Starting out as a street photographer and fly-on-the-wall photojournalist, it took me some time before I realized the beauty and importance of portraiture. Once my eyes were opened to the power and fulfillment of portrait photography though, I couldn’t imagine going back to a time when I didn’t love it. Photographers like Dan Winters, Diane Arbus and Arnold Newman have proven how captivating and timeless a portrait can become.
A planned portrait is fine and provides numerous opportunities for photographic development. In fact, photographing friends, family and acquaintances can be very helpful while learning portraiture. Sometimes though, there is an element that draws one individual to another which is wonderfully spontaneous. There may be a trait or characteristic that is magnetic and you feel a portrait of that person or people must be made, if possible. The moment and subject is passing in front of you and you don’t want to miss your chance at a fantastic portrait. Don’t ignore this feeling, make a portrait, or at least try. Here are five tips I’ve learned and continue to use while making portraits.
Step 1- Approach: What you notice about someone or how you feel can be extremely varied. It may be something grand like someone has a unique hairstyle or it could be that someone is situated in the perfect light. The first step is to approach the person. This may be no problem at all for you and if that’s the case that’s impressive. For the vast majority, approaching someone we don’t know can wrack the nerves. There are going to be voices in your head that suggest you stop, turn around, hide, anything except try to talk to whoever it is you’re going to talk to. This is perfectly natural. Accept this and realize that the only way to capture a portrait of whoever it is, will be to approach that person. Then put one foot in front of the other until you do it.
Step 2- Be Honest: Once the approach is completed, make your opening short, concise and most importantly, be honest. This will improve with practice. What works best here is to introduce yourself, say you’re a photographer and request the making of their portrait. If they say ‘no’, respectfully move along and be proud of yourself for trying. If someone asks, “Why?”, tell them. If you like someone’s style, explain it. The most important note here is that it’s something YOU genuinely saw that made you want to make a portrait. If you are truthful in your response, it will show in your demeanor and you’ll have a better chance of earning trust.
Step 3- Be Ready: The most challenging part can be to receive permission for any amount of time to make someone’s portrait. This is an honor and should be treated as such. Your subject may be in a hurry so it’s helpful to have a potential location picked out ahead of time. Make sure your camera is turned on, the lens cap is off, battery charged and the settings ready. Minor adjustments are obviously fine but the point here is to be efficient with time. As an aside note to this, I sometimes use a rangefinder. I become excited about using a film rangefinder (and I explain this) and this is almost always infectious to the point that my subject will become excited/interested as well and a quality, quick portrait session results.
Step 4- Be Calm: It’s photography so unexpected things can happen. You’re the photographer though so roll with changes, be cool and be confident. Tell yourself that you’re going to make a kick-ass portrait; believe and achieve. It sounds corny but it’s true and works.
Step 5- Practice: It’s all about the practice here. It will become easier the more you do this. Before you know it you’ll be ready to approach people and make portraits. Sure, they may refuse. That’s okay, because it’s the subjects who accept a portrait of themselves that make it all worth it.
Notice, in the title and throughout the post, I didn’t use take a portrait of a stranger. This is because stranger has the word ‘strange’ in it and it seems off-putting. Also, it truly is an honor to capture someone’s portrait and I feel that making one implies a collaboration between the photographer and subject. Whereas, ‘taking’ feels like just the photographer at play here. This may be the case, or feel like the case, but in order to get MYSELF in the right headspace before doing this, I tell myself I’m making a portrait of a subject. It works for me.
Now go forth and try to make a portrait of someone you don’t know. It’s extremely rewarding.
Reality is always extraordinary.Mary Ellen Mark