When photography was developed, one of its obvious first uses was portraits. Turns out that with photography being cheaper, faster and more accurate than sitting for a paining — it seemed like a pretty obvious transition at the time. And as portrait photography became more and more popular, so did the age old question: Is it possible to capture someone’s essence through an image? From Roland Barthes to Susan Sontag — philosophers and photographers from around the world have been trying to get to the bottom of it for a while now.
And although opinions may vary and photographers shoot portraits for different reasons — most agree that the power of portrait photography comes from an intrinsic curiosity and love of people — whether that means attempting to reflect an emotion, capture who someone ‘really is’, or tell a story of human connection. We decided to catch up with a few of our favourite photographers on Unsplash and ask them why they choose to shoot portraits, and what the craft means to them.
For Blake Cheek, portrait photography is all about sharing a person’s individuality and perspective through an image: “Every person stands out in their own way and I have tried my best to share who they are through the photo.”
Jessica Felicio first got into portrait photography in 2010 because, “there’s something about faces and their expressions. It shows life and personality, and people get to be seen by others all over the world because the photograph I’ve taken lasts forever.”
Sandra Seitamaa explains that a pivotal moment in her journey towards becoming a portrait photographer came when she lost her sister and didn’t have any great photos of her. She tells us, “I wish I had photos that captured her energy and her personality. So after that, my portrait photography really started to take shape.”
Johan de Jager started off taking portraits of friends, which naturally progressed into taking more portrait shots whenever he had his camera with him: “I was doing a lot of photography in Johannesburg and started to recognise the diverse cultures and people in the city. Every person is unique so I try to capture each of them in a different way.”
How to start shooting portraits
Blake: Starting out taking portraits of people can be an uncomfortable and awkward task for both the photographer and model. The best way to fix this is by communicating well, being enthusiastic, and giving the model instruction and friendly compliments.
Johan: The best advice is just start. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing. The more you shoot the more you’ll learn. And never be afraid to ask for advice, there’s always something new to learn. I learn something new with every shoot I do. The setting, lighting — it’ll be different with each subject but that’s what makes it fun. In time, you’ll create your own unique style that people will start to recognize.
Sandra: Before you start taking on clients, practice on your friends and family. As often as you can! Ask them for feedback on how they felt when you took their photo. And when you are ready for clients — go for a cup of coffee or a drink, get to know them — especially if it’s a bigger project. And during the shoot, talk to them a lot, joke around — and instead of telling them how to pose, show them! Be yourself! So in my case — I goof around a lot. That makes both you and your client more comfortable.
Jessica: As a photographer, forget about the scary part of it. It’s your photoshoot and you are in control! The person is there because you are taking a picture of them! Just stay calm, have a conversation with them, get to know the model a little bit, and go then just go for it.
The key to a powerful portrait
Johan: For me it’s all about the eyes, you can tell a lot about a person by looking into their eyes. Composition and tones is also very important to me. I like to create a ‘moody’ setting and to leave the viewer with a sense of mystery about my subject.
Sandra: To me, it’s less about how technical the photo is and more about capturing the imperfect, the emotion and the candid. Don’t be afraid to break the rules!
Jessica: As a photographer you have to make sure that you make the model feels like they can trust you. You need to make them feel amazing about themselves. And also lighting! You need to know what lighting looks good with what complexion.
Favourite trends within portrait photography
Sandra: I’ve always been inspired by film photography and a moody edit. However, as of late I’ve been insanely inspired by the quirky and weird photography as well. A shot upside down? Sure! A shot with a huge plant covering the models face? Heck yeah!
Jessica: Flowers. There’s something about flowers with people.It shows the more vulnerable and natural side of people and makes them more human and beautiful! It’s a trend that I really love.
Blake: I have yet to hop on any trends of portrait photography besides a Brandon Woelfel style, years ago when I first started shooting. It’s fun to implement other artist’s styles into your own photos, but it is quite obvious when you are copying someone. Originality goes a long way.
Johan: I’ve always been a fan of close-up photography so I guess that’s why I enjoy getting up close and personal with my portraits.
On finding inspiration
Blake: My most favorite work has been spontaneous, so it’s hard to replicate something that is far from predictable, but I mostly am inspired by music. I used to listen to music and try to imagine photoshoot ideas, but this creates a forced creativity which a lot of the time ends up boring. Letting the music play and just doing normal tasks has always worked best for me.
Sandra: Someone that has been a big inspiration, even though our photography is very different, is Diane Villadsen. She is the definition of quirkiness! And her edits and pastelly colors.. My oh my. Heavenly. It makes me want to embrace my inner weirdo even more.
Johan: I’m inspired by Instagram, magazines and real-life encounters.
There are so many photographers that inspire me it would be impossible to name them all. But there are some that I’ve been following for a while that’s doing some amazing work:
- Alessio La Ruffa @alessiolr
- Hein Kruger @hein_takes_photos
- Andre Badenhorst @andrebadenhorst
- Willie Engelbrecht @willieengelphoto
- Louw Lemmer @louwlemmer
- Clive Lionel @young_stilo_
Jessica: I find inspiration in my weird dreams and my drawings.
The first photographer who really inspired me to become serious about photography was Annie Leibovitz. I love her attitude and her boldness!
And the photographer who inspired me explore my photoshop skills was Kyle Thompson. I love how he expresses his feelings through photography and how clean and surrealistic his photography is!
It’s no surprise that a quick scroll through the homepage or the People Topic, will leave you feeling inspired about the potential and power of portrait photography. As Sandra puts it, “There are always some photos on Unsplash that makes me feel a certain way and makes my head spin — making me want to create right away.”
But what also becomes clear? The completely different approaches to portrait photography, and the unique perspectives being explored through the craft. So when it comes to going out to shoot — Johan explains, what’s most important is staying true to your subject: “I always try to bring the most out of them. Because at the end of the day, if I can make a person feel good about themselves, I’m happy.”