If you feel that your portraits lack the “wow” factor or that your viewers don’t feel the excitement you felt while making the image, then you might be just showing a situation rather than telling a story. Showing something that happened might do the job for a news photographer. But for the rest of us, this usually makes for dull, boring images. Today’s viewers are bombarded with visuals every day – they want more than just pure documentation of a person that you saw. They want an experience, they want you to tell them a story.
Step 1: Learn to Listen
A great portrait is not taken, it is usually given. I can say that most of my portraits are the outcome of a collaboration between two people. One is in front of the lens and the other, behind it. Before I focus on overcoming the common fear of approaching strangers (Step Two in this article), I would like to highlight the many benefits of creating a portrait with the subject (“subject” – a word I hate) awareness and collaboration. It not only allows you to control the image components such as light and composition, a conversation with the subject often allows you to hear a story that will inspire you to take a great portrait – this is the story of your subject. It is much easier to create a storytelling portrait after hearing the subject’s story, than by just looking at his or her appearance.
Step 2: Overcoming the Fear of Approaching Strangers
For most photography enthusiasts, this is the most complicated issue – approaching strangers. There are so many apprehensions: the fear of being hurt or hurting someone else, and phrases such as “I do not feel comfortable” or “I do not want to intrude his / her privacy” are common in this situation.
The inconvenience usually leads us to choose one of two options:
- Taking the picture from a distance
- Not taking the picture at all
Many of my students shared that for years they have told themselves stories about how much they like landscape and nature photography, and about how much they dislike portraits, while deep inside, portrait-making attracted them more than any other field of photography.
So how should you take the first step in overcoming this fear? Stop projecting yourself on others. The fact that you do like it so much when your picture is being taken does not mean anything about the person in front of you. You must stop making decisions for the other side, and give him or her a chance to decide for themselves. How? By asking “Sir / Madam, I’m a photo enthusiast, and I’d love to take your picture, and if you would like, I would love to send it over to you by email”. If you are in a foreign country, and language is a barrier, lifting the camera and smiling might do the trick.
You will be surprised to discover that with this technique, in most cases, you will receive a “Yes.” You must also remember that in case of hearing an occasional “No,” this is (in most cases) not your fault and you should move on to the next subject.
Now, I know what you must be thinking – but if I go and approach my subject, where is the spontaneity, where is the authenticity of the moment? That’s an excellent question! However, from my experience, this is also an excuse we tell ourselves to avoid the first step, as described above. So while I genuinely believe that great spontaneous photographic moments can be achieved while approaching the subject (a topic I will discuss in a future article), start with the first step as described above, disturbing your thoughts about spontaneity or authenticity. You will discover that even those simple, eyes to the lens, photo ID-like portraits, demand practice and skill.
Step 3: Telling a Story with Your Portraits
What is a Story? In its most basic form, a story is a reporting of sequenced events. So how in the world can you create a sequence of events in one frame? You can’t! You cannot tell a story in one image because the story is created somewhere else: in the viewer’s mind. Your image should be a slice of a story that motivates your viewer to fill in the gaps and imagine the rest.
So, of course, while there are many ways to stimulate the viewer to think, one of the most effective ways is through information gaps. I believe that a good portrait raises more questions than answers.
If you would like to check out more of my portrait work, as well as read some portraiture tips, check out my Instagram account.
very beautiful portraits. good article!
Thank You, I loved your article.
I liked these adivices: it is reassuring to see how simple It could be to ask permission.
Any trick to ask for written consent to publish?
Interesting, but I think it should be noted that this is “street photography.” I think different rules apply in the studio.
Oded Wagenstein, your article is very moving, I have read it twice already.
Very thought-provoking, thank you! And excellent photos!
I’d like to suggest if you are going to a “foreign” country to takes pictures the least you can learn in their language is “¿Puedo tomar una foto de usted por favor?” (May I take a picture of you please?) They will love you! ?
David Barragán, great advice; visiting my wife’s family in Medellín, Colombia by speaking with people, they sometimes offer a deep, personal glimpse into their world. A camera can be intimidating so I rarely ask strangers to let me photograph them but on a number of occasions people asked me to photograph them after asking them about their work, their city, ecology…
Monty, to ubsubscribe from notifications, please click the little red bell on the bottom of the page and click unsubscribe.
People make for the most interesting images.
Every wedding photographer eventually learns “get in close” and “no backs”.
Mr. Wagenstein demonstrates the impact of getting in close.
The few backs he uses in these examples do indeed tell a story.
Kudos for well done and interesting work.