The Challenges of Portrait Photography and How to Overcome Them

Photography: Marius Necula

Just about every photographer does it at some point. After taking pictures of the view, a flower, some clouds and the cat, eventually the lens of their first camera will be turned towards a face. And then begins a mission that can last a lifetime: to capture an entire personality in one image.

There are few challenges harder than that in photography, but fortunately the attempts can be remunerative. Portraits form regular jobs for many professional photographers, and can include shooting high school students, actors’ headshots and expectant mothers.

Whether the photographer is shooting for business or pleasure though, the goal is always the same: to find a moment when the subject releases an expression that reveals exactly who he or she is, and to have the technical skills to capture it when it happens.

That means that portraiture effectively demands two very different kinds of knowledge. While it still requires an understanding of f-stops, lenses and lighting, photographers also need an understanding of human nature — an ability to put people at their ease and allow them to feel confident enough to reveal who they are.

“To be successful in photographing people requires not only photographic experience, but also some degree of psychological knowledge and emotional intelligence,” explains Marius Necula, a semi-professional photographer and member of Flickr’s 30 Best Portraits Group.

Marius believes that these skills can be developed through practice and learning but for most photographers, it really comes down to using two different tools.

Photography: Marius Necula

Talk to Her
The first is conversation. That sounds simple enough but it usually takes time for two strangers to build a rapport by talking, and there’s rarely enough of that during a paid shoot. The fact that one of the speakers will be talking to the other through a viewfinder doesn’t exactly hasten the breakdown of those barriers either.

And it’s not just the subject who can feel uncomfortable. Most people feel at least a little shy when they meet someone for the first time — and that includes photographers. Being in your own studio can help, as might choosing the location but both of those might make the subject feel less at ease. Remembering what you can get out of a closeness with the person you’re shooting might be a more effective strategy.

“I’m not an extrovert, at least not with the people I just met,” says Marius, “but the passion for photography helps me to overcome my barriers and push myself out of my own comfort zone for every new portrait that I shoot.”

When the conversation works, of course, it can be very powerful, not just because it reduces the tension of the shoot but because it can also distract the subject, making him or her forget — at least temporarily — that they’re being photographed. Better still, it can induce them to make gestures, smile naturally so that it shows in the eyes, and generate expressions that bring drama as well as character to the image.

Music Frees the Photographer
The other tool is music, and it’s one that many photographers use, at least for shoots that have been booked in advance. The problem here, of course, is to choose the right type. Adrian Richards, a semi-professional photographer in Barbados, likes to use house music while Marius says he prefers to put on a “chill-out sound” but notes that it’s more important to find something that matches the subject’s taste. One solution is to suggest that the subject bring a disk of their own to the shoot.

Enticing someone to feel at ease though won’t be worth much without the right lighting to make the most of the expression when it happens. That means drawing on basic photography knowledge about the way light behaves in specific conditions and understanding how to direct it so that it compliments the subject’s best areas while hiding their flaws. For Adrian Richards, combining those two elements so that the light matches and enhances the look is the biggest challenge of portrait photography.

“There is a little luck involved,” he admits. “But I think you have to work hard and fast.”

There is perhaps a third challenge to portrait photography though and the size of its importance might depend on your approach to portraiture: finding a subject. Everyone knows someone to photograph but some people are clearly more interesting and photogenic than others. The question is whether you need a particular type of face to create the perfect portrait, or whether the challenge of portraiture lies not in the features but in what the photographer can do with them.

What do you think?

[tags] portrait photography [/tags]

5 comments for this post.

  1. Rasmus Said:

    The advice on conversation is very good. I like to start by just sitting down and saying hello over a cup of coffee, before actually shooting. Especially if I am working with a new person, and we need to go over the model release etc. Get that done first, and everyone will be more comfortable afterwards (hopefully).

    I also like to joke a lot and make sure to compliment my subjects, when they are doing good. In fact, I just recently posted about directing models as well.

  2. Zach Said:

    Good read. This has been something that I would like to focus on this summer. I find it hard to establish that connection with people when I am doing work. This is strange because when the camera is not involved I am quite good at connecting with new peopl and starting conversation. I need to keep working to find a way to make it easier for the person on the other side to trust that what I am doing won't produce something that is not flattering.

  3. Charlie Styr Said:

    Great little article. A nice read. I also wrote an article on portraiture a while back, that goes right back to basics. Have a look here:

    Charlie -

  4. Dan Said:

    I've found the theory of the human mask to be true in all subjects ive photographed. Initially, EVERYONE "mugs" or puts on a photo face when a lens is pointed in their direction. My strategy to overcome this phenomena is simple...Bore the hell out of them till they let their guard down....

  5. Shannon Said:

    I'm with Dan. I simply outlast their efforts to give me a fake face. Then I try to get from them the emotion I think best expresses their personality.

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