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Visual Storytelling in Portraiture

If you feel that your portraits lack the “wow” factor or that your viewers don’t feel the excitement you felt while making the image, then you might be just showing a situation rather than telling a story. Showing something that happened might do the job for a news photographer. But for the rest of us, this usually makes for dull, boring images. Today’s viewers are bombarded with visuals every day – they want more than just pure documentation of a person that you saw. They want an experience, they want you to tell them a story.

Visual Storytelling Portraiture #1
Canon EOS 5D Mark III @ 70mm, ISO 320, 1/1000, f/4.0

Step 1: Learn to Listen

A great portrait is not taken, it is usually given. I can say that most of my portraits are the outcome of a collaboration between two people. One is in front of the lens and the other, behind it. Before I focus on overcoming the common fear of approaching strangers (Step Two in this article), I would like to highlight the many benefits of creating a portrait with the subject (“subject” – a word I hate) awareness and collaboration. It not only allows you to control the image components such as light and composition, a conversation with the subject often allows you to hear a story that will inspire you to take a great portrait – this is the story of your subject. It is much easier to create a storytelling portrait after hearing the subject’s story, than by just looking at his or her appearance.

Visual Storytelling Portraiture #2
Canon EOS 40D @ 85mm, ISO 100, 1/200, f/2.8
Visual Storytelling Portraiture #3
Canon EOS 5D Mark III @ 70mm, ISO 800, 1/500, f/3.2

Step 2: Overcoming the Fear of Approaching Strangers

For most photography enthusiasts, this is the most complicated issue – approaching strangers. There are so many apprehensions: the fear of being hurt or hurting someone else, and phrases such as “I do not feel comfortable” or “I do not want to intrude his / her privacy” are common in this situation.

Visual Storytelling Portraiture #4
Canon EOS 5D Mark III @ 47mm, ISO 800, 1/200, f/4.0

The inconvenience usually leads us to choose one of two options:

  • Taking the picture from a distance
  • Not taking the picture at all

Many of my students shared that for years they have told themselves stories about how much they like landscape and nature photography, and about how much they dislike portraits, while deep inside, portrait-making attracted them more than any other field of photography.

Visual Storytelling Portraiture #6
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV @ 24mm, ISO 500, 1/1000, f/4.0
Visual Storytelling Portraiture #7
Canon EOS 5D Mark III @ 70mm, ISO 250, 1/200, f/2.8

So how should you take the first step in overcoming this fear? Stop projecting yourself on others. The fact that you do like it so much when your picture is being taken does not mean anything about the person in front of you. You must stop making decisions for the other side, and give him or her a chance to decide for themselves. How? By asking “Sir / Madam, I’m a photo enthusiast, and I’d love to take your picture, and if you would like, I would love to send it over to you by email”. If you are in a foreign country, and language is a barrier, lifting the camera and smiling might do the trick.

Visual Storytelling Portraiture #8
Canon EOS 5D Mark III @ 42mm, ISO 500, 1/3200, f/3.5
Visual Storytelling Portraiture #9
Canon EOS 5D Mark III @ 70mm, ISO 400, 1/800, f/4.0

You will be surprised to discover that with this technique, in most cases, you will receive a “Yes.” You must also remember that in case of hearing an occasional “No,” this is (in most cases) not your fault and you should move on to the next subject.

Visual Storytelling Portraiture #10
Canon EOS 40D @ 85mm, ISO 100, 1/200, f/2.8

Now, I know what you must be thinking – but if I go and approach my subject, where is the spontaneity, where is the authenticity of the moment? That’s an excellent question! However, from my experience, this is also an excuse we tell ourselves to avoid the first step, as described above. So while I genuinely believe that great spontaneous photographic moments can be achieved while approaching the subject (a topic I will discuss in a future article), start with the first step as described above, disturbing your thoughts about spontaneity or authenticity. You will discover that even those simple, eyes to the lens, photo ID-like portraits, demand practice and skill.

Visual Storytelling Portraiture #11
Canon EOS 40D @ 42mm, ISO 400, 1/100, f/4.0

Step 3: Telling a Story with Your Portraits

What is a Story? In its most basic form, a story is a reporting of sequenced events. So how in the world can you create a sequence of events in one frame? You can’t! You cannot tell a story in one image because the story is created somewhere else: in the viewer’s mind. Your image should be a slice of a story that motivates your viewer to fill in the gaps and imagine the rest.

So, of course, while there are many ways to stimulate the viewer to think, one of the most effective ways is through information gaps. I believe that a good portrait raises more questions than answers.

Visual Storytelling Portraiture #5
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV @ 63mm, ISO 1600, 1/1250, f/3.5

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