We’re far more self-aware these days than in previous generations. We live in a world with very high expectations. We play in virtual or online worlds. Our minds wrap well around video games based on alternate universes. We text, and IM and e-mail and Tweet and it all makes it too easy to forget some of our more powerful human traits. Take empathy for instance.

When you set out to make a portrait of somebody, what are you thinking? Chances are you’re thinking about any one or more of the following things:

a. Gear, camera settings, technology
b. Lighting
c. Selling the portrait
d. Showing the portrait
e. Winning an award for the portrait
f. Having the portrait measure up to the subject’s expectations
g. Having the portrait measure up to your peer’s expectations

While I may be using a little hyperbole there to make a point, my guess is I am not far off for some of you.

What’s missing from this list?


While all the things on the list I just offered you may be reasonable to consider, the first thing I’d like to ask you to consider is your subject. How are THEY feeling? How’s this process going from THEIR point of view? Are they happy, sad, afraid, tense, angry, tired, thrilled, worried, anxious, etc.

If as the portrait maker, you’re not focused on how the subject is feeling, you’re missing a big opportunity to improve your work.

Seeing this experience through the eyes of the portrait subject is revealing. They may misinterpret much of what’s going on. If they are fearful of having their portrait made, they may be spinning out of control on the inside just about the time you say “SMILE!”

Try slowing down and examining the situation from their point of view. Stop looking at yourself in the mirror and look at them. Remember that most likely, unless the subject is a professional model, they may fear that they don’t “take a good picture.” It’s our job as photographers to reassure them that they measure up just fine.

Next, try to connect with the subject. I mean really connect. Come OUT from behind the camera. Come close to the subject. Shake their hand. Thank them for the opportunity to tell their story. Ask them questions that would help them understand that you really care about them more than the photo. After all, isn’t a human life worth more than any photograph?

Lastly focus (not your camera) but your mind on your subject. Listen to them. No I mean really LISTEN to them. Don’t fiddle with your camera or check your text messages or talk on the phone or type on the computer when they come in. Focus 100% of your attention on them. Put yourself in their shoes. They just walked in to your studio or met you on location to have their portrait made. See how they are doing. Deal with their condition first and then, set out to finish any other list you have.

How do I know this works? Simple. For the first 10 years of my career I was so focused on my work that when I made portraits I ignored nearly every one of these suggestions. Then one day I had a relative come into the studio. She was so nervous she was sick. Because I cared for her more than my previous clients (she was a relative after all) I paid attention to her. She relaxed. I made a portrait of her that she said was the best she’d ever seen. That lesson wasn’t lost on me. I hope it will help you too.

This post sponsored by the Digital SLR Store

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  1. […] Okay, so I’ve got the camera, the lenses, the lights, the backdrops, the contracts, the props…what am I forgetting? Oh, yes, that I will be taking pictures of a real person, and the best photos of them won’t be dictated by my gear, but by how well I connect with them. […]

  2. […] Want to Make Better Portraits? Become More Empathetic « Photofocus – I usually find Scott annoying but for once he's right. […]

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