I wanted to start taking pictures of my friends. That was it. That was the unshared reason I got into portrait photography and stuck with it for the 9 years I’ve been working behind the camera. I was bringing my piece to the country fair, movie theaters, skate parks, backyard pools, concerts, hiking trips, poetry slams, cypher sessions, and so many more spots. Just to take a pic of my friends doing what they cherished and to capture those really cool moments of real escapism. Cheesing when they’re holding a copy of Gorillaz-Demon Days on vinyl. That look of bewilderment when they exited the theater, before the lights hit them, after watching The Raid: Redemption. The raw intensity that would cover one’s face as they recount trauma on the poetry stage. I wanted to live in the moment but I wanted to look back on these moments. So, for the next 9 years, I did just that, picking up a few tricks that have stuck with me and have helped me get some great portrait shots. These are 5 of those tricks:
1.Make your model comfortable: This should go without saying but it needs to be stressed. Make time before, after, and during the shoot to make your model feel as relaxed as possible. Talk to them and build a connection. Ask them personal questions without being too prying. Figure out what music they like. What are some of their favorite spots to get food after 2AM? See what their interests are. Just be human. For me, I always try to shoot when I have time to kill when there’s no rush, and I’m in no hurry so that I can do all these things.
Bring a Bluetooth speaker and let them get the aux. I know you have this perfect playlist for all your photoshoots and it has this insane David Bowie remix that no one knows about and blah blah blah. Just chill. There is all the time in the world for people to hear your great music taste but what’s more important, putting people on to some idiosyncratic bop from the early 2000s or giving your model an opportunity to really get into their fierce mood and potentially putting you on to some hidden gems? The camera can also be really scary on its own. The model can easily feel like they are wasting their time and yours. I combat this by giving the model the camera and asking them to get a few shots of me. I almost exclusively shoot on film so am very aware that film is precious and expensive but this simple act really helps communicate nobody is wasting anyone’s time. It’s just film, it’s just a camera, and we’re just hanging out and snapping moments in time. Nothing more, nothing less.
2. Think of the location: This sort of plays off the first tip, but consider where you are shooting. Someone with a bright personality and a colorful ensemble would probably be better suited in front of a colorful building in Greenpoint on a beautiful day than in an alleyway in FiDi during overcast. Perhaps a musician will be more natural in a music studio than in a photography studio if you are considering that this is their first photo shoot. Someone who has never done modeling before would probably have a better time getting cozy inside of their apartment than some random rooftop in UES. The location is also as much a part of the shoot as the model. Does it all flow together? Is it a reflection or extension of the model? Does it speak to their inner feelings? Can you get a better understanding of who they are as a person without them saying a single word? All things to consider when you respond to their inquiry of “where do you wanna meet?”. If you are doing an outdoor shoot, you may also want to scout out locations a few days ahead of time, so that you can find a few places that speak to the aesthetic quality that you would like to achieve.
3. Move Your Body: Allow the shoot to stretch your physical capabilities. Move around. Jump. Sit down. Get on your stomach. Crouch. Stand on top of a chair or under a table. Trade places with your model. You would think that photography is a passive passion but it is actually an active sport! You just might want to hit up a pilates class and get those stretches in so that you can use your body to get the best shots of your model. Once you hit your location, take full advantage of the space around you, and don’t forget those angles. Just don’t take the same pic twice.
4. Be Adaptable: Understand the language of your model. Some people need direction, some people don’t. Some people need to know what you want them to do, step-by-step and word-by-word. Tell them where to direct their eyes and what angle to tilt their head. Instruct them on how to stand up, what to do with their hands (always the hardest part), and where to point their feet. Others just need you to take the picture and they got the rest. It is a blessing to not do anything except point and shoot but do not discredit the experience of shooting a new model. Helping someone unlock their potential and really get into poses and occupying the space on a lens is so rewarding and can’t properly be put into words.
5. Don’t Forget To Gas Up Your Model: Remember the reason why you wanted to shoot this person to begin within. Something about them stood out to you. It could be something about their face or expressions, do they smile in an irresistible way? Or perhaps it could be a look on their face that cuts deep. Maybe they have an impeccable sense of style that speaks to you (ex. they blend SoHo swank and Marcy machismo). They slay a Seersucker suit or they walk with finesse. Whatever it is, don’t forget to tell them that. If they strike a great pose, let them know. Show your model some love and watch them blossom, especially if they are shy or nervous.
6. Remember the Rules, But Forget Them. Now there is a lot of technical things that I could have gone into detail about. Placing people off-center at one of the junctions of the rule of thirds. The lower the aperture, the better isolated the subject will be. Use a short telephoto lens to better flatter your model. Use a tripod so that you are more level with your subject. Use gels and props. Don’t crop people’s limbs at the joints. Use lines to draw attention to your subject, but avoid backgrounds that have lines horizontally. All of this is important but it’s not the most important in my opinion. Photography is not just about capturing that winning shot but building that connection, making a friend, and getting a picture to commemorate that moment.