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Boring Portraits

an example of uncreative portrait for Pics of Asia photo tutorial

Boring Portraits


This article may annoy a few people out there, so I want to be very clear on a few things from the beginning. The best way I could think to do that is with a little disclaimer. 

***Etienne’s Pre-Article Disclaimer***

Photographers! It’s a free world – you are free to photograph whatever you want, however you want. What you read below is just my opinion. If I criticise a certain aspect of photography you enjoy (as I may have done with articles on travel photography ethics and fake images) I’m not targeting you personally, it’s just because I’m a photography instructor and I want to help people improve their photography. 

As a teacher, I am always questioning myself. How can I keep improving my photography skills? How can I go beyond what I am currently doing? How can I develop my vision and go further? This article introduces you to the results of that thought process. 

I believe that showing people what, in my opinion, has become unoriginal and overdone, I will be able help them go beyond it and come up with more interesting images. 

So, if you’re perfectly happy with the photos you take and think you don’t need, or want, to learn anything new today, please stop reading now. Or, if at any point you feel the urge to comment, “Why do you criticise what people do?” or, “You should let them do what they want!” then please read this disclaimer again and go get offended on another website.  

Also, to avoid offending anyone (like last time), I have decided to only illustrate this article with images I’ve plucked from my own hard drives. As well as reducing my hatemail, using my own old images will hopefully demonstrate that photography is a process, and most of what I criticise today are things that I myself did just a few short years back. 

Clear? Good. Now we can begin.

Are your portraits boring?

Portrait of a Burmese man from the Chin state

“Uh… so, you’re taking my photo? Should I smile? Not smile? Tell me!”

 

When travelling to a foreign country, whether as a first-time visitor or not, I see a lot of photographers getting very excited by what they see. This is perfectly normal – after all, getting excited about new things is why we travel. 

Personally, I am constantly getting excited by a cool new scene. The first time I went to Myanmar I just couldn’t stop chasing Buddhist monks (it took me days to start looking for other things!). 

Unfortunately, this overexcitement of being faced by something new and exotic, means that photographers tend to “rush” for their shot. 

And this is fine, to an extent. Like I said, we’ve all done it! 

But now, let’s apply this to close-up portrait photography. 

In Vietnam, where I live and teach photography, I see a lot of photographers launching themselves into people’s faces to take portraits. Now, don’t get me wrong, close-up portraits are cool, and as a people photographer if someone lets you take their photo you should immediately go for it, right? Or should you?

Portrait of a Burmese woman for Pics of Asia

“Hurry up! Take your shot and be gone!”

Remember: Just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should!

A lot of portraits are “boring” because the subjects photographed are “boring”. Yes, I know that sounds mean, but it’s true. Some people simply look better in the shot than others. Some people are great portrait material, some are not.

To instantly improve your portraits, you should find better subjects. It is as simple as that.

This doesn’t mean you have to jump on every single person that smiles back at you and that you feel you’re “allowed” to photograph. Just being the smiliest doesn’t necessarily make them the best subjects – plus the odds that the individual who happened to smile back at you, is going to be in the ideal place for a portrait, are highly unlikely. 

Taking portraits follows the same general photography rules as everything else. You need good light, a clean background, etc, etc… 

And when you’re busy taking portraits of everyone that smiles at you, you’re probably not spending the precious time you have to look for the best material and the best potential situations. 

Fixing this problem is something that only experience can teach you… oh, and reading this article, of course!

 

uncreative portrait in travel photography a tutorial by Pics of Asia

“Hmmm… are you as uncomfortable as me right now?!”

Ditch the smiles and get creative

There are many things you can do to improve your close-up portrait skills. Something I’ve discussed in a previous creative portraiture tutorial. Such as, using the elements surrounding your subject, waiting for the right body gesture, the perfect moment, getting closer, etc…

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is very difficult to achieve when your subject is smiling directly into the camera lens like they’re posing for a school yearbook. Honestly, after a while, portraits of smiley people all look the same. Unless you’re lucky enough to find an amazing character that instinctively knows how to strike a pose, you’ll almost always end up with the same sort of awkward look. 

People tend to smile and look at the camera, not really knowing what to do because they haven’t been “directed” what to do. And we definitely don’t want to start directing them, as then it wouldn’t be natural. So what can we do?

Well, if you can, try and interact with your subject while taking their portraits, or find people who are busy doing something while allowing you to get very close. People doing handicrafts, for example, usually sit in one place and do not move much. This allows you to get close to them, show an interest, chat with them (if you can), build a rapport, and then, when they are relaxed, start taking portraits. 

portrait of a man unloading coal from boats in Dhaka

Do all your portraits look the same?

I’ve made a little collage of what a lot of photographers’ Instagram feeds look like. I’ve used a selection of my old images but as you can see, the result looks very similar to A LOT of Instagram accounts out there.

Showcasing boring portraits for a tutorial with Pics of Asia

Sure, they are nice images – but come on, be honest, don’t you get a little bored after looking at the first row alone? They all look very similar, and a lot of them are just people smiling at the camera. 

Using one subject placed on the third has its limits. Because how creative can you get using that same formula over and over again? Answer: Not very.

It’s an easy recipe that you may master – but it ends up tasting the same. Time to add some spice to your meal!

Your portraits will become more creative and original if you work on your portrait craft. And this means evolving and just not taking the same formulaic portrait over and over again, each and every time someone allows you to. 

A classic portrait in travel photography by Pics of Asia

“Someone is taking my photo, quick, let’s smile!”

Portraits still need to tell a story

Good photography is all about storytelling. The better the photo, the more complex the tale. What story does a nice image of someone smiling at the camera tell? To me, it only says, “Hey, you’re taking my picture and I am smiling at you”. 

For me, this is one of the reasons why it’s important to try and take more candid portraits, to capture a mood, a special moment in your subject. Try and tell better stories about your subjects by catching a better moment or including more elements in your frame. 

To better tell a subject’s story you need to remove yourself, the photographer, as much as possible from the mix. A lot of the images you can see in my above collage tell one story: a photographer is taking an image of someone, and they are posing. This means the photographer is always present in the story, making it harder to tell the story of the subject. See what I mean? 

By focusing on candid, unposed images of people, or shots of subjects that tell an amazing story, their features alone will instantly allow you to tell that subject’s story more effectively, without including yourself in the image. It’s the opposite of taking a selfie! Now don’t get me wrong, I love close-up portraits. Being so close to your subject and potentially using an extremely shallow depth of field can create aesthetically beautiful results. And sometimes, this alone is enough. But only when your subject is truly great and the quality of light on them good enough to bring out the best details, textures, colours, etc… So, to recap: find the best subjects.

Portraits telling stories for travel photography

So, when do I take portraits?

I’m taking fewer and fewer portraits every year because my interest in photography has changed. I used to primarily shoot with a 50mm lens, which was great for portraits. But now I mostly use a 35mm lens, which I believe isn’t suitable at all for close-up portraits. I still carry my magic portrait lens around, just in case, but in 2019 I maybe took only a dozen portraits. And among them, only two or three were really interesting ones. 

After years of taking close-up portraits, I realised that it’s too easy to end up with almost an exact copy of another portrait. After all, when taking close-up portraits, you’re only able to compose with two eyes, a nose and a mouth. Of course, as we talked about in our creative portraiture tutorial, there are many other things we can play with. 

That is, if you want to come up with new images and not take the same boring portrait again and again. 

I will pull out my portrait lens only if I meet a subject that I know will give me great results. Only when the light is perfect, the background is amazing AND my subject is excellent will I take a portrait. 

close up portrait of a man in Rashjahi market in Bangladesh

Using a credit system

Taking close-up portraits is very intimate – you’re getting into your subject’s personal space, and it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s difficult for the photographer who dares to get that close, but it can be much harder for the subject. A lot of people will allow you to take their portrait simply because you asked nicely and they are nice people. But you can feel when you take the image, that they’re not feeling very comfortable. And this feeling of discomfort will often be palpable in your images. 

I came up with a system for myself: I give myself a certain number of “credits”. In order to respect people’s intimacy I will only allow myself to get that close to someone once a day, or once a week, depending on where I am and who I am with. Because I am a photo tour leader and I mostly take photos when I am with a group, if I get very close to someone to take a portrait there will most probably be one or two other students getting in close with me. And I am very aware this isn’t easy for our subjects. 

So for me, taking a close-up portrait has to be really worth it. You need to find the perfect situation and the perfect subject. You need to study who that person is and whether there is potential in them (their face, their behaviour, their surroundings, the light, and the way they act when cameras are in their vicinity). 

I know from experience that unless a subject fulfils all those criteria the chances of getting an interesting portrait are very unlikely. 

close up portrait of people in Bangladesh with Pics of Asia

Final thoughts: Take it slow

So, take it from me. Slow down, be more observant, and make those interactions really count. Rushing around, snapping away at everyone who smiles at you, will not improve your close-up portraits. Patience will. 

Take your time – it’s better to get one amazing photo than 100 average ones.

Women carrying coal in a brick factory near Sylhet in Bangladesh

Etienne

Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.

1 Comment

  1. Paul Godefroy on June 27, 2020 at 3:23 pm

    Thans Etienne for these tips and “philosophical” approach to portrait.

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