Three Ways to Make Better Portraits

Dave Brosha

Dave Brosha is an award-winning photographer who began his career in landscapes but is now known for his creative portraits. We asked him to share how he moved from one to the other, and what he wished he had known when starting out. The result? His top three ways to make better creative portraits.

Photographing creative environmental portraits has become one of my greatest loves, a somewhat surprising turn for a guy who started—and completely identified—as a nature and landscape photographer for the first five or six years of his career. For the longest time photography, to me, was heading out into nature, most often alone, and simply taking in what I was seeing. Being outdoors was my religion, my happy place.

Along with my love of landscape photography came the flip side: I wanted nothing to do with photographing people. I was an introvert, socially awkward, and couldn’t imagine wanting to photograph a person when there was just so much natural beauty “out there” to discover and explore. 

Somewhere along the line, something changed. A request here and there from friends to photograph them. Couples. Babies. Even weddings. Slowly (and reluctantly), kicking and screaming, I was becoming more and more of a “people” photographer. Although I still considered myself a landscape photographer, photographing people started to become my career. I was being paid to make portraits, and then commercially for advertising agencies and industry.

The final hook was when I finally clued into the creative potential of photographing people, influenced by books including Joe McNally’s The Hotshoe Diaries: Big Light from Small Flashes and Annie Leibovitz’s At Work. Photographing people didn’t just mean photographing kids and babies in a studio setting, nor did it have to mean simply brushing lint off a businessperson’s shoulder before their headshot. I could be creative. I could be weird. I could be artistic. I could even photograph people outside, in the same natural environments I love as a landscape photographer.

I’ve now evolved my career to the point that I first and foremost (primarily) consider myself a creative environmental portrait photographer. I’m still a generalist, and love photographing a wide range of subjects, but if you give me some free time and say, “Go, create!”, chances are I’ll go find a face and bring them out into the world to see what we come up with.

With that in mind, here are three creative portraiture tips I wish I'd had earlier in my career.

1. Don’t Be Afraid To Approach People 

One constant I hear in my photographic circle is “how do you find the great people that you photograph?” I used to be really shy about finding my subjects, whether it’s a face I see on the streets or the photogenic friend of a friend that you know would make the perfect face for your upcoming fashion-themed project. It may be obvious, but the worst someone can say is “no.” But the thing is, if you state your case, your idea, have an example of your work handy or can clearly explain what your vision is, I find people rarely say no. In fact, many of them are flattered that I think enough of them to want to make their portrait.

One recent example is this man, Erwin Eugster. I was teaching a portrait workshop in Grande Prairie, Alberta, that involved a mix of about 20 photographers and models collaborating on the grounds of a local museum. The museum was still open to the public and I noticed this elderly man wandering around the buildings, watching all the proceedings. There was something about his face—the twinkle in his eye—that I simply had to capture. I approached him, being fully prepared for him to tell me to go away, but when I asked, he smiled and said, “What? This old guy a model? Sure!”

Today, if I see someone I want to photograph, I’m not afraid to approach them. I’ll quickly forget the odd “no,” but those who say yes become part of my life, my body of work, my own story.

2. Collaborate Rather Than Dictate

I often have ideas that I think are strong (although that’s open to debate). Something will pop into my head and I’ll get twitchy until I have the opportunity to find the right fit for the concept and to photograph it. The opportunity of realization of creative ideas is one of the aspects of photography that I enjoy the most, even if those ideas are considered weird, bizarre, or non-traditional. Above everything else, I photograph for myself. I have to. I relish in the opportunity to do so.

That being said, I don’t always have the "Great Idea." I don’t always wake up with a strong creative vision floating in my brain. I don’t always head into a portrait session with a clear idea of what I want and the path that I’m going to take to create something (hopefully) memorable.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in the past 10 or 12 years of portrait photography is how often the people you photograph can contribute to a portrait session if you simply give them the opportunity to do so. For me, that can take shape even during the planning of a creative portrait session in the weeks and days leading up to it. I’ll go back and forth with a subject talking location, styling, mood, and story. This usually involves me sending them examples, or asking them to send me examples of photos that they’ve seen online. Asking them questions like, “What do YOU love?” or, “What sort of image do you think would represent you?” It’s never about copying another image or idea. But having a visual reference to a vibe. A starting point. A spark that can turn into a creative fire.

Some of my favourite images in my career have come out of this process, and it’s why I consider the bulk of my creative portraits collaborations rather than “my images”; I consider them our images. We created them together. It’s a creative process, and for a successful portrait, it often takes two—photographer and subject—to make something special.

3. Be Flexible

Related to point number two above, this tip still stands on its own. Ideas. We all have them, and some are better than others. But one of the worst mistakes I made earlier in my career was coming into a portrait session with a rigid viewpoint; being “locked” into an idea with blinders on to what else was happening around me. I approached sessions from a “this is what we’re going to do, and we’re going to work this idea to death until we get the portrait I want.”

That was a mistake. Why? Because I missed out on a lot of other potentially stronger portraits and moments by being so completely tied to my original idea. For example, I would sometimes arrive at an outdoor portrait session thinking, “Well, today I have my beauty dish and I’m going to underexpose my ambient light by two stops and then photograph my subject with a beauty dish at a 45-degree angle because I’ll have a dramatic, striking portrait.” This type of thinking is not wrong, per se, but the problem is that it forces you into a creative box that’s hard to climb out of. It makes you think from a singular perspective as a photograph that perhaps blinds you to the fact that in that moment, the strongest portrait may be a moody, natural light black and white image. Or a shallow depth-of-field flash portrait with just a tiny pop of feathered side light. Being flexible in the situation and using your eyes, your mind, and your creative heart will all serve you better than being locked into a specific setup.

Another example is being flexible with the concept itself. The image above of Inuit actor Tiffany Ayalik is one of the very first creative portraits I photographed. It started out as a hiking/tourism-related shoot; very stock-oriented. Then Tiffany mentioned that she had her wedding dress in the trunk of her car. And we stumbled upon a broken umbrella. Our tourism shoot became something else entirely due to being flexible. I remember this image; I don’t remember a single one of the tourism images.

Don't get paralyzed by conventionality and have-to's; be true to your creativity. Try those off-the-wall ideas—they just might work!

If you like this article, take a look at Dave's eBook, Illuminated, which provides lighting tips for a multitude of portraits. 

Dave Brosha is an award-winning commercial, personal, adventure photographer and workshop leader specializing in environmental portraits and landscapes. He is the author of Illuminated, published by Craft & Vision. His work has been published by CNN, Canadian Geographic, National Geographic, Dark Beauty, Outdoor Photography Canada, the National Post, Reader’s Digest, Macleans, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and The Huffington Post. You can see more of Dave’s work on his website.

Craft & Technique Dave Brosha

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  • Great article, but why was Tiffany driving around with her wedding dress in the trunk?

    Mario on
  • I love how you’ve involved your clients b4 the shoot, that really gives me ideas. I too am “kicking and screaming” into portraits but tell clients they are candid vs. posed….I love that you are not telling them how to. They are involved in the process :) very cool! ty

    Carol on

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