A portrait can be quite a tricky thing to get right. You need to make sure that you have the balance between posing your subject to be interesting, and capturing what they are really like. Sometimes, the most successful portraits are those which are subtle. There is no obvious pose, no big gesture. Instead, it’s all about capturing that person and who they are inside. This is something that can really separate the masters from the amateurs, so if you want to know how to bring your game up to scratch, read on for some important tips.


Photo by Léa Dubedout

Photo by Léa Dubedout

Create the setting

The first big thing you have to work out with a portrait is the setting. This is where you will take the portrait as well as what will be seen in the background behind your subject, which can be two different things. You can shoot in a studio environment, or create the illusion of one by setting up a white backdrop anywhere that you like. This flexibility gives you the chance to create a white space just about anywhere. This is very useful for keeping your subject comfortable. You can shoot them in their own home, in a place where they are at their most relaxed, and get fantastic results.

You can also choose to say something about your subject through your choice of a background. For example, if you were taking a portrait of a fisherman, you might choose to shoot him on his boat or near the sea. This would give viewers a visual clue as to who the person is. If you are shooting a celebrity, you can put them in a place that is unique to them to show their personality – for example, taking a portrait of George Clooney in his bedroom might create a big impact, since not many people get to see how George Clooney chooses to decorate his bedroom!


If you want to get a different kind of reaction from your subject, you can try making them feel ill at ease or nervous. This might not be recommended if you want to be friends with them afterwards, but it can make some great shots! Put them somewhere they would never usually be, or maybe somewhere that smells bad, and their reaction will be a genuine one.


 

Guide the pose

If you want to create a certain look without giving direction, there are other ways in which you can guide a pose. For example, let’s say that you set up a plain desk and chair for your subject, and photograph from the other side of the desk. What is your subject going to do? Chances are that they will lean in some way on the desk, or place their hands on the surface. What someone does when they are sitting down could reveal a lot about them. Giving them props to hold might also work. When Tim Walker photographed Alexander McQueen, he had the designer sitting down at a table with a large skull in front of him, a symbol of his range which often used skull prints in the designs. Then McQueen was able to lean on the skull and become comfortable, which led to a great portrait. This kind of prop can really help to change the way that a shoot is going to turn out.

You can also guide the pose by wearing your subject out, boring them, making them angry, or making them laugh. All of these emotions cause us to change our body language in some way. While a photograph may be silent, it can still tell you a lot about what is going on. Manipulating the body language of a subject can make for a portrait which is very subtle and natural, but still has a clear message to it.

 

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Hide the camera


Another way to get natural, subtle portraits is to convince your subject to forget that the camera is there. You can try this by setting the camera up on a tripod or flat surface and using a shutter release cable. If you have an LED screen on your DSLR which allows you to view the live image coming through the lens, so much the better. Then you can keep an eye on the frame and make sure that your subject is in it, and get ready to shoot. Talk to them and get them nice and relaxed, and shoot them looking away from the camera when they least expect it. This can create a really lovely and subtle portrait, which shows them more relaxed and less posed.


Through all of these techniques it is really important that we avoid directly posing the model. You can ask them to look in a certain direction and stay within the frame, but the rest should be left up to them. Of course, if you are working with professional models, they are not likely to forget about the presence of the camera. Instead, you may have to tell them off for getting too posey! Keep a close eye on their body language, gestures, and poses, and only shoot them when you feel like they are being natural. Other professions – such as actors, dancers, and those who appear on television often – might also have this trouble. It’s your job to get an intimate and subtle feel into that portrait, which means avoiding the obvious and capturing just the person that you see in front of you. Bear in mind that with well-known figures, the person you see may not be the person that you expect.

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