Character Portrait Photography Tips & Techniques

Capturing character through portraits has always been a real and true representation of people photography. The magazines always show us perfection by misrepresenting the imperfections of models and actors and other celebrities. Character portraits capture reality and the essence of the subject.

So how do we go about capturing a true character photo that is genuinely representative of the person being photographed?

1. Treat the subject with dignity

The role of the photographer is always subservient in the relationship with the character being photographed. The subject is the most important and needs to be treated with respect and dignity. Without these key elements the resulting images may be detrimentally affected. The character is giving you time and this needs to be remembered.

2. Capture the face

A full face photograph is always a great way to start. Isolate it from the rest of the seen with a telephoto or zoom lens. You want to get in close and tight and see the detail and character lines of the face. This is where you will read the history and experience of your character.

travel photo

Photo by Sandeepa and Chetan; ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/1000 exposure.

3. Planning

This is an essential part of your shoot. Get to know who you are going to shoot and the circumstances of their life, career or pastime. Knowing your shots, angles and framing is vital if you are going to make a success, so work out a shot list before.

4. Add some environment

A person is a part or product of their environment. Environments say a lot about the person’s character and their world. Add a little of this to the image and contextualise them. The tools of their trade, hobby or pastime will reveal some of the passion of the subject. Be careful not to make it too busy as you’ll not want to have elements competing with the subject.

atmospheric photo

Photo by Alex Holzknecht; ISO 100, f/8, 1/125 exposure.

5. Relax your subject

A relaxed subject is always going to make a better portrait than someone who is nervous or stressed by the shoot. Engage your subject and perhaps have a third person involved who can chat with the subject and help with the relaxation.

6. Focus on the hands

A face captures expression but hands can show just as much expression. Carefully watch how the person uses their hands and isolate in a tight image. Tradesmen or people who use their hands will show a different aspect with scars and reflections of their work.

character portraits hands

Photo by Flickr user Roberto; ISO 200, f/4.4, 1/1250 exposure.

7. Black and white

A lot of character photography is done using monochrome. There is just something about a contrasty black and white image. Watch your lighting and think black and white. Some colors when shot in monochrome look very similar and lack contrast so it’s important to try some test shots and. Make sure your subject has an alternative set of clothes of different colors to counter this.

8. Use available light

You don’t want to go into a character session with huge lights, softboxes and umbrellas. Beside the inconvenience of it all it can unsettle the subject. Use available light. By planning well and using the right time of day for the setting you’ll be able to find the right location in the person’s environment to shoot. Available light from a window, doorway or skylight can be sufficient with maybe a little fill in flash from an off camera strobe. But, use your available light effectively and you’ll get some stunning images.

Character photography is all about capturing the essence of your subject and conveying who they are and what they do. Vary your lenses and be prepared to experiment. Each setting is different and needs thought and attention to detail.

About the Author:
Wayne Turner has been teaching photography for 25 years. Passionate about photography, radio and video. He is a Radio CCFm producer and presenter in Cape Town.

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4 responses to “Character Portrait Photography Tips & Techniques”

  1. Great tips – thanks so much for sharing.

  2. You are more than welcome. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Base D. God says:

    I really liked these tips, thanks for sharing!

  4. jennifer n elliott says:

    great tips…will definitely use these.

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