Searching for Soul in Portrait Photography
The most successful portraits take us well beyond the surface of how someone looks and show us the inner essence of who someone is. They reveal character, soul, and depth. They uncover hidden hopes and inner 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.
With that in mind, I collaborated with CreativeLive to create my course, Capturing Authentic Portraits. After finishing the live course, I wanted to devote even more time to thinking about this idea. And the more I dug into the topic, the more I discovered that who we are shapes what we create.
Think about it, photography is among the easiest of art forms to practice, but one of the hardest when it comes to achieving your own unique vision, voice, and style. Taking a photograph is easy, but making a meaningful portrait requires something more. Through my own journey, I’ve come to discover that authentic portraiture isn’t something you master but something you pursue. Kind of like healthy eating and fitness—it’s a lifelong pursuit rather than something you do once and cross off the list.
The more I pursued the topic, the more interested I became. And what started as a CreativeLive course evolved into a book, Authentic Portraits: Searching for soul, significance, and depth. Throughout the process of teaching and writing that book, I came to rediscover that a significant part of capturing better and more authentic portraits is learning how to become more authentic ourselves. And that becoming our true, unfiltered, and best self is no easy task; that’s why so many books, seminars, and conferences address the topic. Becoming authentic is hard, but it’s essential if you want to create portraits that last.
I like how the French poet Charles Baudelaire put it, “A portrait! What could be more simple and more complex, more obvious and more profound.” Authentic portraits—at least the ones that endure—are paradoxical in these ways. These pictures aren’t single-minded; they’re a complex and sometimes conflicting combination of ideas, emotions, and themes. Like good literature or art, they give you access to multiple emotions at once. Authentic portraits speak to the many paradoxes of life: absence and presence, fragility and strength, pity and admiration, nostalgia and regret. Paradoxes are truths in disguise. That’s why they thrive in good literature, film, and art. The element of surprise draws us in. What at first seems like a flaw suddenly makes sense, and the original contradiction metamorphoses from dissonance into interest, believability, and depth.
In other words, authentic portraits are real. And that’s what makes them last. But, as we all know, creating timeless and authentic portraits is hard. So here are 6 tips to help you achieve more meaning and more depth in your frames.
1. EMBRACE THE FLAW
The poet Wendell Berry put it this way, “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. With that in mind, it becomes clear that in portraiture, perfection isn’t the goal. Rather, the best portraits embrace the flaw, and sometimes if we are lucky, it’s that flaw which gives our work its song.
One way to begin to embrace the flaw is to find inspiration outside of your typical point of view. For me, I’ve found a wellspring of inspiration in “wabi sabi.” Wabi sabi is an ancient Japanese philosophy that recognizes beauty and value in imperfect things. It regards patina and anything that bears the imprint of the passage of time with tenderness and respect. Wabi sabi celebrates cracks, crevices, and all the other marks that time leaves behind. It is simple, subtle, modest, and kind. And most of all, wabi sabi reveres authenticity in every way, shape, and form.
In a world strained by social media, marketing, and hype, perfection is losing its appeal. In response, there’s a collective awakening to the fact that being imperfect is okay. You don’t have to have a certain kind of skin, body type, height, hair color, gender, or religious belief to be accepted and loved. More importantly, you don’t have to pretend to be something you aren’t.
So the next time you’re capturing a portrait, do so without any pretense or pretending involved. Be yourself and let your subject be him/herself as well. And rather than glossing over any of the flaws and scars, ask your subject where his/her strength comes from. For example, let’s say you’ve been given an assignment to photograph the world famous JK Rowling (author of Harry Potter). Rather than photographing her as an icon, photograph her as a real person. And instead of asking her about her success, ask her about what she meant when she said, “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” And then, listen intently and capture an authentic portrait of someone who is real.
2. LOOK PAST THE SURFACE
There is a myth in photo education that goes something like this, “If you want to capture better photographs, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” I think this is completely wrong. Admittedly, this advice sometimes works, but I think it does so at the expense of missing the point. The deeper art of seeing requires that we learn to see and find the beauty within. I like how Marcel Proust put it, “The greatness of a work of art has nothing to do with the quality of the subject matter and everything to do with the treatment of that matter.” In other words, it’s not who we photo, it’s how. Too many aspiring portrait photographers hire models instead of photographing people that they care about most. And the result is mediocre photographs of models rather than meaningful portraits that transcend time.
So if you want to capture better portraits, find people to photograph that you care about. And if you don’t know the subject, get to know them. Ask deep and interesting questions so that you can find out about their life story and let that story fill up the frame. Because the reality is that surface beauty doesn’t last.
Too often, aspiring photographers confuse fashion photography and portraiture and so they try to create portraits that have a certain look. But put simply, fashion photography is about clothes while portraiture is about soul. Yes, clothes/hair/etc. matters, but it isn’t the point. You have to look for the story within. As Aristotle said, “The aim of art isn’t the outward appearance but the inner significance.” So find subjects that are inwardly significant to you. That’s why I had my mom show up during the filming of the CreativeLive Capturing Authentic Portraits course.
So here’s the takeaway and action step: For your next photo shoot, set up a session with someone who matters to you, whether that’s your mom, dad, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, boss, mentor, or friend. And then, when you end up photographing a model, remember that he/she isn’t a model but a person with depth, interests, and soul. The key to authentic portraiture is to photograph someone as a person rather than the label that too quickly describes who they are.
3. FIND THE COMMON GROUND
The ancient poet Rumi said it like this, “Everything in the universe is inside you.” And your job as a portrait photographer is to listen and look deeply, to stand still and to discover the awe and wonder that lies within. If you look at others in the right way, you’ll see how that universe shines and how it mirrors back a familiar view. My friend Travis Blue put it like this, “When you look into another’s eyes, the aim is to look so closely and so deeply into another that you see yourself.”
This happened to me when I photographed the man shown above. I had arrived early to photograph a ballet dancer on the scenic bluffs of Lands End in San Francisco. While waiting, I noticed this guy walk by and I instinctively struck up a conversation. I asked if I could capture his portrait and with a kind smile he said, “Yes.” I asked him if he came to this place often and he said, “All the time.” As we walked to a better spot for a portrait I asked, “What do you do?” With sparkling eyes he said, “Oh, I’m a writer.” Suddenly, I realized that this was someone I could identify with in a deeper way. Rather than seeing him as a wandering homeless person, he was a writer without a home. And while I’ve never been homeless, I do know what it’s like to feel displaced and alone. And I know how much comfort, meaning, and purpose can be found in writing or in any kind of creative act.
Here’s the takeaway: great portraits come from the honest insight of what it means to be human. And the perfect portrait subject isn’t a specific type of person. Rather it’s anyone and everyone. Portraiture truly is the most inclusive genre of photography. You can capture a portrait of a kid, karate master, CEO, celebrity, artist, athlete, billionaire, or bowling champion and they are all equally good portrait subjects. Because in authentic portraiture, it’s less to do with the subject and more to do with how you learn to relate.
4. CULTIVATE INNER CALM
Anais Nin was spot on when she said, “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” What we see is a reflection of who we are and what’s going on inside. And because of that, two photographers can photograph the same person with the same light and achieve different results. That’s because what they see (and thus what they draw out) is completely different. So the only way to learn to capture authenticity is to practice and cultivate it ourselves. What this will mean for each of us is probably completely different and unique, so I won’t take the time to create a litany of suggestions. Yet, I do want to suggest that you journey inward and take a deep breath.
5. CARRY LESS. CAPTURE MORE.
It’s time to dispel the myth that portraiture requires an immense amount of gear. Sure, gear is great but unless you have a studio space, a team of assistants, and lots of money, gear prevents the soul from sneaking into view. The way I work is to capture almost all of my images, is with the following combination: camera + lens + natural light. Sure, it would be nice to have a team of assistants to help out with hair, makeup, backdrops, and lights, but I’ve never had any of those. I am just a simple guy with a camera who is striving to connect with the subject in a soulful and honest way.
So here’s my challenge. The next time you schedule a shoot, leave behind everything but 1 camera and 1 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.
6. STUDY THE CRAFT
Out of all of the different types of photography (travel, landscape, food, weddings, sports, adventure, etc.), portraiture might be the most difficult of all. Because capturing a good portrait requires a unique mixture of internal and external skills. It’s a craft that deserves a lifetime of study because as you change and grow, you’ll need to learn how to capture portraits in a new way. Just imagine the difference between capturing portraits when you are 16 versus 60. That photographer must develop her vision and voice is such a different way. And that’s the beauty of portraiture—it’s something that you can continually get better at until the end of your life. So get out there, a buy a book, take a workshop, watch a course, and practice your craft because getting good at portraiture won’t happen unless you put in some sweat, heart, and soul. And I’m not saying this so you buy or watch my stuff, I’m saying this because I want you to experience the deep joy of capturing portraits that are authentic and true. Find the instructors who resonate with your soul and take what they teach and then convert it into something different that is completely your own.
It takes a true connection between photographer and subject to create powerful portrait photography. Learn how to connect and create authenticity in your subjects in my class, Capturing Authentic Portraits.
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