Psychology of shooting portraits

What makes a good portrait?  The lighting?  The pose?  It has to be the scenery.


It is the eyes.  You are reading this and saying “Duh.”  But, it’s not that simple.  Anyone can ask someone to look at the camera and you will end up with a photo of someone ‘looking at the camera.’  They will likely be void of any emotion.  The subtle upper lid drop and perhaps that rare semi-cracked smile; both will be absent.  The challenge of any good portrait photographer is to hop into the client’s life in under 10 min and stay there for another 45.  They need to trust you, like you, and WANT TO open up their eyes/soul to you.  Otherwise, you are once again left with an average Christmas card headshot.

I approach any portrait session with the lighting and camera being completely useless and un-important for at least the first 1/2 hour.  All of my best shots come in the last 10-15 min of the shoot.  Why?  Because I spend the first 45 min psychologically figuring out who my client is.  I am sure my training as an NP (with psych experience) helps me a great deal.  But, there are no tricks.

I want the client to trust me enough to be photographed and not to just have their picture taken.  There is a difference.

Look at some of the best portraits out there.  Mark Seliger’s work is a good example.  What makes his images memorable?  Why is Kurt Cobain’s portrait burned into my mind?  The eyes.  He was not looking at the lens or camera, he was looking at the photographer.  He was looking at Mark and the lens just happened to be in the way.


I believe this is the secret to a memorable portrait.  Yes, good technique is a must.  But, the eyes are the window to our soul and getting one to open that window for you in under 30 min takes more than good Photoshop skills.  It is mostly psychology and the camera means nothing until one masters the interpersonal skills to unlock those eyes.

Just ‘being there’ with someone is a powerful thing.  Not sitting next to them and chatting.  Being there.  If you don’t know the difference, you will never get the client to look right past that lens and at you.

Below are a few examples of what I consider successful portraits.  I could never, ever, ever, get these shots in the first 10 min.  But, after 45-50 min there was a mutual trust and if you look at these subjects, their eyes say more than anything else. -Chris

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