In Part 1 of Building Narrative, I looked at four basics to carefully consider when you’re creating an image and want to convey a certain narrative or meaning: composition, your style, your styling and your environment. These four things give you a strong foundation to creating narrative within your photography.
As I said before, I have always been a storyteller. I have always been focused on people. It was little surprise to me when I found a passion for portrait photography.
My goal is to create a folio of portraits that tell the stories of people. I want to tell stories with meaning and not simply take snapshots of time. I want to create images that grip people and allow connections between photographer, subject and viewer.
Have I achieved this yet? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, I have work to do.
But here are some thoughts on my process when creating a portrait and some tips to take on board.
Talk To Your Subject
It seems like such a trivial thing, but one of the most important things you can do as a photographer taking portraits is TALK. Talk before, during and after a photoshoot.
Talking before your shoot will allow you both to get to know each other, making you more at ease with each other when there’s a camera between you. It also allows you to get to know your subject and learn about what will make an image have a greater story than a simple just capturing what they look like.
Talking during the shoot creates a relaxed atmosphere and allows your subject to open up. This can lead to much more honest, authentic photos. On top of this, it allows you to give direction to your subject and you can find out even more about them, which you can add to their photograph.
Talking further after the shoot might allow you to find out which photo tells the most about your subject and can lead to future ideas for other photo shoots.
Explore THEIR Story and History
Everyone has a story to share. I have always loved taking photographs of people because sometimes, when you’re lucky, they open up and share stories while you shoot and talk. As a writer and photographer, these stories fuel me and leave my mind racing. Stories of past jobs, drunken adventures, lost loves, and key moments can come up as a result of a shoot. But remember that just because you’re shooting doesn’t mean the camera has to stay a barrier between you and your subject; lower the camera every now and then and have a good chinwag. You will appreciate the experience even more.
If you are visiting this site, I assume you are passionate about photography. You are probably thinking about getting behind the camera and plotting your next shoot. When you are at shoot, you’re holding the camera, looking through the lens, thinking about composition and settings and light.
The person on the other side of your lens will have something they are equally passionate about. When you talk to them, find out what makes them tick the way that photography makes you tick. Showing their passions in a unique way is a great way of sharing some narrative in your portrait. Ask them what they’re into, what they love, what they enjoy doing, and go from there!
Dress To Impress
When you photograph someone, you might want to consider capturing them and their current story. Perhaps you want to capture what they do for a living, or their favourite past time (a sport, for example), or even their favourite colour. You want to have them dressed in something they’re comfortable in, but also something that shares something about them. Consider instructing them to wear their work uniform, or they’re favourite dress or favourite funky suit and bow-tie that shows off their quirky side, or even just something they would mow the lawns in…
Add Props With Meaning
Every element in your photo should mean something. Styling your photo is essential. That book shelf in the background? If it is in your portrait, it should have something on it that adds to the image, such as books on the subject’s field of expertise or perhaps sporting trophies. Or perhaps it is covered in old childhood toys. As I said in the previous Building Narrative article, everything matters. So make sure it is there for a reason.
Location Location — Building An Environmental Portrait
Perhaps the strongest element in creating a strong narrative in a portrait is location.
Environmental portraits — i.e. portraits using the subject’s usual environment, such as their home or workplace — is a style of photography that adds an incredible amount of depth and story to a photograph. By setting your portrait in the location of their house or work place, you can create a great narrative within your portrait. It can tell the viewer of the photograph so much about this individual’s life: where they work, the type of house they live in, their passions and interests, their loves, their socio-economic background, even, if you’re lucky, their thoughts. It also comes with the bonus of allowing your subject a better chance of being relaxed and at ease if they’re in a familiar place.
Bonus tip? Since the background and surroundings is such an important element and add so much more story about the person, you should use a small aperture and greater depth of field to try and include as much detail of the background as possible.
With these tips in mind, you will find yourself taking portraits with greater depth, meaning and narrative. And who doesn’t want to share a good story?