9 tips for Portraits: Capturing the abiding beauty of the human spirit

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” Oscar Wilde

Hey folks,

How are you? I hope things are good and life is flourishing for you in many ways.

As you can probably tell, I am not a big portrait photographer. I rarely seek people out when I am out shooting, and I don’t have an urge to always be looking for people to capture.

I was thinking about this a lot recently when I was shooting in Vietnam.

And I think partly it comes down to – I am chasing light and that’s my subject, so that is always my focus. If a person is in great light, great; if it’s a tree, also great.

But mostly – it’s about what I prefer to do as a photographer, and as a human. My way is usually that I prefer to engage with the people I am shooting.

I want to make a connection.

I also want to try and give them something if I can – not just take their photo and leave.

I don’t always do that. I have taken plenty of ‘anonymous portraits’ but for the most part I want there to be an interaction, I want to chat, hear their story, see who they are and share time with people who I am going to shoot.

To me that feels good, it feels nourishing to both me and the subject – it feels a more generous way to shoot.

Because it may not feel like it but capturing someone’s photo, freezing them in that moment, is a big deal.

It’s a photo that will always be there for them – maybe online shared amongst many, or quietly stored on your computer.

It’s an exchange of energy and I want it to be positive for them too.

What I also love is to have a story about my photos. They are not always stories I tell, but I have endless stories of the people I’ve met on my wanderings, and the chats we’ve had, the places I’ve been taken too, the things I have discovered about the world around me.

This makes my photo wanderings so much more fun and interesting – it makes my experiences of the world richer and deeper.

In Vietnam, because people were so generous with themselves I felt particularly acutely that I wanted to connect and shoot, not just shoot.

People were always going out of their way to help us, to talk to us, to give us their attention.

It was rarely for anything in return. It was joyful and curious and fun.

I caused much entertainment on my travels around Ha Giang with my dreadlocks. Women were constantly grabbing my hair from behind and pulling it. Laughing and disbelieving that it was real hair.

I want to soak up the amazing abiding beauty of the human spirit, especially in places that are so warm and open. And I don’t want to destroy that by constantly shoving a camera in people’s faces and then walking away without connecting with them.

We are all toiling away in our worlds with our joys and sorrows, pains and pleasures.

We all are worthy of attention and connection and respect.

However much we think we are alone, or that humanity is more cruel than kind, more destructive than creative – go out and explore. Talk to people and take photos. Wherever I have found myself – in East London on a freezing dawn morning, or in the hard streets of Havana, or the busyness of Venice on a spring afternoon or a lazy summer’s morning in Provence – there are always people ready and willing to talk, to be seen and to connect.

And when I get out of my daily routine I always end up feeling deeply inspired. I end up remembering that the human spirit is strong and vital, mostly kind and generous, mostly good.

Photography is one of the easiest ways to connect with the world around us, to experience people outside of our own little worlds, and discover for ourselves the myriad of stories and people out there ready and willing to share their lives with you.

Here are some tips about capturing people from my recent wanderings in Vietnam.

Talk to people 

The first most important idea. Talk to people, not just to take photos but to connect and find out – what is it to be you? What can I learn from you? What can I share?

“Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” Susan Sontag

Tell your subject’s story – of their passions, their interests, their life

In Hanoi one morning we ventured down to Banana Island. We noticed a guy swimming and got chatting to him. He was a local photographer and gallery owner who was exercising and doing his daily meditation and breathing. He allowed us to shoot his regime and I loved his openness.

A few days later we bumped into him again, outside his gallery. He was playing his guitar (a true Renaissance man) and he showed us his incredible photography.

These are the experiences that I want to have when I am out shooting people.

Have fun 

People respond to positive energy. Photography is supposed to be fun, right? Connect with what makes you passionate and then go and shoot it!

Get close & connect

The biggest barrier we face in photography – particularly with shooting people – is our own fears. When shooting many of us are afraid to get too close, to impose, to look weird etc.

You need to learn to break down your fears around people so that you can get close and create that kind of connection that brings beautiful, interesting and fascinating expressions bursting forth from your subject.

It’s always good to try and remove your attention from yourself, and how you are feeling, and concentrate instead on your subject and how they might be feeling.

“The quieter we become, the more we can hear.” Rumi

Get quiet and see how you can make them more comfortable.

The easiest way to create the comfortableness for connection is to talk to the subject, or smile if you don’t share a language.

And once you get comfortable, shoot and keep shooting. People will relax and start to share more of themselves when they are feeling your confidence and comfort.

Shoot a lot of pictures so your subject relaxes – and you can relax and get into the flow of the creative energy.

Don’t chimp while you’re shooting!

Because this totally breaks our concentration!

Don’t look at what you’ve captured right then and there as it takes you out of the flow. If there is one thing we all need more of, it is to be in that amazing creative flow energy.

Taking photos isn’t a process of ticking boxes. It’s a strange, mystical, amazing creation that draws on all of your senses, all of your experiences and passions, your imagination and your desires.

It’s a mood. It’s an energy.

Editing and analysing photos comes from the other side of your brain, that analytical practical part. So if you can – save the analysis for later! Pretend you’re shooting with a film camera!

Keep an eye on your background when you’re shooting portraits. Too many people lose their subject with a busy background. I am always on the lookout for clean, simple and striking backgrounds.

Capturing the moments of life 

As I said earlier I don’t always connect with people when I am shooting. But I always aim to shoot people in a respectful way – I am not one for embarrassing people or making odd photos of them.

Each click is a representation of who is before you – it’s a responsibility.

To me this photo says – dedication and hard work:

Calm, peace…tiredness?

Elliott Erwitt talks about capturing the human comedy – and I think we all notice different things around us. For some people it’s drama & conflict, or it could be chaos, love, friendship, joy. Consider what you notice, what draws you about the human condition.

It’s still all about the light…!

When there is pretty light, I am always looking for things IN that pretty light to photograph – and people can be especially interesting.

This was a perfect moment of a beautiful smile in a lovely burst of light.

Focus on the eyes – eyes will tell you everything

Eyes are your secret weapon with photography. Eyes reveal so much about what that person is thinking and feeling.

Practice by looking at the eyes of your subjects and trying to decipher their feelings!

Keep going

It took me a long time to overcome my fear of shooting strangers, and occasionally I still experience the fear. But you won’t get past the fear unless you keep shooting.

And if you really struggle just start by shooting around your potential subjects. Get used to being out on the street with your camera shooting window frames or buildings or funny street signs.

Gradually you’ll get comfortable doing that, and then you can slowly start with shooting people themselves.

So those are some thoughts that I hope will be useful for you when you’re out shooting people.

I’d love to know what you think in the comments below.

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Have an awesome day – happy photographing, and as always hit reply if you have any questions.

Always good to hear from you.

Anthony and Diana