Tutorial: Shooting Portraits With Soul


Tutorial: Shooting Portraits With Soul

Get away from using the phrase take a picture and start using the phrase make a picture“Taking” feels too much like a one-sided action of the photographer seizing something from another person rather than something which is created together between the photographer and the model in agreement, tandem and harmony. Remember the guy that walks up to a person, shoves the camera in their face, snaps a few shots without acknowledging or engaging the person, and then walks away with his catch…? Yes, absolutely, that guy “took” a picture. When you want to photograph someone you meet along the way, engage them, get a sense of their energy, and just ASK them: “Could I make a nice picture of you?”  Simply respect them. It goes a long way, and you’re not getting an image of them if they don’t agree to it anyway. And sometimes you just have to let it go. Sometimes they decline at first but agree later on. But only if you were beautiful to them first can they feel beautiful with you. 

Now that we have given adequate attention to the philosophical “warm and fuzzy” aspects of this wonderful art form we enjoy, let’s look at some practical tips on how to create better images with the people you are now interacting with so mindfully and beautifully.

HiddenSmile3The Photo AFTER the Pose

We really never know which exact moment with our model is going to be the one that produces the best image. Sometimes when we are straining to create the exact pose or effect that we are shooting for, we lose it in the process because it is too deliberate. Sometimes  over-directing can kill the natural essence. That is why it is always a good idea to keep in mind that sometimes in a moment just before the intended snapshot, we have a moment to grab a picture before the  pose itself, and even more often just after it. The reason for this is because the energy of the model and their stance may change subtly before, during, and after a deliberate snapshot. The person has relaxed and let go, and it can be seen in their expression. So there are often a few sequential opportunities to get quite different shots of a model in a brief moment or two as the energy flows.

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Fill the frame

It is always a good idea to fill your frame with interesting material. Whether it be the subject’s face or a red barn on a green hillside, it is always a good idea to keep the entire field of view filled with what is most interesting and important. Unless it is of importance to the composition of the photo, anything else usually serves no purpose but to diminish the strength of the presentation.

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The Eyes Have It

It’s true that the eyes are the window to the soul, and they are also the mirrors with which you reflect that beauty to others. Keep your focal point on the dominant eye of your model, and try to capture the truest essence of that person’s being with your image. Focusing on the eye maximizes impact and connection to the heart of the viewer. Usually the subject is best placed when looking directly at the lens, but sometimes not: having the model looking in a different direction can dramatically change the photo and it can still be great.

blue eyes girl

eyes of Rajasthan

Eyes of Jaipur

Play with POV

When making a portrait of a model, we need not always have the model’s face fill the frame at the same height as the lens, looking directly at the camera. Although that will certainly work most of the time, we should always try to experiment with alternative angles in order to see a subject in a totally different way. Sometimes shooting from beneath or above the model can create a dramatic and very different perspective.
Try doing a profile shot rather than a direct face shot to create a cool picture, too.

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Breaking the Rule of Thirds

It is often advised against placing your model directly in the dead center of the frame, and instead to use the rule of thirds, where the model is placed slightly left or slightly right of center as if the photo has been divided into three imaginary sections. But sometimes it is fun to break these rules and we end up getting a really cool shot that just happens to be in direct violation of this or other rules. Hey, if it works, it works regardless of the rules.

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Importance of Background

If chosen well, or if we just plain get lucky, the background can be as important as the subject in the overall composition, and can tell even more of the story. Choose backgrounds that reveal as much of the essence in as compact a space as possible. Or seek soft tones, attractive textures, or lights that can be portrayed in bokeh style. Backgrounds contribute massively to setting the tone. Seek them out, create them if it works, and use them wisely.

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Portraying Emotion

Sometimes the emotion is already there, radiating and unmistakable. Other times you can help augment it a bit, such as turning the model’s faint smile into a glowing grin, or taking an expressionless baby to a gurgling giggle. 

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Reflections

Reflections on water or glass can add fantastic dimension and double the impact of your photo. Any time you see a reflective surface near a beautiful subject, see if there is a certain angle that might be hiding the most beautiful view right under your nose. Often the glimmering reflections of lights on calm water at night makes for dazzling photos. Having the model lean their face toward a foggy rainy window or a shiny storefront display can add greatly to the impression. Angle is key here, too. Sometimes the reflection is invisible until you take one more step left or right.

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The Half Portrait

For an unusual shot, try splitting someone’s face in half. [You might want to try it first with your Mother-in-Law.] Fill the frame with either side of their face, leaving the other half entirely out of frame. Do both sides, as one side might look better than the other. Always keep your focal point directly on the one eye, especially in this type of shot, to maximize intensity. 

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The F-stop Pop

Ah, the f-stop pop. Occasionally there is good use of a very shallow depth of field (1.2 ~ 2.0) to accentuate certain pinpoints of a subject. It might be the big wet nose of a cute little puppy, or one yellow blossom peeping out from a field of sunflowers, or the bright foil around 1 cigar in a pile of hand-rolled Cubans. Using a very shallow depth of field creates a “pop” effect, directing the eye toward exactly what is in sharp focus, rendering all the rest as supportive ambiance or less. Using a tripod can help reduce micro movement that can contribute to blur at shallow aperture / f-stop settings. 

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Off-center cropping

Try cropping your image so the subject is off-center. It keeps the eye from getting bored, and if there is any, the remaining space suggests a sense of intrigue. You can crop out some of the model’s face, too, and place the focus on the cheek or the eye instead of the entire face, for example.

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A Good Picture Tells a Story

Include as many elements of the story you are telling as possible. Sometimes a little staging helps, and sometimes it’s just too obviously staged and tacky. Props and background items should be placed so they contribute to the essence of a story, but not detract attention away from the subject. You’ll feel it when you find the right balance. This ties in directly with choosing a background as we discussed earlier, but you can also think of it as choosing a setting or a scene. Without overdoing it, try to include whatever is directly contributing to the essence or theme you are trying to capture. 

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Unusual & Intriguing Faces

Models need not be pretty to be beautiful, and models need not be beautiful to be intriguing. There are some people whose imperfections are exactly what make them interesting to photograph. Do it. Capture their essence the best way you can. See who they are and find the best angle and manner in which to portray them. You may want to accentuate imperfections or you may want to diminish them. But shoot in the way that best portrays their uniqueness. 

Intriguing face

Vivid Colors Are a Godsend

Vivid arrays of colors such as hand woven textiles, bins of colorful candy, or bright colored lanterns are fantastic subjects that can delight & satisfy the eye. Vividly contrasting colors are even better. There is usually no need to increase saturation when editing such shots, but play with it and see. If you are not really sure, stay away from increasing saturation when editing, as overdoing it makes the image look artificial.

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Capturing a Fleeting Moment

A child releasing a helium balloon. A puff of smoke from an old man’s pipe. A bird alighting from a sakura branch. A schoolboy whacking a baseball off a bat the instant before he sprints off to first base. These fleeting moments can make fantastic photography. They will generally require a high shutter speed to capture a millisecond in time, to “freeze” it, and a high ISO setting to compensate for the high shutter speed.

Smoking time in Cuba

Sweet Light

Softer, dimmer light such as morning light and afternoon light can be magical. Entire landscapes can transform according to different light cast upon them. Bright sun on the face of your model might ruin the shot, but the softer light of morning or afternoon can make it great. Does this mean you can’t shoot half the day when the sun is in full swing? Of course not. But maybe shoot your portraits in the morning or afternoon, and some landscapes midday. Or keep shooting portraits but find some sheltered area where the light is dimmer because it’s under a shaded area or on the shadier side of a building. Overcast days are usually lousy for landscapes, but they are ideal for outdoor portraits. Why waste half the day’s light? Make hay while the sun shines. Just find where it’s shining the right way for what you’re shooting. 

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Posing & Directing Your Model

Sometimes the placement of a model’s hand, the angle of the head, the direction of the gaze, or a simple gesture can completely change the energy of a photograph. Sometimes it can completely make the photograph. And sometimes, it can be so effective that it becomes a signature style, like Réhahn’s “Hidden Smile” technique. It’s one thing to see the person smiling, and that’s grand. But it’s an entirely different thing when the same model puts their hand over their mouth when they’re smiling and laughing, isn’t it? Seeing the smile from the mouth is great. But sometimes seeing it only through the eyes is more powerful. It’s a case of suggestion being more powerful than full disclosure. Hence, Réhahn’s “Hidden Smile” has become his signature.CoTu2016-230116-441

Forget the Map, the Clock, & the Phone. Just Wander.

Sometimes it is so nice to just let everything go. Let go of your requirements, your goals, your deadlines, anything that binds you. Just be free. Wander. Walk, ride your bicycle, or hop on a motorbike to get where you’re going. But once you park, just wander. The best is on foot, because it slows you down and gives you more time to see. You can’t possibly see much in a car, but on foot, you have time to look more closely & find little hidden gems.

Flow with the vibe if it’s there. If it’s not, then just mosey on around to another place. Find what’s there. See what is. Love it. Be there. If you find interesting people, smile and engage them. See what they’re about. Ask them if you can make some nice portraits together. 

If they extend a courtesy, accept it graciously and be present in the moment. Yes, sometimes you can’t because you truly do not have enough time, or you are allergic to alcohol, or you don’t eat meat, or whatever. Sometimes we are photographing people we can barely communicate with because neither understands the other’s language. But everyone understands a warm smile and a kind heart. So be grateful and gracious and contribute to enriching the moment with them by being fully present and fully you. And go ahead and make some beautiful images while you’re at it, too. 

TO SEE MORE PHOTOS
Réhahn has published to successful books with 150 photos each. To get these 2 books, click here:
Photo book Vietnam

Book Réhahn

Written in collaboration with Brian de Riancho