Portrait Character

Recently, I was talking to a colleague about how challenging it can be to create character depth when photographing a client.  And before I continue, I feel like I should break the fourth wall and go ahead and address the question you’re probably asking, what is "character depth"?  In general, that question is pretty easily answered. What we were talking about when discussing character depth is that subjective feel to a client’s portrait that portrays a sense of who they are deep inside. It goes beyond the clothes they are wearing, whether they’re smiling or not, or how good of a day they're having when spending time with the photographer. It goes beyond that and includes posing, lighting, color temperature or sometimes, even a lack of color. Doing it right takes a combination of creative vision for the photo and ensuring the client is comfortable and relaxed during the session.  

So how do you go about capturing that character in your photo? While my friend and I discussed the topic for what seemed like an hour, we both traded some great topics and ideas. Ultimately, we needed to agree on something and decided that if we had to pick the single answer we both agreed that it starts with knowing you’re client. As we finished that conversation, I thought back over the year about some of our best work and how it resounded with our clients. In doing so, I realized that even just a small amount of knowledge about who your client is can pay big dividends when you’re trying to capture the character.

Take Ali for example; he and his family hired us to do their family portraits last year. Having worked with them in a prior session, I had the pleasure of getting to know the family pretty well. And in getting to know Ali, I had a really good idea of the picture I was going to take for him. I had a vision, based on my knowledge of what I thought he would like in a portrait. My vision for his photo was to have a harshly lit, highly contrasted, over toned portrait. Sounds horrible I know, but the truth is that I knew it could work so long as he was comfortable and relaxed during the session. We finished the session with the whole family and I ask Ali if he could spare a few extra minutes with my wife and I. Ali sat on the steps of a barn at the location and all we told him to do was to relax and sit comfortably. He did. My wife put a single flash unit on a light stand and held it directly over Ali to create the harsh shadows we were after. We had a small reflector on the ground (pointed back at him) to act as a small fill to lighten up some of the shadows. We literally took about 3 shots and reviewed the image in the camera. After looking at the previews, I knew we had exactly the one we wanted.

Moving onto the post process, I took the raw photo into Lightroom and simply added a vignette, boosted the shadows, added some clarity, and finally, I added a slightly overcast temperature. The results spoke for themselves and Ali and his family absolutely loved his picture. He and his family are wonderful people and I was thrilled they were happy with the result, not to mention I was happy to add it to my portfolio.  

Ali was comfortable, relaxed and just decided to be himself.

Ali was comfortable, relaxed and just decided to be himself.

There are plenty of other examples we came across from just the last year: family sessions, kid’s sports, and weddings. In each of these we took the time to know the client and in doing so, the pictures were more natural, dramatic, and in each case, the clients loved them. So, to wrap up as quickly as possible – since blogging isn’t my day job – I can say that simply getting to know your client as much as possible to have an idea of what environment they would be comfortable working in can make all the difference.