The art of creating natural storytelling portraits.

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TECHNICAL |  Hasselblad 503cx  150mm lens Tripod

Welcome to this weeks portrait tips and techniques. This week’s blog post is about “interactive portraiture” or often refer to as “the story telling portraits”. This style is easily applied with young children, but with a bit of creative thinking can be used for any age group, children or adult.

It’s not new, artists have been applying the story telling style as a way of expression, long before photography was invented. I am going to allow the images to show my version of interactive portraiture with a brief descriptions of my thoughts and hopefully this can contribute or change your thought process to the way you photograph a session.Firstly, what is “interactive portraiture? For me it is personalising a portrait session by asking questions about the family lifestyle and applying that lifestyle to the session. Some examples of lifestyle would be fishing, reading, bikes, boating, cars and for younger children it could be dolls, teddy’s, painting and drawing etc. This planning process takes place during my planning consultation with the client before the actual portrait session.

Before I start talking about the images, you need to understand all these images are set up and directed. My style has always been a “directive” approach as opposed to a “follower” (candid). I work to my strength as a director and enjoy the process of planning and creating wall portraits as art.

Others may enjoy the candid approach. There is no right or wrong, just follow what you enjoy, but I would suggest adding the clients lifestyle into the mix. This will give them something unique and usually pays better because you took the time to personalise their portraits.

The first example above is an easy one. The boys love the water, so why do to a country theme when the lifestyle is beach. I directed the boys by making a game of it. The youngest one enjoyed running back and forth from the water, so all I had to do is direct the eldest boy to a better position, so his brother wouldn’t run out of the frame. Then I just asked the boy to dig for shells, which he was very happy to do. (Seagulls were a bonus). The attention span is usually good for 5 minutes, then I find it’s time for a change. As a storm was coming fast, we had less than 3 minutes to set up, shoot and go.


TECHNICAL  |  Leica M6 35mm F1.4 | black & white - tinted & artwork in Photoshop

In the second image, it’s obvious the life style is fishing. The weather was dark windy and about to rain. The first thing is to find a good scenic spot to allow the kids to face the wind. This would help eliminate hair blowing in all directions.

Next was to place the kids in a pleasing composition that wasn’t to structured, such as a triangular pose. The idea was to give each child’s face and body their own space and angle the bodies to make a more interesting composition.

Sometimes I’ll tell them what I’m looking for (sitting, squatting or kneeling) then see what they do naturally. If I think their natural pose looks right, that’s it, if not I’ll make some small adjustments such as a face angle or a hand etc. to refine the look.

NOTE: with interactive portraits you don’t always see each individual, this is often deliberate, so it doesn’t look over posed. These interactive images are just part of the session, of course there are other group and individual images to compensate for full face views.

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TECHNICAL  | Canon 5D 70-200mm F2.8L

The boys above  are cousins and when they visit their grandparent’s farm, they love to ride all over the property. So in consultation with the parents, I found out this was the common bond between the boys. 

The property is an avocado and pineapple farm, so there were many tracks the boys could ride up and down. This is how I make it interesting for the kids. Find something they like doing and incorporate it into part of the sitting, this will give more co-operation and extend the attention span.

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TECHNICAL |  Hasselblad 503cx 150mm | tripod

Sometimes with mixed age groups, I try to get the kids to talk amongst themselves and wait for the reaction. Little ones will play, but for the older kids, it’s not cool. So I find setting them up in the scene and directing or teasing works best. Eventually there is a reaction, so it’s a game of patience.

I’m always looking at the angles of the face and where possible I’ll direct the kids to move. Above is an example of two profile views and a two - third facial view.

 For me it’s still important to fine tune the portrait, but if there is a reaction and the pose isn’t quite correct, I’ll still take the shot, because expression is the most important thing. Having said that, I’m not suggesting going for expression and not applying craftsmanship.

This shot was totally controlled, shot with a Hasselblad on a tripod in low light - two shots were all that was required for this pose, then I moved to another spot. So slowing the process down, thinking and creating does work.

Although I photograph with a DSLR mostly these days, I still use a tripod for about 30% of my images.

These are usually the interactive images, where I want to see and be involved with the kids. Directing over the top of the camera, rather than hiding behind the camera talking from behind it. 


TECHNICAL |  Canon 5D 70-200mm F2.8L

Another example of setting the scene and waiting for the right moment. Usually with boys this age you don’t have to wait too long for a reaction. In this image I have a two - third face view and two profile views.

So that’s it for this week, I hope his directive style has shown a different way of creating portraits. Some may think it’s old school and would prefer the “photo journalistic” approach. In my experience as a portrait photographer, we should apply all three disciplines - classic, directive and reactive.

I apply these 3 styles in all my sessions, not always in equal proportions, but enough to create variety

for my clients. Usually they like all three, but it’s the “classic” and “directive” styles, that is usually the larger wall size prints.

My theory is that many clients think the “reactive” candids look too easy to do and they think they can do it themselves. The classics and directive images appear to take on a more craftsmanship experience to them. Just a theory.

Until next time,
happy shooting

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