Portraits: Toward Capturing Moments (Part 2)

In Part 1, we discussed where things went wrong with the conception of portraits. In this Part we'll discuss how photographic portraits can be made better.


With the democratization of photography, we now see images of people all the time. So it's easy to forget just how disruptive and revolutionary the first portraits were. Impressionist painter Max Dauthendey recounted:

We didn't trust ourselves at first to look long at the first pictures [Daguerre] developed. We were abased by the distinctness of these human images, and believed that the little tiny faces in the picture could see us, so powerfully was everyone affected by the unaccustomed clarity and the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerreotypes.

Quoted by Walter Benjamin in A Small History of Photography, at 244.

About the series of photographs taken by David Octavius Hill in 1843, Benjamin observes about the unposed subjects:

Such figures had long been the subjects of painting. Where the painting remained in the possession of a particular family, now and then someone would ask about the person portrayed. But after two or three generations this interest fades; the pictures, if they last, do so only as testimony to the art of the painter. With photography, however, we encounter something new and strange: in Hill's Newhaven fishwife, her eyes cast down in such indolent, seductive modesty, there remains something that goes beyond testimony to the photographer's art, something that cannot be silenced, that fills you with an unruly desire to know what her name was, the woman who was alive there, who even now is still real and will never consent to be wholly absorbed in "art."
* * * Immerse yourself in such a picture long enough and you will realize to what extent opposites touch, here too: the most precise technology can give its products a magical value, such as a painted picture can never again have for us. No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.

A Small History of Photography, at 243.

No matter how inundated we may be with photographic images, the emotional qualities and psychological effect of a photographed portrait remain the same. A photographed portrait is a powerful and lasting thing, and deserves our attention and respect.

And Now

The first step in making better portraits is to redefine the concept of a portrait so that the power of photography may be brought to bear. One definition could be:

A photographic portrait is an image which features a central subject, and provides a narrative to the spectator about the subject's humanity.

With a working definition in hand, we can now improve our approach to making an image which tells a story about our subject. Start with getting rid of those "portrait" lenses. The 85mm lens (or whatever the equivalent focal length applies to your digital sensor) is considered a classic portrait lens. Photographers like that focal length because their subjects like it: at the distance required to use an 85mm, the features of the face flatten out and potential "distortion" of the facial features by the lens is significantly diminished. In other words, people think that they look the same in such a photo as they do in the mirror. That familiarity is reassuring, and their response to the image is more likely to be postitive.

But nothing other than head-shots gets taken with that lens. A portrait requires more than someone's head and shoulders. Apparent distortion of the features is less a function of focal length than it is a function of the subject's pose in most portraits: if the subject is existing in a natural moment, the entirety of the moment becomes important and the single feature of the nose less so. If only the subject's face is in the image, then each facial feature becomes important since that's all there is to look at and there's no context in which to evaluate the subject. Telling a story about the subject requires a wider angle—not a medium telephoto.

A 35mm is a good place to start. It's a wide enough view to add context to the scene so that the spectator can learn more about the subject. When context is added to the image, the individual facial features aren't primary and any apparent distortion is resolved by the additional information in the scene. Moreover, adding context requires some distance from the subject. It's distance—not focal length—that creates distortion, and stepping away from the subject with a wide angle will resolve the issue.

Go wider. (Leica M6 with a 35mm lens.)

Concerns over distortion are misplaced, however. Any two-dimensional medium is distorted and unnatural. The effort to make a photograph "look more real" just eliminates the potential for capturing more interesting moments. It's better to worry less about the technical and more about the content, because if you have an image which captures a genuine moment of your subject's life, no theoretical technical issue will diminish it.

There are no rules for the appropriate context to include in a photographic portrait. Context is particular to each subject and each interaction that subject has with the world. There are, however, some guiding concepts.

First: never pose. 

No posing. Ever. Ever. Posing someone for a photograph is not only insulting to the subject, but it means you're not doing your job as a photographer. People are plenty interesting as they are. The most interesting aspects of people are revealed in what they do and how they look when they're engaged in something meaningful to them.

If you are observing and prepared, there's no need to pose. (Fuji 35mm lens. You can get close with a wide angle.)

Posing someone for a picture removes all the humanity and strips the person down to a mere superficial object exhibiting a mask. It's basically saying that you find nothing possibly interesting visually about them. That's about as insulting as it can get. And this is the reason why even professional photographs of models have no emotion in them.

Genuine-looking moments come from genuine moments. They can never be created in a pose.

One of the more destructive aspects of posing is the subject's awareness of, and interaction with, the photographer. This awareness sets into motion a complex set of thoughts in the subject which interfere with the capturing of a genuine moment. Roland Barthes described the complexity of any posed portrait, and the damage to the subject done by the subject's awareness:

The portrait-photograph is a closed field of forces. Four image repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares). In terms of image-repertoire, the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter. The Photographer knows this very well, and himself fears (if only for commercial reasons) this death which his gesture will embalm me. Nothing would be funnier (if one were not its passive victim, its plastron, as Sade would say) than the photographers' contortions to produce effects that are "lifelike": wretched notions: they make me pose in front of my paintbrushes, they take me outdoors (more "alive" than indoors), put me in front of a staircase because a group of children is playing behind me, they notice a bench and immediately (what a windfall!) make me sit down on it. 

Camera Lucida, at 13-14.

Neither subject nor object. Just moment.

Instead, the goal of a portrait is to capture the subject as he or she exists in a moment. Again, Barthes is insightful:

I imagine (this is all I can do, since I am not a photographer) that the essential gesture of the Operator is to surprise something or someone (through the little hole of the camera), and that this gesture is therefore perfect when it is performed unbeknownst to the subject being photographed. From this gesture derive all photographs whose principle (or better, whose alibi) is "shock"; for the photographic "shock" (quite different from the punctum) consists less in traumatizing than in revealing what was so well hidden that the actor himself was unaware or unconscious of it.

Camera Lucida, at 32 (emphasis mine).

Real moments always beat contrived ones.


The only necessary step to correcting the atrocious habit of posing is to stop doing it. Simply never ask anyone to pose and do not take a photograph if someone poses. For the people closest around you, such as your family and friends, they will adjust rapidly. The more often you use a camera, the more relaxed they will become. You will start to fade into the background and they will stop caring about what they look like so much. (If you are a parent or a significant other who can assert such control, it also helps to start eliminating bright white and garish patterns as a wardrobe choice. The people you care about will not only look more attractive in the photographs you take, they will also have a better fashion sense.)

Second: be objective. 

One of the greatest challenges in photographing a familiar subject is being able to see it. Our brains are wired to look for differences, and our ability to be objective and observe interesting features diminishes as we become accustomed to a situation or scene. This is the psychological phenomenon of habituation. To remain objective means fighting a lot of highly evolved psychology. Our knowledge, experience, expectations, and values simultaneously interact with all of our senses to create our perception (and interpretation) of the world meaningful in the most efficient manner  (Di Lollo et al., 2000).  In other words, what we visually perceive is not the information available solely through our sense of vision. Instead, our visual system allots neural resources to process only that information which is deemed important or necessary, and those facets are added to with our other senses. (See Sanguinetti, et al., 2013.) The more familiar we are with our surroundings, an object, or people, the more efficient we become in our perception—that is, we do less objective attending and perceiving and rely more on our internal subjective representations of those things. The cost of this efficiency, however, is a loss of the objective seeing which photographers rely upon to capture great moments. When you're trying to make photographs of a close friend, a relative, or a partner, this is a lot to overcome.

There are constant moments for meaningful photographs.

There are simple things you can do, however. Changing your physical orientation is probably the easiest. It's easy to fall into patterns of interaction, but these are just as easy to modify. Stand instead of sitting. Sit on the floor instead of in a chair. Merely changing your perspective will disrupt your perceptive conditioning and reengage your observational skills, even for a subject with which you are very familiar. Also, increase the frequency of your observations during times you are not directly involved in a situation. Watch your partner engage in conversation with someone else, or observe family interactions from a distance. Not directly participating in a scene will help you see proxemic and behavioral patterns to which you've become conditioned.

Staying objective helps you see beyond a familiar subject to the design elements of the environment. 

Committing to objectivity in the long run can be helped by adding more chaos into your life. Actively be passive, allowing others to make decisions about when and where to go, and how to get there. Being in the role of passive observer will free your mind to see afresh. It's the same thing that happens when you stop being a driver and start being a passenger: the road looks entirely different.

Likewise, play what psychologists call the "as if" game. It's simple: when you want to tell how clean your house is, prepare for guests. When you want to take a good look at that new person you're dating, imagine your family's reaction at the first introduction. It's an easy way to shift your perspective, and can be done on demand.

Third: backgrounds matter. A lot. 

Backgrounds always matter in an image, but take on primary importance in a portrait. If you're telling a story about a subject, then everything in the image will be part of that story. Make sure that what you're including is appropriate to the story. If it is, stop that aperture down and make sure the spectator can see it. If it's not important, move around to include things that are, or wait for a better situation to arise. And just as in the case of posing a subject, a photographic portrait should not involve the photographer creating the set. The importance of setting was described by Henri Cartier-Bresson:

If the photographer is to have a chance of achieveing a true relection of a person’s world—which is as much outside him as inside him—it is necessary that the subject of the portrait should be in a situation normal to him. We must respect the atmosphere which surrounds the human being, and integrate into the portrait the individual’s habitat . . . . Above all, the sitter must be made to forget about the camera and the photographer who is handling it. Complicated equipment and light reflectors and various other items of hardware are enough, to my mind, to prevent the biridie from coming out. 

The Mind’s Eye, 30-31.

The right space can have reflections. Literally. (Even wider, with a 21mm.)

Small details can provide context to the spectator, and give the subject a richer experience of having a memento.

Sometimes a background goes beyond the subject's habitat and into his mind. (iPhone 4s.)

Habitat is not merely living space. How and where we spend time is indicative of our personality, and can't be captured with just a head and shoulders.

Fourth: timing counts. 

In non-portrait images of people, their bodies can be design elements. In a portrait, you are choosing a moment of the subject's interaction in space and time to represent a more timeless view of that particular individual. That person's particular style, attitude, and body language thus become very important. Knowing your subject is key to a timeless portrait, and applying proxemics will help you time the shutter.

A genuine moment with meaningful context always beats a posed picture.

Personality isn't just a pretty smile. 

Revealing moments happen all the time, everywhere. 

Fifth: make a series.

Keep in mind that what we are discussing here are intimate portraits of people we know. Therefore, the goal shouldn't be a single photograph, but a series of photographs. No one is so simple that his or her essence will be captured in one image. Instead, observe your subject objectively over a course of time and let the moments add up to tell a larger story. As you look over a series of images of a particular subject, you may be surprised by how many different aspects of his or her personality you are able to capture over a course of time, and how patterns of that subject's personality become apparent.

The examples included in this article represent moments over time, but the some moment can be captured with a series of images, both wide and detailed. The point is to think in a more complex way about the things that matter to your subject so that you can capture them in an appropriate way.

A wide and a tight can give a better context than a single image.

Sixth: bonus tip! 

You can and should be using the most intimate people in your life as subjects. Not only is it great practice for all your photography, but it's wonderful to be able to give the people you care about pictures of themselves which are meaningful. In an environment such as a home, treat it as a big studio. Improve the lighting in rooms (Bright, daylight balanced bulbs not only improve any room, they also make white balance and contrast look far better.) Also, observe the patterns of window and outside light so you know times of day which will be particularly flattering for a photograph, or which will work for compositional ideas you may have.

If you want to take better pictures of the people you care about, start observing them. Be prepared to capture meaningful moments when they occur. Don't be lazy and resort to documenting mere superficiality, and certainly never pose! Respect those you care about and give them the gift of your observation by making timeless photographs that will enter their history.