Capturing the Essence of Humanness: Lessons on Portrait Photography

eyefiThere’s something so incredibly magical about a perfectly captured portrait. In the world of fine art, those masters that truly wrangle the essence of humanness on a canvas become legendary. Just ask the Mona Lisa. For photographers, that mission is no less critical, or challenging. Portraits are one of those genres that everyone thinks they can excel at, but is actually a finely tuned, highly precise, and insanely creative discipline.


Let’s make one thing clear right away: Selfies are not portraits. Kim Kardashian may be the most prolific portrait snapper, but selfies (for the most part, with very few exceptions) are not an expression of art, but of vanity.


Those photographers that do dedicate their careers to making us all look, well, human — they’re unsung heroes. And there’s likely not an enthusiast among us that would love to take better portraits.


We recently chatted with two folks who know this art form better than most; professional portrait photographers Lindsay Adler and Jake Olson. Here are some invaluable insights they provided that can help you kick up your craft.


The Logistics: What Works, What Doesn’t

So let’s talk about the basics first — is it better to be indoors or outdoors? What about depth of field? Where should my subject look?


Lindsay tackles each of these gracefully.

Copyright Lindsay Adler


On indoors vs. outdoors:

“A great portrait can be made indoors or outdoors. I believe it really has to do with the photographer’s style and objectives for the image. I enjoy shooting indoors when I want to really just focus on the subject’s face and interaction with the camera. I like to shoot on location when I want to tell more of a visual story about that individual.”


On depth of field:

“Depth of field is just one of many tools available to the portrait photographer. There is no right ‘depth of field’, but I truly recommend utilizing “back button focus” to help you nail more shots more often. It’s a trick I picked up a few years ago that allows you to lock focus from a button on the back of your camera while shooting with the main shutter release. It really helps improve my ratio of in-focus images!”


On where to have your subject look:

“For almost all of my portraits I have my subject look into my camera. I want the viewer to see into their soul and really have a connection. I find when a subject looks away it gives the viewer the ability to look more “at” them instead of “Into” them.”


That Secret Sauce

So what about that special something that makes a truly professional portrait stand out? Jake describes his process for drawing out the uniqueness in his subjects.


“I have a more candid approach that focuses on subject personality as opposed to posed images. I try to catch children and people in the act of being themselves while doing it in a beautifully lit landscape. This has appeal to many clients because the images aren’t as set up as you would find in a studio. The shoots are more fun because clients are more free range. We encourage them to have fun and be themselves in a beautifully lit setting. The images tend to have a more narrative look that not only family members enjoy but fans online as well.”


For Lindsay, it’s more of a question of intent. “A question I always ask myself is ‘What is this portrait about?’” she said. “What really is the main focus? Am I trying to reveal something profound about my subject, or simply glam them up so they look stunning? Is it about a portrait to show an accomplishment, to show a milestone in their life, to show how fabulous they look, or simply to make them feel more confident? When I can answer the goals of the image, that allows me to focus on what I can do for a high impact portrait. Do I need hair and makeup? Should we be shooting on location? What elements of their life can I involve in the image? To put it succinctly… don’t just shoot, ask why you are shooting and build an image around that.”


The final words of advice come from Jake. He insists that mastery is a step-by-step process. “Shoot the same things until you get good at it and then move on,” he stated. “I see most photographers all over the board. Master one thing before you move on to another.”


One last thing: to allow absolutely nothing to take your attention away from capturing that perfect portrait shot, plug in Eyefi’s latest wireless SD card, the Eyefi Mobi, into your digital camera, and download and install the Mobi app onto a selected device. This will give you instant access to your shots on the chosen device, to edit or perhaps share. Complement this with the Eyefi Cloud, and you can sync every image you capture with every device you own, creating a single, unified, ‘live’ photo library. Eyefi will intelligently deliver optimised files to each of the devices you view your photographs on.


And there you have it — recipes for unforgettable portraits. Happy picture taking everyone!