One of the most amazing capacities of photography is sharing the human experience. A portrait can put a human face on suffering or injustice. Portraits can make us laugh or cry. Portraits are more than pictures of people. At its best, portrait photography is the art of capturing characters. This has more to do with people skills than photographic technique. The cornerstone of great portraiture is empathy,
People look their best when they're engaged or at ease. There are several ways to accomplish that:
Candids - Perhaps the easiest way to capture people with their guard down is to catch them unaware. If they don't know you're taking a picture, they can't put on a face for the camera. (Figure 1) This technique has become very popular among wedding photographers. It's cool now to hire "wedding photojournalists" who attempt to chronicle the wedding day in the same way that a photojournalist might chronicle a historic event, documenting, rather than staging the action. It is a great technique, particularly if you're in the fortunate position of being able to capture a person doing something that they feel passionate about: A pianist playing piano, a runner running, and so on.
Time - If you spend enough time with somebody, they will gradually become more comfortable with your presence, and with the camera, until they almost forget that there's a camera there, and begin to enjoy the experience - assuming you're fun to be around. Your models will reflect whatever energy you're putting out. If you're bored, they'll look bored. If you're excited, they'll look excited. Spend enough time with somebody, and eventually, you'll be on the same wavelength. It's up to you to make sure that it's the right wavelength.
Conversation - One of the fastest ways to get somebody to relax is to get them talking about something that interests them. It doesn't have to be a long conversation. It simply has to get their focus off the camera, and onto something that matters to them. It's helpful to provide feedback to the model -- just avoid the trap of being critical. Models respond well to positive feedback, but negative feedback will often shut them down quickly.
Movement - A lot of people think they have to hold very still for photographs. This usually is not the case. If you're using a fast shutter speed or a flash, you'll have no trouble freezing the action, even if you're subject is jumping. If they need to loosen up, one effective method is to ask them to twist slightly and snap the photo while they're turning.
Empathy - If you can find a window into the head or the heart of your model, you're in business. Empathy will reveal the character of the individual person in front of you. Connect with their thoughts and feelings, and you'll be able to sense those magical moments when their guard drops, and they reveal glimpses of their soul. You may even be able to guide them there. Empathy is the key to evocative portraiture. (Figure 2)
The social arts go hand in hand with the art of photography. As photographers, we’re invited into the lives of people everyday. Once invited, we have a responsibility to share their human experience with others in the photographs we make. Consider it a unique privilege.