3 Ways to Get More Personal & Better Portraits

Do you want to get a little closer to a subject that you think would make a really good portrait?  And then, that little voice creeped in, giving you doubts.  Maybe it said, “You don’t know this person and what if they get angry?” Or maybe that voice said, “You don’t know their culture and what if you impose your hobby on their life?”

Well, you are not alone.

And actually you are thinking of the right questions.  But how you respond to these questions and the little voice inside your head is the difference between being a happy photographer with photos you can be proud of, or being a timid photographer that recalls missed opportunities.  Oh, and by the way, the answer to getting closer is not by buying a longer focal length lens.  The longest focal length presented in the photos below will be 70mm.

But again, let’s be clear, we all have an inner voice that gives us doubt!  And we all have a conscious that wants us to be culturally sensitive, a polite observer and respect the privacy of others.  So, where all these conflicting ideas and feelings come to a cross roads will determine the end result of a photo.  Should you sacrifice your interest for the chance that maybe, just maybe someone might not be happy with your photo of them?  Or should your trepidation over cultural differences prevent you from enjoying your moment?  Personally, I think not, and that is not based on my personal opinion, but my years of experience.

Look at your subject as a person first and then a photo opportunity second.

001 24mm
A focal length of 24mm, this young girl at a historical Civil War Reenactment in Pennsylvania walked to me after I just sat near her camp for a few minutes. Being patient helps other become comfortable with you.

So let’s look at how to get close.  And this will require courage on your part.  So give it a try and I think you will be surprised with how willing others are to be part of your enthusiasm.

  • Show your positive attitude and character.  Be open as a photographer and you will see that this is the first sign of mutual awareness and trust.  If you try to clandestinely take a sneaky photo, you are more likely to get a negative response.  Would you like someone to take secret photos of you?  Most likely not. So, don’t try to take sly photos of them.  Let them see your camera.  Slow down and wait for the opportunity when they go back to their normal behavior.  Then shoot!

better portraits

With a focal length of 16 mm, I was not more than a half a meter from this couple.  As you can see they were very inquisitive and not shy at all in an old Russian railway village in present day NE China.

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  • Look at your subject as a person first and then a photo opportunity second. Be patient! Approach them with your lens cap on first.  If you can’t speak their language, no problem, use common hand gestures to suggest you like their beard, their eyes, or their hat and do it with eye contact and a smile.  This helps create a relationship between you and them.  Then, take you’re your camera out.  You will definitely see their willingness or hesitation.  But even if they are hesitant keep on with your communication, don’t let their shyness impede you.

003 70mm

The focal length was 70mm (the longest of all the featured photos)  It again required to me to interact with the young boy holding his goats in Rajasthan, India.

  • Get in the action yourself. If you see a person who you think would make a great subject or a group of people doing something interesting.  Ask them if you can have a picture with  Give someone your camera on some basic settings (not fully manual) and take a picture with the person.  Then get your camera back and you have already broken the close proximity barrier.  You are free to get right in their face and snap a couple.

004 32mm

With a focal length of 32mm, I was quite close to the Grandmother and Grandfather from Rajasthan, India.  I took this picture only after taking a photo with their grandson.)

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Whether it has been in a photo lecture that I have given or in a comment online from a publication I had written, the question of how do you get close to your subjects is a common one.  So, again you are not alone in thinking this.  Some have more courage than others, but much of that courage has been a learned experience.  Step out of your comfort zone, and into a potentially positive experience for both as the photographer and they as the subject (by which I mean a human that you first recognize as a person with dignity and value).  With practice you will learn how to get closer to the subject and more importantly how to interact with the subject.  These interactions are what help create context in a portrait and make it more than just a moment in time.  Go for it, step by step… closer and closer… and soon you will see that a camera can actually attract the subject and you don’t need to chase after it.

Please let us know what has worked for you!  How did you approach a person or a group of people?  Share your ideas and let other photographers know what makes you more approachable.  Just click comment below!