Using context, collaboration and communication to create great portraits

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Classical Studies Summer Students

School may be out for most classes, but the hard-working students at the McGill School for Continuing Education are in session right through the hot summer months, and yesterday posed for their class photos on campus. The weather was hot and sunny  but this Montrealer is not complaining as winter is always just around the corner in this city.  After this brief  portrait session was done, I reflected a while on what it takes to create a great portrait whether you are just snapping a few shots of your family on vacation, or looking online to gather a few guidelines to inform your next corporate portrait photo shoot.

  1. Draw out the connections between subject(s) and their relevant subject matter or theme: whether your subject is someone famous, or just one of the millions of hard-working corporate workers out there in the world today, or a group of young summer students taking a course in a Classical Studies program, your job as photographer is to come up with ideas that can be translated into images that represent visually what is relevant to your subject. For example, if your subject is a Math Professor you could set up your shot in a classroom posing your subject in front of a blackboard covered in formulas and equations. Or if your subject is an author, you could set the subject in a contemplative space, perhaps the one where they write, or surround the writer with books. In the case of the McGill Classical Studies students, we (why we? see next point) sought out “classical” looking backgrounds to imbue the young group with a bit of the weight and substance of what they had gathered to study. In brief, contextualize your subject within the essential context of what makes your subject portrait-worthy in the time frame of your photograph.

    Cuban born artist, Alexander Poll
    Cuban born artist, Alexander Poll
  2. Collaborate with your subject(s): In my many years of experience photographing all types of people alone or in groups, from CEOs to
    Let's get married! On skates???
    Let’s get married! On skates???

    toddlers in diapers in a family living room, I’ve found that the single most important element of creating an excellent portrait is having a rapport with the subject. This rapport or relationship is created by including the subject in the creation of their own image. Even world-famous executives with a private jet waiting to whisk them away can and do enjoy a brief moment to create a photograph in which their likeness features that says something about who they are as a person. All portraits have an element of playfulness about them, even the serious ones, and the best ones happen when you as photographer can encourage that innate sense of play in your subject.

  3. Communicate with your subject: this is really just another aspect of collaboration, but it merits its own point as it is really so important when trying to capture an image of someone as they really are, which is the true call of a portrait artist. Talk to your client/subject throughout the creative process. Explain to them what you are thinking or wanting to do. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen my initial ideas improved upon by sharing them with my clients who gamely take up the challenge and often contribute new ideas and have even better backgrounds in mind than I come up with on my own. While I don’t think it’s important, or at all interesting, to tell the client the technical aspects of what’s happening (I’m not sure how many clients I have had who would care what aperture I am shooting at or what lens I am using) I do think it is critical to engage your subject in a dialogue about what you are doing and give them the space and opportunity to contribute their ideas to how they will be portrayed. At the very least, it gains their confidence, and more often than not leads to a better portrait.
Using features of the landscape for a good portrait
Using features of the landscape for a good portrait

A good portrait, whether of an individual or a group, should aim to capture some of the context of the subject, both physically and conceptually. Using both setting and features of the context of the subject will help to strengthen the portrait. After all, what is a portrait but a window into the heart and soul of a subject. The best ones, particularly photographs like Yousouf Karsh‘s epic shot of Winston Churchill reveal the essence of a person’s character – at least as they are in that moment. Portrait photography is the short story of people-oriented photography and the artistry involved is not something that can be easily reproduced. However, the core concepts connected to creating a great portrait are accessible to anyone who takes the time to learn and implement them. Central to all great portraits is establishing a rapport with your subject by collaborating and communicating during the session. And finally, as always, cultivate a sense of play and playfulness throughout your session so that the experience reveals not just who the subject is, but the best version of themselves.