Exposed! :: Passion in Portraits ::

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Cheryl's technical photo skills had progressed well but she was still producing passionless portraits. She was tweaking her portrait skills using me as a model during our one-on-one custom photo course. In this edition of 'Exposed!' we learn to add passion to portraits. And the good news is it has nothing to do with your camera!

We reviewed some of Cheryl's portraits from the session. Her lighting was good. The composition was well chosen. However, there was no sparkle, no fun, no pizzazz. I looked at my veteran student and groaned. I praised her many technical successes and I started to talk about adding the passion.

The Fatal Trap

Many of my Natural Light Portraits students fall into the same trap. They are so stressed about getting the right light, location and composition that they forget they are working with a living, breathing, emotional creature. Their photos often mimic a lifeless boulder in a desert landscape.

The Escape

It is important to deal with the technical settings of your camera first. Figure out the f-stops, composition and focus, but remember you have an important person in front of you. Tell them what is going on: "I'm just setting up - I'll be with you in a moment."

Once your camera decisions are made it is time to forget about the camera and give all your attention to the face in front of you. It is your job to squeeze the joy, tears and furrowed brows from your subject.

The Results

"Cheryl," I begged, "what do you know about me?" She looked puzzled. I continued: "You've taken my photo courses - what makes me smile?"

Bing. The light went on. "Tigger!" she yelped. "Tell me about your dog - where did you get her?" She knew I was a big softy when it came to my dear old dog. I burst with stories about Tigger and, with her camera already set, she started clicking - egging me on with simple questions. Ten minutes later I had tears in my eyes and Cheryl had some fabulous portraits of me - with expressions only I could produce.

Tough subjects

Cheryl had it easy - she knew me reasonably well from previous courses. What if you do not know your subject? It is your job to find some emotion and find it fast! Your people skills are critical!

Fellow photographer Colin Rowe recently photographed my Mum for a project he is working on. They had never met and he needed a smile - quickly. Within minutes of shooting, Colin had his shot of my beaming mother. He simply asked if she was hoping for grandchildren "... from Harry." A good gamble that paid off with instant smiles!

A genuine smile.

Passion in portraits!

Pro Perspective

Portrait clients are often critical of how they look. You're under pressure - not just for technical excellence but for style and subjective nuances of emotion. I recently did a business portrait, at left, for a man in my studio. His request was for a clean and professional look. The equipment was set and we talked about his passions - family, skiing - when his wife and children walked into the studio. I asked if his kids could "make Papa smile." The rest was easy - It was a very fun and easy portrait. My job as a portrait photographer has as much to do with producing smiles as producing excellent photo files.


Leave your camera at home. Take someone for coffee. Do your best to create the joy, tears and furrowed brows from the face in front of you. With practice you will master the art of producing passion on demand while working with your camera.

Final Frame

Cheryl discovered passion in her portraits. My Mum loves Cheryl's photo. Now she's just hoping for the grandkids.

Take photos. Have fun!
Remember to check my photoblog!


Samples of our work

Natural Light Portraits
Photo Workshop

Creative Fundamentals
Photo Workshop
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