Working with photographic subjects: The mechanics of making a great portrait

By Rebecca Webb

Portraiture has a long and varied history throughout the centuries and in a variety of mediums. Trends, movements and societal preferences have helped to determine each artist’s aesthetic rendering of the human form. So, just what makes a great portrait and what are the mechanics behind authoring one? And what are the inexplicable qualities that you need in order to create a good portrait?

Well-known portraiture photographer Timothy Archibald, notes the elusive nature of portraiture in the blog, Exposure Compensation: "Trying to really pinpoint what makes a great portrait is almost like trying to figure out why it feels good when someone smiles at you or why it is disturbing when someone yells at you." As an example of great work, he references the work of photographer Judith Joy Ross. In Ross's work, he says, "There is no filter, the viewer isn’t really aware of all the mechanical decisions that the photographer is making, it is simply a direct transference if emotion and information, going directly from the subject to the brain of the viewer. The photographer somehow was simply a conduit for this information to travel through." Photography critic and blogger Jörg Colberg noted this conduit of creation when he interviewed Dutch portrait photographer, Helen Van Meene about her stunning work, "A portrait comes into being via the interaction between the photographer and the subject."

I would consider myself a fine art portraitist. My most recent project is entitled "Gentlemen's Paintings" (see video of the shoot below). It was a big step for me in terms of how I approached the people I wanted to include in this series (such as placing an ad in CraigsList) and actually working with people who were not in my family (I am however, still working on an ongoing series called "Sutures: Stories with Seams," that mostly features family and friends).

Essentially, if you consider the following elements, learn the technical stuff (to get the look you want) and practice, practice, practice — you will put your subjects at ease and get a great portrait.

The following items are important points that I consider on my shoots (in no particular order):

  • Let your personality shine through — learn to feel comfortable in your own skin! Engage in conversation with your subject. Your confidence will make your subject feel at ease.

  • Guidance — Subjects often want to be directed and feel more confident when the photographer shares their intentions and expectations of how they want the subject to look, act, or what direction to look.

  • Do your research — get to know something about your subjects. I think the best thing to do is meet them without your camera — have a coffee and get to know each other a little bit.

  • Intentionality — Be clear to yourself what your project is about or what you want to achieve with your portrait, e.g., consider your audience — is your portrait for a magazine, gallery, commission, personal project, etc.?

  • Access — How are you connected (if at all) to your subject? Be wary of objectifying your subject—that is, photographing "the other." Subjects feel most at ease if you are from their "community." For example, I am the same demographic and grapple with similar issues as my subjects from the "Gentlemen's Paintings" project.

  • Time — Spend time on your shoots; don't rush your subject or your own process. Allow for plenty of time, and prepare your subjects by letting them know how long you expect to take. The "Gentlemen's Paintings" project took about a year to complete. Each of the twenty-one portraits lasted about one and a half hours, and each woman came dressed in what they wanted to wear and were ready to be photographed (so that saved some time!)

  • (On the) Set and Shoot — be prepared for the shoot with bottled water for your subjects, release forms, know your equipment (and prepare it in advance e.g., charged batteries, extra memory cards, etc.) and know the ins and out of your location. Make sure the time of day works with your intentioned lighting situation. It's super great to have an assistant (or two!) so you can be free to engage with your subject and not worry about the equipment.

Happy shooting, and don't forget to check out one of the photography classes in Winter.

Rebecca Webb, BFA from Tufts University. Her expertise is in fine art photography and film production, having studied with photographers Sage Sohier, Peter Laytin and Shelby Lee Adams while doing graduate work at Harvard University. Her work is exhibited in galleries in Boston, New York City and various museums nation-wide. By day, Rebecca is the ArtPower! Film Curator at UC San Diego.

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