We asked portraits pros to share their best tactics for framing up a subject
6. Watch, Don’t Direct
Body language plays an even bigger role in depicting individual personalities and roles in group settings. In her book, The Mark of Abel (Keher Verlag, 2012), Lydia Panas, a Kutztown, PA-based fine-art photographer (www.lydiapanas.com), examines interfamily relationships in a series of expressive group portraits, including the rural Pennsylvania father and his four children shown here.
How does she get such insight-ful images? “By watching very closely,” she says. “I try not to direct, because whenever I ask someone do something specific, they don’t really do what I want, and the result is often awkward. I’ve learned to trust that something will happen on its own. I watch to see how my subjects arrange themselves, who stands in front, or on the side, and who seems to dominate. Then I go under the black hood [of her 4x5-inch view camera] and wait to see what happens.”
Panas attributes her success to not being critical—and, yes, many subjects will often infer criticism if you start to direct them. “I want my subjects to feel good about themselves. If you direct too much, they get confused.”
Like Makaske, she finds that patience pays off. “I try to wait until I can relate to the subjects, before I start working in earnest. It usually happens when what they're saying to each other begins to make sense to me,” she says. “It’s a very intuitive process, and one that’s very exciting.”
7. Wardrobe and Props
Often, clothing choices can make or break a portrait. It shouldn’t distract from your subject or clash with the background. “I ask my subjects to wear dark, muted colors—no patterns and no jewelry,” says Panas, who mainly shoots outside. “I like for the clothing colors to work with my backgrounds, which are mostly the greens and gray of nature. A white shirt wouldn’t work.”
She also likes to make sure the style of clothing in group portraits is roughly congruent from subject to subject, without actually matching. “If some subjects are casually dressed, and others more formally, it can [adversely] impact the overall image,” she says.
The two sisters in Barbara Peacock’s photo benefitted from her eye for color. Clean, strong hues in the clothing, props, and backgrounds all work to imply a sunny, child-friendly world. “The house belongs to a friend of mine,” Peacock says. “I was lucky there were many colorful backgrounds. My job was to make sure the kids were positioned so that I could utilize that color.”
So while both the clothes your subjects wear and the environment in which you photograph them should reflect their personalities, make sure they don't fight each other. If they do, consider changing one—or both.