Ten Tips for Stronger Portraits
I’ve been asked several times recently for tips and advice on shooting travel portraits of strangers, so I thought it might be an idea to post something about the subject.
Here are my ten tips for stronger travel portraits:
1. Obtain permission, create rapport
If you want to make memorable travel portraits it’s fair to say that your people skills are at least as important as your mastery of your camera and your understanding of light and composition. If you come across an individual whose portrait you would like to make, show respect, and treat that person as you would wish to be treated.
Ideally, before you pull out a camera and ask if it is OK to photograph someone from a close distance, there should be some rapport between you. There are two good reasons for attempting to build some rapport. Firstly, with some positive interaction between you, there is more chance that your subject will agree to being photographed because you will not be perceived as a threat. Secondly, the quality of the portrait will be significantly improved if your subject is relaxed in front of your lens, and that can only happen when there is a degree of trust between you.
So take the time to build some empathy if you possibly can. Resist the temptation to dive straight in and shoot quickly. Slow down, perhaps leave the camera in the bag, and make an attempt to engage with that person as another human being rather than as a portrait subject. Try not to immediately ask for permission to photograph them, press the shutter, and move on. Verbal interaction is not always easy if you are on your own in a place where you don’t speak the language without a local fixer or interpreter, but creating some kind of rapport is more or less essential to creating a good portrait.
Since every person and situation is different, how much time you need to invest in building empathy will vary. Sometimes a smile or a nod will be all it takes to put someone at ease. At other times, you may need to spend a significant amount of time building a relationship before you can consider asking permission to photograph.
Only once you have built the requisite level of rapport is it appropriate to ask for permission to make a portrait. Your subject will feel more comfortable with you, trust you more, and this will generally show in the portraits you make. Maybe you will be communicating with body language alone, and perhaps permission to photograph will be obtained with a raised eyebrow and showing them the camera. However you do it, you need to find a way to communicate.
Making a portrait on the street with a complete stranger is a collaboration, an exchange, however transient. The subject is putting themselves in your hands, giving you a gift, showing you trust. It’s up to you to repay that trust by respecting their dignity and making the best portrait you can. Both parties should feel that their day has been enriched by the interaction, not diminished. Tread lightly and show consideration and respect, and you won’t go far wrong.
If despite your best efforts to engage with someone and strike up some rapport, permission for a portrait is not forthcoming, accept this with good grace, apologise for troubling them, thank them and move on. Don’t take offence. Someone declining to be photographed is not a rejection of you personally.
2.Take your time, but respect your subject’s time
If you ask a stranger for permission to photograph them, you owe it to them to do the best job that you can, and that means taking your time over it. Sure, they may be busy, and you don’t want to delay them unnecessarily, but a single ‘click’ and moving on is unlikely to repay the trust the individual has shown you in allowing you to photograph them.
Nor is it likely to produce a stunning portrait. Taking time over the portrait – within reason – shows the person you are photographing that you care about what you are doing, and that you are trying to make the best portrait of them that you can – it shows respect for your subject. How much time you have depends largely on your subject and how much time they are willing or able to give you. It will also depend on the rapport you have created. You will have to use your emotional and social intelligence to work out how much time you have, particularly if there is not common language, and do your best to sense when your subject is becoming impatient. If you reach that point, wrap up quickly, as you will not make great portraits with a subject who wants to leave, or wants you to leave. Ideally you should be finished before impatience becomes an issue.
Allow the person time to relax and get comfortable in front of your camera, wait for any initial awkwardness to subside, keep your eye to the viewfinder, and wait for the right moment or moments to press the shutter. Be patient. What is the right moment? The moment when the subject relaxes, and an element of their personality is revealed through genuine expression and natural, unforced body language. In the words of Steve McCurry: you wait until “people will forget your camera and the soul will drift up into view.” Sometimes you can facilitate this by talking to the person you are photographing; sometimes the right thing to do is to wait out the silence for your subject to reveal themselves. You need to feel your way on this one.
3. Be intentional in your use of light
“Good light” is light which supports whatever it is you are trying to say with your portrait – it is specific to that particular portrait. For another portrait, the same light may not be “good light”.
In the image above of a man reading the Qur’an in a mosque in Old Delhi, I had the feeling in this moment that he was deep in thought, communicating with God. The backlight filtering through the lattice-work behind him and reflecting off the honey-coloured stone surrounding him bathed him in beautiful, soft, ethereal light. In other words, heavenly light. The light thus served to strengthen what it was I was trying to communicate in this photograph. The light was empathetic to the visual story, which – ideally – it should always be.
In the second example, above, of an engraver at work in his workshop near Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India, I wanted the light to convey the feeling of cosy intimacy I experienced when I was invited into his workshop to drink chai with him and photograph him while he worked. The light was beautifully dramatic exactly where I wanted it to be: pulling attention to my subject, engrossed in his work. It serves as a visual exclamation mark in the image; the rest of the workshop is bathed in cool blue light, falling off towards the edges of the image, and the eye is irresistibly pulled to the engraver by the pop of warm light from the desk lamp. The contrast in colour temperature between the cool blue light and the warmth of the light from the desk lamp further serves to separate the engraver from his environment: warm colours are perceived by the eye as coming forwards, while cool colours recede, and the two colour temperatures thus help to lend the two-dimensional image some three-dimensionality (aided by the use of a wide-angle lens).
‘Good light’ is not an objective, invariant thing. For portraiture, ‘good light’ is often – but not always – soft light (i.e. light with a gradual transition from highlight to shadow). Soft light from a large, diffused source avoids harsh, unflattering shadows on the face, reveals detail, and allows the person to avoid squinting and closing the eyes. However, there are times when hard light may be appropriate. Hard light can be dramatic, and the deep shadows it creates can create mystery and interest.
A tough or mysterious character, someone who has had a hard life, or perhaps someone who has spent a life outdoors in the blazing sun, are all examples of characters who may benefit from the use of hard light to tell their story. Hard light needs to be carefully managed to ensure that the shadows fall where you want them. The dynamic range (i.e. the range of tones in the image from the darkest to the lightest tones) may be greater with hard light, and you may have to choose between retaining detail in the highlights in your portrait or plunging the shadows into inky blackness, unless you choose to use a reflector or strobes to reduce the contrast in the image. In general, retaining highlight detail is the way to go since this is how our eyes naturally respond to light; deep shadows with no detail appear natural to the eye and can add intrigue.
The light needs to support the story as far as ambient conditions permit, and your choice of light should be intentional.
If the light is not suitable for your portrait, don’t be afraid to ask if your subject would mind moving to a place which may only be a few steps away where the light is more appropriate. For example, out of the direct sun and into open shade, or into a doorway. Don’t just automatically accept the prevailing light without first questioning whether it is right for your portrait.
If you carry a reflector or a diffuser with you, or a small flash that you can trigger off-camera, your options for creating the light you want for your portrait increase.
With a reflector, you can create dramatic light by placing your subject in the shade and bouncing sunlight back on to your subject so that they are effectively spot-lit. You can also use a reflector to bounce light into shadows, reducing contrast and limiting the range of the tones in the image. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the closer the reflector is to your subject, the softer the light becomes. As the reflector is brought closer, the apparent size of the light source increases which softens the transition from highlights to shadows in your image. Don’t confuse the quality of the light (in this case, its hardness or softness) with the intensity (i.e. volume) of the light. The intensity of the light will of course increase as the reflector is brought closer, but this can easily be compensated for by adjusting the settings on your camera to hold the exposure constant. The quality of the light – i.e. the softness of the shadows, or otherwise – will, however, change as the reflector is moved nearer or farther away from the subject, and this will not be influenced by any adjustments you make to aperture, shutter speed and ISO to hold the exposure constant.
In the absence of shade, you can place a diffuser between e.g. the sun and your subject to soften the light, reducing contrast and softening shadows. Often, a diffuser and a reflector are combined: a diffuser has one or more reflective sleeves which may be pulled over it. Typically, these sleeves are white, silver, gold, and silver/gold combined in a chequerboard pattern. Silver reflects the most light, and it has no effect on the colour of the light being reflected i.e. it imparts no additional colour cast. A gold reflector also reflects a good deal of light, but imparts a warmth to the reflected light. This can be very effective in creating a difference in colour temperature between the light falling on your subject and the ambient light illuminating the background, helping to draw the viewer’s eye to your subject. Like the silver reflector, a white reflector imparts no colour cast to the reflected light, but the quantity of light reflected is less than with the silver reflector. The light is therefore less ‘contrasty’, and shadows on your subject will be softer. The silver/gold combination reflector produces a result – as you would expect – somewhere between the silver reflector and the gold reflector. It warms the reflected light slightly, but not as much as the gold reflector does. It is probably the reflector I use the most.
A flash which can be triggered off-camera provides the most versatility since – unlike a reflector – you do not need direct sunlight to be present which can be reflected back at your portrait subject. With off-camera flash or strobes, you can use light modifiers (small soft boxes, diffusers, umbrellas, snoots, grids, etc.) with the flash unit to create different lighting effects. You can also completely control the balance of the light from the flash (typically used to illuminate your subject) relative to the ambient light falling both on your subject and on the background.
Downsides to using off-camera flash are that it takes longer to set up than a reflector, and your subject may not want to wait while you set this up and play around with power settings and light modifiers to create the look you want. It is possible to hold the camera in one hand and the flash in the other hand at arm’s length, but this limits the family of angles from which you can throw light – it is much better and easier if you have someone (either an assistant, friend, or a helpful local) to hold the flash unit for you. Or alternatively carry a small light stand with you.
In contrast to a flash unit, when using a reflector you will always need someone to hold the reflector for you in order to bounce sunlight on to your subject. Additionally, accurate placement and orientation of a reflector is much more critical than using off-camera flash in lighting your subject, and requires more skill. If you are going to be relying on people you meet with whom you cannot easily communicate to hold your reflector for you, then this may be a factor in deciding whether to use flash or a reflector.
When the situation demands it, I use both reflectors and also off-camera flash in making street portraits, depending on the circumstances and what I am prepared to carry. There is no doubt that using natural ambient light is the simplest and quickest solution if the light gives you what you want. When travelling alone, I usually carry 22-inch Photoflex Litedisc reflectors in gold/white and silver/white which fold down to a third of that size as these offer a good compromise between the size of the reflected light source and what I can comfortably carry. In terms of flash gear, I carry one (occasionally two) Nikon Speedlights with radio triggers, and either a Westcott 43” trifold shoot-through umbrella and/or a Lumiquest Softbox III collapsible soft box which folds flat and slips into a pocket in my camera bag, but can be assembled in seconds. I also carry an umbrella swivel adaptor and a Manfrotto extension arm or a Justin clamp on which to mount the flash unit, umbrella or Lumiquest Softbox. I may also carry a Rogue Flashbender grid attachment for the flash unit and a Honl speedsnoot, together with a couple of Honl Speed Gobos.
4. Portraits need good composition, too
In addition to thinking about light, don’t neglect to think about composition when making a portrait. It might seem at first sight as if placing your subject centred, or perhaps off-centre, in your frame is as much as you need to do. This is not true: portraits need as much thought given to composition as any other image.
This is not only true with a contextual portrait such as the one above – even with a tightly framed portrait, you should pay attention to the lines in the image, and try arrange them in a visually pleasing way which strengthens visual communication.
In the image of the man above, I composed the image symmetrically such that the lines in the frame emphasise stability, strength and power, with my subject – almost confrontationally – square on to the camera. His demeanour was confident, verging on arrogant; his unflinching gaze a challenge; he probably was not intending to be aggressive, but his macho body language came across that way. By posing him so that he appears to be ‘squaring up’ to the camera, these perceived characteristics of his personality are emphasised through the composition. The triangle formed by the lines of his shoulders and the bottom of the frame suggest strength. The composition thus supports the visual story.
In the second image above, the viewer’s eye is subconsciously led up into the frame by the diagonal line formed by the garment bottom left and follows the line of the cloth around the ear to the top of the head, then down to the face. The face – and in particular the eyes – are always the most visually compelling part of any portrait, with the most visual weight. The fact that the face is the sharpest part of the image as well as the area of greatest contrast against the dark background subliminally reinforces the idea that this is the area of the image to which most attention should be given, since the eye is attracted most by areas of high contrast and sharpness. The diagonal line leading from bottom left helps to give the portrait energy and dynamism, and leads the eye on a path into the frame.
5. Don’t neglect the background
It is easy to be swept away on a wave of enthusiasm when you have a fascinating portrait subject who has just given you permission to photograph them and forget all about the background to your portrait. However, the background can make or break your portrait regardless of the strength of your subject.
If the background is cluttered and irrelevant to the story of the portrait, it may simply distract the viewer, leading the eye away from your subject. Your choice of background should be as intentional as your choice of light, wherever possible.
Once again, don’t be afraid to ask your subject to move a few steps to somewhere offering a better background for your portrait.
If you are struggling with the background, using a longer focal length, increasing the distance from your subject to the background and using a large lens aperture will help to throw the background out of focus, minimising distractions.
6. Contextual or close-up?
Linked to your consideration of a suitable background is the question of whether your portrait should be a simple head and shoulders shot, with little background visible, or whether it should be a contextual portrait giving some additional information about the subject’s environment.
Both approaches are equally valid. You can try mixing it up, shooting both tight head shots, filling the frame with your subject’s features, and also pulling back to show some context. If the context adds to the story, it can make for a powerful portrait. On the other hand, if you are struggling to find a suitable background, framing tight on your subject so that little if any background is visible may make more sense.
7. Sometimes you may find the stage before the actor
Some days you will find your subject, then struggle to place them in front of a suitable background and find or create appropriate light to photograph them in. It can sometimes be easier to first identify a great background and great light, and wait for a great portrait subject to come along whom you can place in the scene.
8. There’s no such thing as a portrait lens
There is no such thing as the ‘ideal’ portrait lens. You can make great portraits with a lens of almost any focal length from wide-angle to telephoto. Your choice of lens should be determined by what you want to say with your portrait. For example, lenses with focal lengths in the 85mm – 135mm range are generally flattering to the features of the human face owing to the mild perspective compression of such lenses. In contrast, a wide-angle lens pushed in tight will tend to exaggerate the more prominent features of the face: chin, nose, eyebrows, etc – giving a more comic, fun, humorous or possibly even grotesque rendering of the face. The closer the lens to the face, the more extreme the perspective distortion will be. Perhaps not the right choice for portraits of the bride or mother-in-law, nor for a fashion or beauty shoot – but with the right subject, there is no reason not to try using a wide-angle lens.
Wide-angle lenses can be effective for portraits of children, injecting an element of energy and fun into the portrait, giving a more inclusive feel, pulling you in to the child’s world. Wide-angle lenses are also great for contextual portraits, showing a person in their surroundings, providing another layer to the visual story. There is no right or wrong choice with optics – I have made portraits with lenses ranging in focal length from 17mm to 200mm – but it is important to be aware of what different lenses will give you, so you can make an informed choice.
If you want to create tight headshots, it’s also worth considering the magnification factor of the lens. Each lens has a point of closest focus – move closer than that to your subject, and you will not be able to focus on your subject. Can you fill the frame with the subjects head and shoulders at that distance? If you can’t, and a tight headshot is what you want to achieve, then you might need to reach for another lens in your bag, or accept that you will need to crop the image afterwards and throw away some pixels. For example, my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR2 zoom lens is a lens I sometimes use for portraits. However, I discovered early on that I was unable to focus close enough to fill the frame with my subject’s head and shoulders for a tight headshot. Not necessarily a problem if you are happy to crop later, or accept a slightly wider view – but something to be aware of. Incidentally, you may also find with such zoom lenses that at the point of closest focus you are not actually getting focal length stated by the lens manufacturer. With my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR2 racked out to 200mm for example, at the point of closest focus, the lens actually has a true focal length of around 135mm. This is a compromise made by the lens manufacturer to enable the lens to focus closer than it would otherwise be able to do. A compromise worth making, in my view, but again, something to be aware of – your 200mm zoom lens may not actually be giving you a focal length of 200mm at the point of closest focus.
9. Multiple shots, different viewpoints, different angles
If you have a willing portrait subject, you have suitable light, the background is good, then don’t be content with one or two frames. Work the scene and your subject. Try different angles, different framing, and different lenses. Your chances of a strong frame will go up.
10. Choose your moment
Watch your subject’s changes of expression, and photograph them. Eye contact is not always necessary for a great portrait. Natural body language which reveals the character of your subject is more important. Eye contact can cause the viewer to feel more engaged with the portrait and the subject. On the other side of the coin, the absence of eye contact can allow the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall, an observer glimpsing into another world. Both approaches can work, depending on the subject and the situation.
Often it takes a few frames for the subject to get used to the ‘click’ of the shutter, and relax. Sometimes telling your subject that you are just taking a few test shots to check the light and composition can bring the relaxed, natural expression you are looking for.
For the following image, I made several frames, but only in this one did I see the natural, unforced body language and expressions revealing the comfortable intimacy of the close friendship between these two boys in Colaba, Mumbai. This image communicates clearly the bond of close boyhood friendship to me, and it works in my opinion because of its universality: anyone anywhere on the planet regardless of culture or location would immediately recognise the bond of friendship between them. It is the only frame in the sequence which succeeded in clearly communicating that. It would have been easy to stop shooting before I got to this frame, but I would have been left with a much weaker image as a result. Even when you think you have got the shot – keep shooting. There may be something even better to come.
Similarly, don’t be afraid to gently direct your subject if the composition or body language doesn’t look right. Resist the temptation to ‘chimp’ (check the camera LCD screen to review your images) too much. It may be exactly in that moment that you miss the expression which would make for a strong portrait.
Once you have nailed the composition and the exposure, keep your eye to the viewfinder and your finger on the shutter release. Sometimes it helps to talk to your subject while photographing them. Sometimes silence works best. You have to feel the pulse of the shoot, and go with whatever works.
I hope that these ten tips are helpful to you in creating strong portraits. If there’s anything you’d like to add, or if you feel that I’ve overlooked something which works well for you, please drop me a line in the comments – I’d love to hear from you.