As the deadline approaches for the LensCulture Portrait Awards (closing soon — 23 February 2022!), we reached out to dozens of former winners and finalists from prior editions of the LensCulture Portrait Awards to ask them for their advice on how to make a great portrait.
We ended up receiving so many insightful and inspiring replies that we decided to split up their responses into two separate articles. Read part 1 of this inspiring series and then scroll down to see the rest. We hope these words of wisdom inspire you to make some great new work of your own.
Portraiture is a crossroad at the core of all art. We have forever been fascinated by images of ourselves and the other. This is especially true of photography. Since its inception, photography has primarily been focused on humankind. These days, we are drowning in a tsunami of images featuring people. Each new image is rapidly consumed by the next. Nothing much resonates. And yet, if we are to do portraiture justice, we must make images that resonate.
Seek always to make work that you are passionate about. Never try to second-guess what jurors or editors or curators might be looking for when you are making or submitting new work. Your own heartfelt conviction will be your best guide!
If you work in series—as I do—make sure there is a cohesive thread through all your images. And if you do have a particular photograph that encapsulates the essence of your series, use it as the cover image. Above all, do not be wary of obsession—obsession is a good companion for any artist.
My most important recommendation for portrait photographers is this: put your camera down. In terms of professional advice, I would say that it’s important to be brave and meet people.
Try to understand how to represent a person (or an entire community) by studying their characteristics and most intimate traits. A phase of preliminary observation will allow you to reproduce the features of the subject, as well as their personality and culture, in your photographs. The peculiarity of portrait photography lies in its communicative power, which is expressed through the interaction between the creator, subject and observer of the picture.
When I take photographs, I try to get close to the subject, capturing the naturalness of a glance or the expressiveness of a gesture in order to bring out its essence. In the case of my “Habibi” project, it was necessary to wait until the subject acquired the right degree of trust and confidence; it was crucial that they feel the need to be photographed. With this approach, I was able to get inside a reality that is complex and often difficult to access. That closeness is essential to a great portrait.
In regards to creative advice, if you have a project in mind, stick to your vision. It can feel daunting—particularly if people are offering time or resources for little or no money. But if you know you’re onto something, digging your heels in can be worth it!
In regards to career, you never know who your next client will be, so it pays to be receptive and open to everyone you meet. There’s a tremendous entrepreneurial attitude among creatives these days. It’s very reciprocal and inspiring and is definitely worth tuning into.
I have learned to work slowly and take my time. I believe that a portrait can be an exchange of understanding, an intimate moment between the photographer and sitter. It is hard to explain, but the sitter can show something deep in themselves to the photographer. I photograph people and stories that I can connect to emotionally and spiritually. I have to have some type of connection, otherwise the images will just be bland and boring. The emotional side is paramount.
As a photographer, I think if you take images of people and stories that interest you, that passion will be visible in the work. Don’t photograph what you feel you should, what you think will get you into magazines or win you awards. I photograph what I WANT to photograph, whether it is totally out of left field and random, or whether it is currently newsworthy. Oh, and buy a 50mm lens!
When you approach a subject to take their portrait, do not break eye contact. Let them know you are serious about their portrait. This is one lesson I learned from a mentor when I first started photographing. It’s easy to overlook when you’re in the field running from place to place, but I’ve found that it’s important to remember. When you take the time to show your true self to your subject—it’s surprising what they will show you.
Beyond simply making portraits in general, I think it’s critical to identify a thematic group of individuals to photograph. Of course, we can appreciate effective portraits of any people in any context, but identifying a specific cross-section of a culture as a subject for your portrait series allows for secondary and tertiary narratives to emerge. Those narratives help anchor each portrait within a cultural context and offer a kind of resonance.
Ultimately, I think it’s a good idea to present an emphatic personal style throughout your portfolio. This gives art directors the confidence to work with you, as they know what to expect from your work and know you can pull it off.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about portrait photography and creating a compelling portrait. First, I try to remember to be an actor myself. The first challenge every portrait photographer faces is to break the superficial wall between them and their subject. What works best for me is to “act” in my head as if I were their best friend, mother, daughter or lover, regardless of sex…People open up when they are heard and seen. This becomes especially important when there is a language barrier. I try to remember to smile at them in the same way that I smile at the important people in my life.
In some cases, people freeze in front of the camera because they think I’m looking for a perfect smile and they feel inadequate. So I try to convince them that “perfect” equals boring to me. When they know they don’t need to put on a perfect face, they tend to become more expressive and reveal themselves more. When nothing else is working, if they’re still very tense, I often get them to jump and skip with me for a minute so their self-consciousness shifts. This also gives their faces better color, and their shoulders relax, too!
In terms of professional advice, it’s generally tough to survive just on portrait shoots unless you establish yourself in specific, big-bucks markets like baby shoots, CEO portraits, celebrity portraits, etc. Developing skills in other genres will certainly save you when you run out of portrait jobs, but it will also sharpen your portrait skills: for example, skills you develop while shooting news stories will help you look for spontaneous moments in pre-planned, studio-lit portrait sessions.
Editors’ Note: The 9th annual LensCulture Portrait Awards are now open for entries! Enter now for a chance to get your work in front of editors from TIME, National Geographic, WIRED, Le Monde’s M Magazine, FOAM and the rest of the world-class jury. There are also a host of other great awards. You can find out more about the competition on its Call for Entries.