest part of it all. How do we connect ethically and deeply enough to honor the subject?
For me, there's no other way to go around it than to ask permission to take a photo. More so, you've got to spend a little time with the subject. And this may look different, depending on who you want a photo of.
For the above subject, I understood that her livelihood, and possibly her survival, depended on selling her artwork. Having traveled through Mexico for almost a year, we knew that many older artists spend considerable time creating things to sell.
Financial support for older people in Mexico is not always there. We knew that, through reading and talking with many local people about the state of the economy and how it affects seniors.
So, it was ethical not only to ask permission, but to have a reciprocal and fair exchange of resources. And we wouldn't have known that if we didn't spend time getting to know a bit about the country: its economy, history, and culture.
To summarize, here are the most important things to consider, when attempting to get killer portrait shots:
1. If you're traveling, take some time to get to know the country.
This should go without saying, but I've seen many people travel without actually knowing anything about the local people, their customs, or their history.
When it comes to taking photos, this is particularly important because you run the risk of unethical tactics like unintended discrimination, lack of respect, treatment of people in ways they would consider to be rude.
2. Ask for permission.
There are many schools of thought on whether one should ask for permission to take portrait photos. For me, if I want to get up close and personal, my rule is always to ask for permission.
If you're taking general portrait photos from far away, where you want to get the whole scene as well as the person, then you can get away with snapping the shot without asking permission. But, once you know more about the place, environment, and country, then you know whether this will be ethical or not.
If you want to get up close to your subject, then I think you'll have the best and most respectful experience when you ask for permission and take time to talk with your subject.
I've seen photographers grab quick shots right up close to a person, without asking for permission. This rarely goes well. Yes, there may be laws in place that permit you to do so, but is it really worth it? For me, when I see that, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Sure, the shot may be more interesting, but at what expense?
3. Get to know your subject.
You can get to know your subject better once you've asked permission, and have learned a little about the place where they spend their time. But, getting to know them isn't as easy as we think.
As photographers, we may feel shy or insecure about asking questions. I find this takes practice. In my case, my partner helped me a lot because her Spanish is much better than mine. But we both asked questions, and found a way to connect. Sometimes, two is better than one.
You have to have some emotional intelligence to meet and greet strangers, and gauge their comfort level. You have to be able to read non-verbal cues, and know how to ask open-ended questions. This way, you can create an ethical and comfortable exchange between yourself and the person you're photographing.
I have no doubt that, because we established a comfort level, I was able to get this remarkable portrait.
If you learned something from this post and liked my original artwork, a tip would be much appreciated.