(Editor’s Note: We welcome this guest post from Chris Orwig, a bestselling author, photographer and teacher who blends a down-to-earth approach with technical expertise. He has authored seven books and over 5,000 hours of online tutorials. Chris also regularly speaks on creativity and photography at conferences and workshops, and has been invited to speak for companies like Google, Facebook, Adobe and on the TEDx stage. Find out more at chrisorwig.com or follow him on Instagram.)
The most interesting portraits reveal. They go well beyond the surface of look and show us the inner essence of who someone is. They reveal character, soul and depth. They uncover hidden hopes and strength, revealing that authentic and deeply human light that shines within.
And while technical expertise is undoubtedly important, it’s not the technique, lighting, camera or pose that creates a great portrait. It’s you, and it’s the connection you create with the subject that makes the image come to life.
Photography really is one of the easiest of art forms to practice, but at the same time, it’s one of the hardest when it comes to achieving your own style. Taking a photograph is easy, creating a great photograph is hard — especially with portraits. Because portraits not only need to look good, they need to tell us more. So how do we capture better portraits? Here are my top five tips.
1. Search beneath the surface
It’s always easy to judge the book by it’s cover. But as we all know, who we are is more than how we look. Yes, look matter, but there’s always more. And too often, we photographers jump to conclusions based on how someone appears. That’s because we are looking with our eyes, rather than our hearts.
As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “It is only with the heart that one can see rights, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
So the next time you set out to capture a portrait, try to capture what you see or feel with your heart. And if you can fill your frame up with that, it will surely turn out to be an amazing frame.
2. Photograph people that matter to you
Too often, we think that to get better at photography we need to work with models. But what I’ve come to find is that is you want others to care about your portraits, you need to care about them yourself. So rather than photographing a model you don’t know, photograph your mom, brother or best friends. Photograph those people that you admire, love and respect. And then, there’s a chance that all of that feeling will make the viewer feel as well.
3. Carry less. Capture more.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that photography is all about gear. Because of that, there’s always at least one attendee at my workshops that has more gear than I own. But of course, compared to the other students, that attendee doesn’t capture the best photographs of the day.
Usually, the best photographs are captured by the student without a lot of gear. That’s because she can work quickly, decisively and creatively. I’ve found the same to be true for me. When I bring my whole kit to a shoot, it rarely gets used. And more often than not, I spend all this time worrying about what lens to use. But when I commit to a single camera and lens, it lights a creative fire.
So here’s my challenge. The next time you schedule a shoot, leave behind everything but one camera and one lens. Don’t even bring a backpack or bag. While this sounds simple, it takes guts to show up without a safety net and it might just make you shoot in a way that is more focused, present and engaged.
4. Embrace the flaw
Too often photographers strive to get the “perfect shot” only to discover that “perfect” isn’t that interesting after all. That’s especially true with portrait photography.
Think of the last photograph you viewed that was retouching too much. The result of the retouching was the loss of soul. And we like pictures that show a few flaws because they feel more real. I like how the poet Wendell Berry put it, “It is the impeded stream that sings.” And it’s true, isn’t it? The stream with all those pebbles, boulders and rocks is the one that sings such a beautiful song.
So it is with portraiture, the person who looks real, genuine, human and relatable is the one that strikes a chord. So the next time you go out and capture portraits, don’t worry about getting everything right. Rather, look for the humanity within.
5. Find a mentor
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that you can achieve greatness on you own — it always takes a team. And when it comes to getting better photographs you and I both need mentors who can help point out our flaws and compliment our strengths. A few years ago I presented my portfolio to a mentor and among other things he said, “I can tell that you connect well with subjects but you aren’t committed to the frame. Because of that you’re letting your subjects down.”
In other words, he was saying that I needed to work on composition. But, he said it in a way that completely made sense. That started me on a journey to improve the way that I composed and framed my shots. I’m grateful for that little nudge and I wouldn’t be the photographer that I am today, without his help. The point is, we all need mentors that provide an outside perspective and help us to improve. If you don’t have a mentor, take a few steps this week to find someone who can help you out.