Quick Tips on Establishing a Connection with a Portrait Subject

We’re streaming daily on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcherPocket Casts, and Spotify! You can also listen to it right here on The Phoblographer.

The biggest problem for many photographers getting into portrait photography is establishing a connection. Lots of folks just don’t know how to do it. One of the best lessons my mentor taught me was to actually talk to folks. Photographers will traditionally just move someone around, turning them almost into a prop. Don’t do that. Show some dignity. Establish a connection of some sort. This is a guide for everyone who’s wanted to do that. If you’re a street photographer who captures people candidly but wants to take formal portraits, this is for you. If you’re just getting into portrait photography, then this is also for you. Here’s how you establish a connection with a portrait subject.

Ask Them Questions

To establish a connection with a portrait subject, you have to communicate interest. Here’s the hard fact: we’re human beings. We’re one of the few species that mostly communicates vocally vs. through body language. Not everyone understands body language. So, you’ve got to become vocal. You’ve got to find a way to establish a connection. So go ahead and ask them questions, but don’t do it in an interrogating way. Here are a few examples:

  • How are you feeling today?
  • In the past week, what have you done that has made you feel the most accomplished? Please elaborate.
  • What’s a recent good deed that you’ve done that you’re super proud of?
  • Emotionally speaking, what’s been something that’s hit you the strongest recently? How did it make you feel?
  • Where were you exactly one year ago in life and what have been the biggest changes during that time?

These are five questions that I’ve been modifying accordingly in recent times. I think they’re incredibly to the point. Of course, there are surface-level questions, but you have to get deeper to show a connection in a portrait.

Do a Lot of Listening to Establish Connection with a Portrait Subject

After you ask them these questions, listen. Listen and empathize. Take yourself out of the picture (fig). That’s one of the most important parts of all this. The portrait is about the person, and you need to establish a connection with a portrait subject.

Based on What You Hear, Formulate an Idea

After you hear the person talk, you can formulate an idea based on what they’re saying. For example, in the past year, I’ve been excited to get involved in my community garden. It gave me a bit of purpose. The point here is to distract a subject’s mind from the professional camera pointed at them. You can have them tell a story and candidly capture the scenes. Or you can put someone in a situation that they can act out. There are tons of possibilities here.

Show Them the Framing of the Scene

A big game-changer to connect with a portrait subject here is to snap a photo and then show them the framing. Then they know how much space they have. My best portraits have been when this communication has been done. Obviously, a subject wants to work with a photographer to get the best picture. And if a subject is left guessing the entire time, it’s tougher to get a good portrait. 

Be open. Be communicative. Don’t hold back. 

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.