The Psychology Of Portraiture

by William Lulow

I have written before about how important psychology is in making portraits. This is a slightly different take on the topic. Consider that most portrait photographers photograph people they don’t know and have never met. From the initial meeting when someone comes to the studio, the photographer has to be able to establish a connection with the subject sufficient to break down that barrier of not knowing her. There has to be some interaction between photographer and subject to; (1) establish a level of trust immediately, (2) to make the subject feel at ease and (3) to find an angle, lighting and a combination of other factors that make the subject feel good about the process and thus, look good in the images.

How all this is achieved at the same time and quickly, differentiates the neophytes from the really skilled professionals. The “playing field” consists of all the space, setup, equipment (cameras, lenses and lighting). Assuming that you have all of these things and you know how to use them, what separates the really good photographers from all the others?

The answer is the knowledge of how to interact with people. Most of the really good (and, incidentally famous portraitists) were great with people. They had really good communication skills. One has to be a good enough listener to be able to pick up on things someone says and use them to engage him or her in the photographic process. Involving them from the start is key. People usually come to my studio because they need portraits for books, magazines, the social media or just for themselves. So, there is a purpose to doing my kind of portraiture. I’m not just documenting who they are or making a statement of my own. I’m trying to “sell” them to the world at large. I’m trying to make them look appealing enough for viewers to want to get to know them and what they do. In order to do this, I have to find that “something” in their physicality that can make them attractive to others. I have to be able to make them look like themselves, but at their very best. This usually means a pose, an attitude and an expression enhanced by the right lighting.

I’m able to do this largely because of my background as an educator and a philosopher, of sorts. My education has taught me many things, but one of the most important of those was an intense interest in all people. I’m dying to know where they came from, what they do and how they do it. I’m inquisitive about everyone. I have also found that people usually love to talk about themselves and what they do. Their colleagues at work and their families already know what they do and most strangers they meet don’t really care. When they come to my studio, or if I shoot on location, I show them how much I care by getting involved in what they are doing immediately! This is the first step to building the trust I spoke of earlier. In addition to all this, I love to look at people’s features. I’ve become a keen observer of people’s faces and I’m always looking for lightings, angles and poses that will show them off or reveal something about them as people.

None of this “psychology” is possible however, if the photographer isn’t thoroughly familiar with the technique of portraiture including handling all the necessary equipment. You have to be so comfortable with your studio and all its trappings that you don’t have to think about anything except your subject. Once you have attained this level of proficiency, you can then start working on the psychology factors. If you are fumbling with your equipment and lighting, you’ll never rise above the level of just representing someone in a picture. If you set your camera on “automatic” you can make an acceptable image of a person, but it will not be a portrait.

One way you can tell you’ve achieved a certain quality in your portraits is by looking at your subject’s eyes. Every expression in portraiture takes place in the eyes. Try smiling at yourself in the mirror. You may have a great smile, but unless you are thinking of something that intrigues you or makes you smile, the smile will be dead and expression won’t work. The expression also doesn’t always have to be a smile! Depending on the subject, serious expressions often work the best!

What I’d like you to take from this short article is that all the photographic technique with colors, backgrounds, lights, cameras and lenses, can’t make up for a lack of true interest on your part as the photographer. It’s the psychology of the moment that is of paramount importance in achieving great portraits.