The Secret to Portrait Photography
My favorite techniques for capturing compelling portraits.
Today, I want to talk about a topic close to my heart: portrait photography. Whether you’re a professional photographer or just starting out, the art of capturing people’s emotions, stories, and personalities is a rewarding and challenging pursuit.
As a conservation photographer, I have had the privilege of capturing portraits of people from all over the world. Through these portraits, I have learned about various cultures, traditions, and ways of life. I have also had the opportunity to help raise awareness for those who live in marginalized communities. I have always considered myself fortunate to be able to work alongside Indigenous peoples and learn about their rich histories and cultural heritage. By capturing their portraits, we can help elevate their voices and keep their traditions alive.
When it comes to portrait photography, lighting is key. Natural light is always the best option as it provides a soft and flattering look. But if you’re shooting indoors, make sure to position your subject near a window or use artificial lighting to enhance the mood and tone of your image. Another important aspect is composition. Pay attention to the background and make sure it doesn’t detract from the subject. You can also use the rule of thirds to help guide your composition and add interest to your image.
Perhaps the most important aspect of portrait photography is to create a sense of connection with your subject. For me, the camera is almost like a semi-permeable membrane that allows a conversation to happen between my subject and the people who view my photographs. I am in the middle, with my camera, serving as an interpreter. Connection can be achieved through eye contact, a shy smile or boisterous laughter, or a simple conversation. The important thing is to engage with your subject to help capture their essence and personality. You never want to assault someone with your camera by disregarding their boundaries as this is disrespectful and unethical. You are here to create art, not draw lines in the sand.
The other side to Lilies— lots of smiles and laughter in the flower patch. No matter where I am in the world, I have always loved getting to know new people and creating art with them.
When it comes to taking portraits of Indigenous people or cultures far outside your own, it’s important not to parachute into a village without invitation and with a colonial mindset. Please, please always remember to practice respect and sensitivity for cultural and personal boundaries. Take the time to get to know the people you will be photographing and be genuinely interested and curious about their culture. Ask for their permission before taking their photo, and be mindful of any cultural taboos or customs that you need to follow.
It’s also important to make sure that you’re not exploiting or appropriating them or their culture. Make sure to represent them in a positive and dignified manner on their terms. The truth of the matter is not everyone you encounter in the world is going to want to have their picture taken, and that's okay. We are all human and deserving of respect. When someone refuses to have their photo taken, don’t take it personally; just smile, thank them, and let them be. Some of my favorite moments in my career have been when I put the camera down and really let myself be in the moment. Those are the memories that stay with you.
Portrait photography is a powerful medium for telling stories and raising awareness. Whether you’re capturing portraits of chieftains in remote communities or your own neighbors, the key is to approach your subjects with respect, sensitivity, and a desire to connect. Remember, the best portraits are those that capture the essence of your subject and evoke emotions in the viewer.
I hope these tips have been helpful and that you’re inspired to capture portraits that tell stories and make a difference.
Wishing you all the best in your photography journey,
Cristina "Mitty" Mittermeier