Directing portraits

For years, I’ve been taking photographs of landscapes, some more, some less good.  But portraits are a relatively new thing for me.

By portraits, I don’t mean family snapshots and the like, but deliberate posing, lighting and framing of an individual in order to communicate something.  My family mostly don’t want to be photographed (my teenage son recently decided he wants to charge me for photographing him!), and so being able to photograph someone who wants to be photographed is something of a revelation.



Stephanie, who features prominently on my website at the moment, is an ex-ballet dancer and was very happy to be photographed: she even offered to model for me.  I’m sure the experience of showing great vulnerability on stage to an audience plays a substantial role in this extrovert attitude.  So far, we’ve had two portrait sessions together.  In each session I had plans for how I wanted her to pose, and she also had some ideas about how she wanted to be photographed.  In our first session together, I was so taken aback that I had someone in front of the lens who wanted to be photographed, that I mostly forgot about my plans!  The second time I injected more of my own ideas into the session, but – through no fault of Stephanie’s – I found this quite hard.

What I found hard was simply being directive enough – I felt I was always being too tentative in asking her to pose in certain ways: ‘perhaps… erm… you could try maybe lifting your arm… just a little bit, please?’ – a bit of a caricature, but there is truth in it!  She told me several times, ‘just tell me what you want me to do!’



I took a number of images of another friend, Simon (these are not on my website).  He wanted a classical portrait he could use online to accompany his writings, and directing him for that purpose was relatively straightforward.  However, in some ways, photographing Jane was similar to photographing Stephanie.  Jane is an old friend I met for a meal; afterwards I asked if I could photograph her, thinking from the outset that these would end up as black and white images.  Although it was early afternoon and the light was pretty harsh, I sat her on a bench in the shade – all things considered, I think the photographs are ok.  Jane also has a dance background and was also happy to be directed, but I still found it difficult to be as directive as I perhaps could have been, and she perhaps would have been happy for me to be.

Aside from the technical and visionary skills needed for portraiture, I’m realising more and more that what I perhaps need is greater assertiveness in directing my models.  Most people who know me wouldn’t say I particularly lack assertiveness in what I say and do (that’s a gentle way of saying that I know I can be quite bossy!), and so it’s a bit of a surprise that I seem to struggle so much with it when it comes to portraits.  I can see that there’s possibly a gender issue for me here (although I think photographing Simon was more straightforward because it was very clear what we were after), but I suspect it’s more about getting used to the idea that there really are people out there who want to be photographed!

I’m soon to be photographing another woman friend, both indoors and outdoors (I hope – if the weather plays along).  I’ll report back on how I get on once that photoshoot has happened…

PS the way I photograph landscapes involves a different kind of combination of patience and assertiveness – I’ll write about that at some point soon too!