AF Area Modes
An outstanding portrait starts with the photographer's realization that the portrait session, and the portrait itself, is not about the photographer; it's about the subject.
That key point was delivered to us recently by Karen Kuehn, who's shot environmental portraits for advertising and editorial illustration, and taught portrait photography at the Santa Fe Workshops. Karen is known for her stylish, creative depictions of a subject's character and personality, and her ability to make subjects feel at ease in front of the camera.
The bottom line, Karen says, is "co-creating" the portrait. "That means," she says, "you have to think about your subjects first—who they are, where they are and what they want to do. You ask for their input and cooperation and, really, their partnership. I make my subjects realize that it's all about them, and that I'm there to make their day fabulous."
Karen's specific suggestions fall into three general areas:
PEOPLE: "I'm always thinking about how I can make a picture that tells a story about the subject, a picture that's poetic and artistic...and much more than just a snapshot." So, Karen suggests, when you're thinking about your subject, aim high.
The first thing Karen urges you to decide is whether you're doing a portrait or an illustration. A portrait is a storytelling image about a person; an illustration is a picture in which the person is modeling for the photographer's concept, a concept that might have nothing to do with the person. "It's really important to not make an illustration unless you're out front with the person and say, 'I have this idea and I want to do it.' The exception is if you're playing, if there's a creative moment and you're going with it—but even then, you're always checking in with the subject to see if he's comfortable.
You can't have a big ego about your ideas; remember, it's about the person, not you."
A good way to start out making portraits is to photograph people you know who are genuinely interesting to you. "Ask yourself why you want to photograph this person," Karen says, "and what it is about him that you want to show." She suggests that it won't be difficult to find subjects among friends and family. "Tell them you want to practice taking photographs, and then make it a great experience for them. The end-result, the portrait, isn't the only reward; you both should enjoy the process, the journey to that image."
PLACES: "I like shooting people in their homes, in and around spaces that they feel connected to and are comfortable in. I always ask my subjects for a couple of choices of places that mean something to them."
Once you've got the place, think about the time you'll spend there and how you'll use it. "You need to know how much time you'll have," Karen says, "and you need to work within the subject's preferences and needs. How many setups and variations will you be able to do? How many tight shots, full body shots, storytelling images?"
Thinking in terms of three basic kinds of shots can help you take control of the possibilities of the shoot. First, the establishing shot that sets the scene by indicating the surroundings and the décor. Then you begin to tell the story with medium shots and close-ups.
Co-creating the portrait means you have to think about your subjects first—who they are, where they are and what they want to do. You ask for their input and cooperation and, really, their partnership. I make my subjects realize that it's all about them, and that I'm there to make their day fabulous.
While you should start off letting your subjects do what they choose to do, as your rapport with the subject grows and trust develops, you can suggest locations, props, even positions. And remember to change your position as well. Karen often starts with her camera on a tripod, then goes hand-held for the rest of the session.
"I can walk into a home, a studio, the person's space and find something there that's very natural and authentic to that person," Karen says. That kind of confidence comes from experience, of course, but it also comes from preparation—which includes talking to the subject ahead of time "so there are no surprises, only creative possibilities." And it comes from complete familiarity with your gear. "You have to be a confident shooter," Karen says. "You have to know you can make [the portrait session] work when you don't really control what the subject does."
Bottom line: know your equipment so well that you don't have to think about it. "You can't be spending a lot of time figuring out your gear," she says. "You need to be relaxed in order for the person to be relaxed. Your attitude should be, 'I'm going to do a great job today; I'm going to make a person feel good and look good.'"
THINGS: "The personal aspect is so important, so let them pick out their clothes, the personal items that are meaningful to them. It's part of letting them be who they are. I need my subjects to feel comfortable—and they need to be confident, too. I've gone with subjects when they get manicures, and we've laughed ourselves into the photo shoot and gotten more creative and had more fun." It's always a good idea to take any opportunity to build up pre-shoot camaraderie—and if you're shooting a family member or a friend, you're already ahead of the game in that area.
"Be observant," Karen says. "Check everything out. Are there threads on a shirt or jacket? Is anything wrinkled, anything out of place in the background? Sometimes that's just fine, sometimes it's not. There's nothing wrong with imagining that you're shooting for Vanity Fair. Set a high bar."
To these guidelines add the spontaneity factor. "Assume anything you want about the person and his interests," Karen says, "but be ready to switch gears in an instant." For example, the third image accompanying this story. When Karen found out that one of the models at her Santa Fe workshop had extraordinary gymnastic ability, she wasn't about to pass up a chance to make an unusual, and striking, image.
"I've shot artists, performers, businessmen and the kids next door," Karen says, "and it's always about being open and not bringing expectations to the shoot; it's about bringing thoughtfulness."
So if an unexpected opportunity turns up, get the shot. There's also a benefit to seeking out the unexpected and the unfamiliar. "It's good to photograph people you don't know that well," Karen says. "It's good to get experience thinking on your feet, sizing things up quickly and working professionally."
The really successful portrait pays off for both participants. "You'll satisfy yourself because you've made somebody feel really good," Karen says. "it's a feel-good sport, photography."