“It’s important to let your subjects be themselves.”
At first glance this quote might seem obvious, banal even. If you look through the portfolios of many famous and not so famous photographers it becomes obvious that many have a fairly fixed approach to portraiture. They have a style and a way of lighting, and can produce a consistent product – day in and day out.
When you are photographing for private clients this approach doesn’t really work. What they want is a personal document, not a cookie cutter approach that may create a strong brand, but doesn’t really respect the individuality of each sitter.
So how do you create portraits that are personally tailored to individuals or families? For me, the first step is simply asking the right questions and paying attention to the answers. Most families have locations that are meaningful to them, and finding a good setting is a great place to start. If you photograph someone in their own environment, they are more comfortable and the pictures are more natural.
The second thing is to get an idea of their personality. Are the introverted or extroverted? Do they want their picture to be bold or would a quieter image suit them better? How comfortable are they with showing affection?
Every portrait is to a greater or lesser extent a performance. The trick to a successful portrait is that the performance is genuine. This especially true with an image that is going to be treasured by the people in it.
The only real thing you can do is talk to your clients especially before the shoot so that you can be prepared and work on an approach that might pay dividends. Often a plan will change on the day but at least you have a starting point. All of my favourite portraits have started with a conversation.