The Psychology of Portraiture: Understanding Your Subjects

Pro Tip: When shooting wide open, be sure to exercise proper breathing control to ensure that you keep your subject in focus.

Pro Tip: When shooting wide open, be sure to exercise proper breathing control to ensure that you keep your subject in focus.

Taking a person’s portrait is a back and forth game. It often involves a singular back and forth connection between the photographer and the subject being photographed. In no way can you just expect someone to know what you want in a photo, so it requires a dialogue. This ability to have a dialogue, and the social connection that a photographer can have with a person, is a skill that every portrait photographer needs in order to create stunning portraits. Like in many situations in real life, it’s all about communication. Communicating with your spouse, friends, boss, coworkers, family members is key to create an understanding of any sort.

But in portraiture, one needs to realize that every portrait is a collaborative project. And getting the final results requires an open two way street.


Before You Begin Shooting

Before you start shooting, try a little bit of preparation. This little extra from you will put the model at ease, you at ease, and everyone working together towards the same goal much more efficiently.

First off, explain what you’re trying to accomplish in the shoot. You should try to be specific with the who, what, when, where, how and why that we always talk about. This is kind of like what movie directors sometimes do with actors and actresses on a film set–and it helps the model do their job easier and with much more understanding.

Like anything in life, we’re going to emphasize open communication. This open dialogue is going to be very important to the success of the shoot and working with the model. And in general, open communication just goes a long way with everyone. It also helps to build trust.

Then right before you’re going to start shooting, ask the subject to stand straight at you for a bit. Then carefully look at their shoulders and proportions. After this, let them know what you were doing and how it was otherwise going to affect the shoot. For example, I always let someone know which shoulder is their longer one. Almost everyone has one and then explaining how I’m going to position the person specifically to make their shoulder look more even in the images puts them more at ease.

You’ll be amazed: some models even thank you for letting them know. But beyond that, they get a better understanding that you’re really just trying to get the best image that you possibly can out of them–everyone appreciates that.

All of this is very painless and very simple for you to do. If you keep practicing it, it will become a routine.

The dialogue that I’m talking about in this section has a lot to do with the psychology of portraiture. You as the photographer need to realize and understand that the model or person that you’re about to photograph is sometimes more scared of you than you are of them. After all, you’re the one in charge of making the final picture the best it can be and they’re there to help you.

Then you need to realize this one specific fact about portraiture: there is no such thing as a bad model.

Again: there is no such thing as a bad model. It all has to do with how well you control the scene and how well you as the photographer communicate to get the vision that you have in your head across onto pixels or film.

Giving Directions

Chris Gampat Samantha Grossman's first shoot with me (13 of 15)ISO 32001-100 sec at f - 1.4On the left: meet Samantha–she’s a former co-worker of mine that has always been really shy deep down on the inside. It’s typical of many people and we have to accept it as normal. Even the most famous celebrities get nervous because it’s only human. But nervous subjects can be tough to work with.

Sam loves having her portrait taken (and isn’t a model), but gets nervous every time the camera is put in her face. Typically, many photographers (and I’ve heard this from countless models that have been featured on this site) don’t give directions and don’t communicate what they want in an image.

Years of shooting at New York Comic Con has taught me to find a way to break nervousness in each situation. To even detect nervousness, you need to tap into your inner feeling artist and be able to feel those emotions. You can do this by judging the tone of their voice, their emotional reactions, and by just talking to the person.

Now, your job is to break the nervousness.

My trick: I usually stop what I’m doing, look at the person, smile, and say in a very jokingly way, “Don’t worry, it’s JUST a photo. And it’s completely painless. Making this look good is all on me and if it isn’t then we can always quickly adjust it.”

So let’s say that your subject isn’t an experienced model–and there are loads of them out there. Maybe you’re doing a senior portrait sessions. In that case, you need to be even more open to communicating with them and working with them. Plus they’ll sometimes need even more direction. If they’re not doing exactly what you need them to do go ahead and ask them, “Can I come in and move you?”

For that reason, take a single photo and show them your framing (approximately.) This will give them a better idea of what you’re working with.

And again, this all plays into psychology. By disarming the person’s nervousness, you get a subject that’s easier to work with and by asking if you can come in and move them around you can sometimes make a person feel even more comfortable because they don’t know what the vision is in your mind.

Just remember: be human.