5 Tips by Photographers Who Have Mastered the Portrait

May 1, 2017

Photo © Andrew Hetherington

People are arguably the most difficult subject to photograph. Connecting with someone quickly can be a challenge, and unpredictable personalities and settings mean you have to think on your feet. Ace your next portrait session by incorporating these tips by five renowned portrait photographers who teach at Santa Fe Photographic Workshops.

Tip 1: Be Inquisitive and Open

Andrew Hetherington

“Always go into an environmental portrait session with a plan, but be inquisitive, flexible, open and willing to explore what gifts the space may offer up,” says Andrew Hetherington.

He went into his shoot with Will Shortz, the crossword editor of The New York Times, planning to take a portrait in Shortz’s home office, but upon looking at the room realized it would not make a “compelling portrait,” he says. “I asked Will if I could have a look around, and he showed me another room, which he said was very ‘messy’ and didn’t think I would be interested in shooting there. Of course it was perfect…”

Tip 2: Experiment to Find Your Own Voice

Chloe Aftel

Photo © Chloe Aftel

 “A large part of the joy of photography,” says Chloe Aftel, “is experimenting to find your own unique voice.”

Aftel explains that it took her years to figure out both what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it, noting that it’s crucial to try things and fail. “Taking a picture of someone that turns out terribly, using a flash and getting something strange and unexpected, playing with depth of field, experimenting with toy cameras [as I did in this Holga image of YouTube star Lilly Singh], there are so many elements to taking pictures,” she elaborates. “It’s about finding the right tools for what you want to say and how.”


Tip 3: Embrace Silence

Erika Larsen

Photo © Erika Larsen

Erika Larsen keeps talk to a minimum during her portrait sessions (saving conversation for before and after) so that “non-verbal communication can materialize,” she says.

Embracing silence is “especially essential when creating environmental portraits,” as was the case when Larsen photographed Leo with skulls from his tribe’s ceremonial hunts. She explains: “I did not talk to him or direct him in any way, and he did not feel the need to talk about what I was thinking or wanting. He began his own interactions, communing with the landscape, and I waited in silence for the portrait to emerge.”


Tip 4: Match the Light to Your Subject’s Face and Character

Joe McNally


Photo © Joe McNally

“Your light should follow the flow of someone’s face or persona,” says Joe McNally. For example, when he was photographing Broadway dancer Natalie, whose hair, makeup, and wardrobe were all styled to evoke a certain era, lighting her, he says “in a soft or inconclusive way would have destroyed the mood instead of amplifying it.”

“Back in the day, in theater and clubs, people were allowed to smoke, hence the romantic (albeit unhealthy) feel of such places. To create a portrait consistent with the glamorous look and feel of that time, in addition to other lights, “I used a smoke machine to fog up the theater and put small strobes out in the audience to produce a bit of a glow through the smoke,” he says.


Tip 5: Look for In-Between Moments

Joe Pugliese

Photo © Joe Pugliese

“In a portrait session, photographers and their subjects often find themselves in a rhythm,” Joe Pugliese explains. “The release of the shutter becomes a predictable beat that the subject anticipates.” While that rhythm can work in your favor, he says, “it can also lead to images that feel contrite or too posed.”

To make a portrait that was fresh or unexpected of musician Lana Del Ray, for example, he concentrated on “the natural moments” that occurred when his subject’s guard was down. He elaborates: “Put the camera down, connect through conversation and observe your subject’s uninhibited state. Often the look or pose that is most truthful occurs without the photographer’s direction.”

Learn more at santafeworkshops.com.

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