Someone once said to me that “taking a portrait is 80% personality and 20% skill.” That may sound harsh, but the reality is that the photographer taking the photo makes a huge difference.
So, the one thing that you can do to take better portraits is to actively show an interest in and get to know the person you are photographing. Don’t just ask about their weekend without ever really caring about the answer. Ask them about their work, their friends, their family. I ask these questions and look at their faces to see their different expressions – I can tell the difference between how they smile when you pick up the camera and how they smile when they are truly happy.
To decide my approach for the portrait, I need to put it into context; it’s important for me to know who the person is, and why they want portrait images. That gives me details already about the style of portrait and how I can light it. I often hear people say that they are worried or nervous because they “don’t look good in photos” and they reveal details about their features that they aren’t confident in. Again, this gives me more information on how to light them and what angle to photograph them from.
I use the screen of my Sony α7R III to compose my images. If I use the viewfinder, I have my face pressed against the back of the camera, which creates a barrier between me and the subject. However, by using the screen, the subject can clearly see my face as I talk to them and there is no longer this disconnect between me and my subject. They can see my facial expression, which is so important as human beings are programmed to mirror someone else’s expression. That means that instead of asking somebody to smile, I can say something amusing and start smiling myself, which they react to. This creates a more natural smile, and I can then press the shutter.
Lighting is a key area for my portraits. My subjects may have mentioned a preferred side, or scars and wrinkles that they don’t want shown. However, often I’m actually thinking that they are the things that really give them character and I want to bring out; people’s faces have their own stories to tell.
Because every person is unique, I don’t have a ‘go-to’ setup and keep my lighting as simple as possible. I can use up to six different lights on an image, but some of my favourite portraits are taken with a single light to really focus on the subject’s face and nothing else.
After that, it always comes down to the person I am photographing. Generally, I use the Sony 85mm f/1.4 G Master lens and I tend not to shoot lower than f/2.8 as I don’t need to blur out a background. The lens is incredibly sharp and I’ve got to think about how much I want in focus and how intense I want the connection between the subject’s eyes and the viewer to be. If I’m trying to keep all of the details in a person’s hair, or the outfit that they are wearing, then I will shoot at a smaller aperture, regularly shooting at f/8, f/11 or f/16.
A final technical feature that helps my photography and keeping that connection with the subject is the Eye-AF feature. It gives me the flexibility to move around my subject and know that the camera will focus precisely on the eye each time. I’ve almost got the problem of having too many shots to choose from as they are all so sharp and in focus – it even works when people are wearing glasses. At first, I thought this feature was a bit of a gimmick and that it wouldn’t really work, but I actually use it all the time! As with the other features on the camera, I think it really helps me to capture the best portraits I can.
"There is a moment when taking a portrait that the connection is made and the subject lets you in. That’s the moment you take the shot that documents who they are, whoever they may be"