The Key Ingredient of Portrait Photography: The Story

As photographers, we are blessed with more choices of medium than could possibly be mentioned in a single list, but there are few that are as diverse and rewarding as portrait photography.

portrait of woman

Everyone has a story to tell.

Our job as photographers is to make an image. To pull together all the separate elements—our subject, light, angles—and create the final image. With portrait photography there is an additional element that we must capture and display…

The story.

Everyone has a story to tell, and our job as portrait photographers is to draw those stories out and display them in our images.

woman with head covering

You must begin by speaking to your subject.

The most important aspect of portrait photography takes place long before you press your shutter. You must begin by speaking to your subject. In talking to them about their life, you’ll learn things about them that will influence the direction your image takes.

It is vital that you listen—really listen—to the stories that your subjects tell you. Your subject will most likely begin by telling you surface details, such as their name and what they do for a living; but it’s your job as a portrait photographer to dig deeper and get to the real substance of a person:

  • What is your subject’s passion?
  • What gets them out of bed in the morning?
  • What are their dreams and aspirations?

They might be reluctant to share this information, but if you are patient and listen to them, you’ll often find them telling you the more “real” parts of their story.

female portrait

What are your subject’s dreams and aspirations?

One of my recent projects, “People I Didn’t Know”, explored the stories of the many people I have met around London. It’s not always easy to convince people in London, a city notorious for its hustle and bustle, to stop what they’re doing, talk to a stranger, and agree to let that stranger photograph them. By talking to these people and sharing your stories, you stop being strangers, and your subjects are more likely to allow you to capture an image of them.

photo of little boy

I learned more about my subjects and made new friends.

By focusing on the stories of the people I met during this project, not only did I create better images, but I learned more about my subjects and made new friends.

I chose black and white as my medium for these portraits to let the subjects’ stories really shine through. I didn’t want anything, such as colors in the background, to detract from the subject’s stories. And I also feel that black and white photographs produce a more intimate result. A picture that tells a better story.

man with hat

Black and white photos produce a more intimate result.

About the Author
Ion Paciu is a professional freelance photographer and member of the Royal Photographic Society. He is the founder of Photoion Photography School, a London-based photography school where he runs a variety of courses for all skill levels: beginners photography courses, advanced courses, and specialized studio lighting photography courses. Learn more about Ion, his work, and the photography school at www.photoion.co.uk.

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4 responses to “The Key Ingredient of Portrait Photography: The Story”

  1. Billy says:

    Sorry – I don’t do B/W. It’s ancient, archaic and doesn’t represent a colorful world.

  2. Chico Ruger says:

    Well, since Billy doesn’t do B/W nobody else should either. He is very special, don’t you know.

  3. Bob says:

    i am interested in hearing how exactly the stories impacted your choices in making these portraits. Will you share some of the story and specifically how it influenced poses, etc?

  4. jacob says:

    I use both color and b/w; but I agree with the author that in this case b/w was the better choice, as color can sometimes get in the way. Great images, great article.

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