Saturday, August 8, 2009

Secrets for shooting portraits of women

Someone asked me this week what my secrets are for getting good portraits of women. I had to laugh. Many portrait photographers claim to have "secrets" for drawing out the best in a woman. I think that's a bunch of bunk. I'll admit that on rare occasions I have resorted to telling a dirty joke or or deliberately shocking or angering someone in order to get an expression out of them, but if you understand some very basic things about people, you can produce compelling portraits with just about any willing subject without resorting to tricks. However I guess to I have to convince you I'm imparting some special knowledge in order to make it worth your time to read this, so let's say I'm going to give away my secrets. Most how-to books on portrait photography will tell you that a good portrait must “capture the subject’s personality.” I understand the point they’re making, but I’ve always thought that was a bit trite. No one’s personality is simplistic enough to just "capture," and certainly not a woman's personality (they are bafflingly complex creatures!). I do think a good portrait should reveal something about the person being photographed, but I guarantee that saying "OK, now show me your personality and I'll shoot it" will not produce an appealing portrait. The things that make a compelling portrait of a woman are the subtleties in their personality - the things that are there but that they rarely show - and the possibilities in their personality - who they could be if they let their guard down or let their fantasies go. Compelling photographs of women are about connecting with the woman most people don't get to see. Most of them are simple common sense, but if you must have my secrets, here they are: Secret #1: When women feel you're genuinely interested in them as a person, they relax and let their guard down. I'm an introvert and a geek. I don't tell jokes well, if I remember them at all. I'm usually the quiet guy on the sidelines at any social event. My political and social views tend to be controversial with more people than not. I'm definitely not a great conversationalist with people I don't know well. I'm not good looking, and I'm about as adept at flirting as Yoda. However when someone is in front of my camera, I do have an honest interest in getting to know something about how they see themselves and what type of imagery appeals to them, and that's enough to make most women feel comfortable and relaxed without feeling threatened. When they feel that you're interested in getting to know something about them then they can smile, converse with you with interest, and laugh openly, and all you have to do is get the shot. Secret # 2. Once you get them to relax, they will reveal their beauty when you ask them to. It may sound deceptively simple, but once a woman feels comfortable with you, you can coach her into the pose you want then ask her to just look beautiful and she will. Some people might argue that physical beauty is not part of someone's personality, and maybe that's true, but there's no denying that the beauty of a woman captured in an image will stir emotions in just about anyone, male or female, who views that image. And rest assured, there is beauty in every woman. If you're like most people who've been conditioned to the Barbie stereotype it may be harder to see in some than in others, but I would argue that if you can't see the beauty in a woman then you shouldn't be photographing her. Of course, in some women the beauty is so apparent that it's impossible not to capture. Secret #3: If you connect with the eyes, little else matters. Human beings connect with one another through their eyes, and the simplest way to create a compelling portrait is to focus on the eyes. It really doesn't matter what else is in the image as long as it builds an interesting compositional setting around the eyes and the subject makes eye contact with the lens. Secret #4: Women absorb the atmosphere you place them in. Use soft or dramatic lighting, along with simple props, to build an atmosphere around the subject. With a little coaching on pose and body language, you'll be surprised how well any woman blends with the atmosphere you've created. Secret #5: Every woman has a shy side, and it's always beautiful. It's hidden more deeply in some women than in others, and trying to force it out is usually not productive. Simply asking for a shy look sometimes works, but if not then an honest compliment on their looks will usually bring it out. Just remember, while every woman likes to be told they're beautiful, most don't like cheap "compliments" that ring hollow. If that's all you're able to muster, just skip the shy look. Secret 6: Most women have a sensual or seductive side that is flattering if captured well. If you can get a woman to openly reveal her sensual or seductive side you'll almost certainly get a great portrait, but trying to force it is a recipe for disaster. You absolutely must stay mindful of the difference between a sensual portrait and erotica because if you're aiming for erotica and she's posing for a portrait you're likely to end up producing cheap porn. While cheap porn has it's place, it's very rarely a good substitute for a compelling portrait.

So there you go. Now you know all my secrets for making portraits of women. Just don't use them to steal all my business because I still have to pay the studio rent.


  1. There are a few here I hadn't seen... very beautiful as always, I now have additions to my list of 'favorites'!!!
    Very beautiful, as always...

  2. Wow. I can't believe I made the blog cut =)

    You are excellent at evoking the better side of your models.

    It was a pleasure working with you- and the one you selected of me is one of my absolute favorites from the whole shoot.


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