Focused Insight Blog

Story Telling Behind the Protrait

Story Telling Behind the Portrait

How to Capture the Story of Your Subject

February, 24th 2023

With portrait photography, drawing out a story or a narrative is so important. Otherwise, it’s just a picture without the depth. Here are a few tips you can use immediately to begin capturing amazing shots time and time again.

Here we go!

Connect with the Subject.

One of the most important things a photographer can do is to connect with their subject on a personal level. Get to know the person and try to understand their story in depth. 

Building a good connection can help you capture more authentic and emotive images. In the process, I try to get a sense of what is important for the people I work with and photograph. What moves them, what kind of background they have and how I can capture them as authentically as possible. It is very important to discuss the ideas and concepts together and to create incredible images.

In this blog, I’m showcasing the collaboration with my good friend, Olga Muse, a Russian traveling model. I already had a good connection and back story with her, but still took the opportunity to connect further for this shoot. Here is a link to one of her instagram accounts.

Since everyone is different and we all have our own way, collaboration becomes very interesting. You’ll get to know all sorts of people from different countries and cultures, often spending several hours together. With some, it remains a meeting and with others you have the ability to develop an acquaintance that goes beyond the collaboration. This not only leads to nicer shots, but personally, I am very grateful and appreciative of a new friendship. As you are as well, I’m sure. I could be wrong, some people don’t like friends…

This has led me to building up a network that goes far beyond my country’s borders. Which is fantastic to be well connected in the industry because as a photographer, that’s how we land more gigs…

Anyway, with getting to know your subject, I think of it similarly to musicians. Great bands don’t just get together and play. The best music comes from their understanding and friendship with each other away from music. They connect on that other level so when they play together, the creation is better than just the sum of the parts. 

With this better understanding of your subject, you’ll combine to create portraits that are better than just the parts involved.

Use Composition and Framing.

Tell the story together as a team. For example, including context and environmental elements in the background can help set the scene and convey the subject’s story.

On my last hike to this location, I was thinking of shooting with a person around this lake. It’s just such a spectacular place that I have loved for a very long time. So, I knew I wanted to collaborate here at some point. One year later at the end of July, Olga was visiting me for the weekend. The weather was perfect and the inspiration was there to travel back to Lake Oeschinen again and capture some pictures.

Olga’s story could be captured in a multitude of ways, but we really liked the casual hiker and lake swimmer’s direction. A woman who enjoys and has a deep appreciation for the outdoors. Who loves to bask in the beauty of the environment and take it all in.

This is something that we have in common as I too love to be out in nature and soaking in the breathtaking beauty of the land.

Capture Emotion and Expression.

Emotion and expression can tell a powerful story in photography. Try to capture genuine emotions and expressions in your images.

Simply put, the poses and facial expressions. You can see with these shots, Olga is posing in a way some may call provocative. But, not how most would deem provocative. More so in a way of being present and enjoying the surroundings. Releasing thoughts of the future and the past and just being right here, right now.

As if she’s saying thank you to the beautiful place, being rejuvenated and embracing the feelings of peace. Reconnecting with her inner self in an unapologetic manner. We can go further into depth on this, but I feel like you understand…

Aim to draw out that unapologetic-ness with your subject. For them to feel confident, self assured and in ‘character’ for the story you’re telling.

Yes, this is very much acting. Or, perhaps not… Maybe it’s just showcasing how they really are without a mask. That will depend on what you both are trying to accomplish.

Be Patient.

Sometimes, the best way to capture a subject’s story is to simply wait and observe. Take time to watch and wait for moments that tell a story.

After talking about what you want to achieve, give your subject space to get into character. Many times at first, especially with those who are not seasoned models, it may take a little while for them to ‘get into character’. Or get to a place of radiating confidence where their looks, poses and attitude are locked in with how you guys want the shots to be portrayed.

Some subtle nudges in the right direction is always helpful, however, if you are in their ear too much… We all know where that goes… Could be hard for them to truly feel free and confident. Which leads to either a long day and/or no shots that really encompass what you two were aiming for.

Use Lighting and Color to Set the Mood.

This can also help convey the atmosphere of a scene. Experiment with different lighting techniques and color schemes to create the desired effect.

Personally, I mostly just use natural light as I prefer to shoot outside in a more natural setting. Because of this, the shoot may not go exactly according to plan, but that’s the fun of it! Here’s what I like about natural light and why I recommend it…

It’s readily available, which makes it an attractive option for me particularly because I like hiking to spots. So, not having a lot to carry is fantastic.

It’s very versatile, but constantly changing, which can provide a wide range of creative possibilities. For example, you can use the soft, diffused light of a cloudy day to capture moody, dramatic images, or you can use the warm, golden sunset to create romantic, dreamy shots.

It’s also… well, natural. So, it tends to produce images that feel more authentic and true-to-life than images produced with artificial lighting. This can be especially important for those who specialize in capturing candid moments or documentary-style photography. Which is where I like to be.

Of course, there are also some potential downsides to using natural light, such as the fact that it can be unpredictable and may require you to adjust your settings frequently as the light changes. However, I feel that the benefits of using natural light outweigh the drawbacks. Maybe you do or will as well! 

If you do choose to go with artificial light or just want to know the options and how to use it, here are a few examples…

Obviously, there’s flash. Flash can produce a strong, directional light that can help to highlight certain parts of an image or create dramatic shadows. However, flash can also create a harsh, artificial look, and it can be difficult to control the direction and intensity of the light.

Then, there’s continuous lighting. Continuous lighting refers to any type of lighting that stays on continuously, rather than flashing on and off like a camera flash. Continuous lighting can be produced by a variety of sources, such as studio lights or even household lamps. Continuous lighting can provide a soft, even light that can be easier to control than a camera flash. However, continuous lighting can also produce a yellow or orange cast in images, which may need to be corrected in post-processing.

Reflectors are a super handy tool as well. A reflector is a simple lighting tool that is used to bounce light back onto a subject. Didn’t see that coming, did you… Reflectors can come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and can be made from materials such as white or silver fabric, foam core, or even a car windshield shade. Using a reflector can help to fill in shadows and produce a more even, flattering light on your subject. However, reflectors require another light source to be effective, such as natural light or a separate artificial light.

Lastly, you can use a softbox. A softbox is used to soften and diffuse the light from a light source. Softboxes are typically square or rectangular in shape, and are made from fabric that is designed to scatter the light in all directions. Using a softbox can create a soft, even light that is ideal for portrait photography or other types of photography where you want to minimize harsh shadows. However, softboxes can be expensive, bulky, and may require a separate light stand to support them.

Consider the Story you Want to Tell.

What is the message you want to convey? What emotions or ideas do you want to evoke in the viewer? Being intentional and purposeful with your photography can help you capture a subject’s story in a meaningful way.

As I’ve said, this is very important. It’s why you’re doing this in the first place. As a photographer, it’s up to us to be intentional with what we’re trying to accomplish. Create a nice connection, draw out the story, discuss/plan how you guys can bring it to reality, make it happen.

I’m positive that you’ll be able to really craft some incredible shots with these tips. So, start coming up with a few ideas, find a few subjects and see what you can do!

Then make sure to share them with me! I’d love to see how they come out!

Shots taken with Camera Nikon D850, Nikkor AF Lens, and natural light.

I hope you enjoyed the shots, this blog and are inspired to go see this place for yourself!

Below is a link to more pictures and information about this amazing location and model!

Now let’s get out there, and shoot!

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