Better Portraits: Wait for the soul.

In Thoughts & Theory by David49 Comments

Mongolia, 2008. Image shot for World Vision Canada.

With all the talk about technique it’s easy to forget, or to never learn at all, that the most important skills in portraiture aren’t photographic at all. You can use your fanciest 135/2.0 or 85/1.2 lens, blast 3 SB900 flashes through 6-foot octaboxes, or choose the best backgrounds the world has ever seen and create portraits that are beautiful but lifeless. Or worse, beautiful but without being a reflection of the subject of that portrait. The best portraitists use a variety of gear and technique to create their portraits. What they share in common is a love for, and curiosity about, people. They respect their subjects enough to engage them, to dig a little deeper, and to create something that’s collaborative – one to make the photograph, the other to reveal themselves. Neither task is easy. I’m re-learning these lessons in deeper ways lately.

My last assignment, from which I’m barely now recovered, was primarily to create a series of portraits and landscapes that reflect the lives of the Samburu, Rendille, and Turkana in northern Kenya for The Boma Project. As I made portraits day-in and day-out for 2 weeks I found myself waiting longer and longer, becoming more patient, and making better portraits. So often we get uncomfortable staring through the lens at someone. They get uncomfortable and awkward, and we pack it in. What I’ve found is that the longer I wait, the more willing I am to push through the moments of awkard, the more rewarded I am when that tension breaks, when a genuine laugh comes, when they look over my shoulder at friends, or just simply return my unflinching gaze with something more than awkwardness or boredom and look past the front lens element and beyond, into the camera.

My most valued skill has become not an ability to use natural light or pose a subject, but patience, and a willingness to wait for that moment, the one Steve McCurry talks about as the moment when the walls come down and the soul comes into view. I wait longer now – just waiting, no talking, no trying to make the moment happen –  and am more satisfied with the authenticity of the emotions and characters I’m seeing in my photographs.


  1. hi again,

    “flow” is the word i was missing, quite philosophical, but i think when this happens, we get the pictures David was talking about.

    wish you well

  2. Have been thinking a lot about this in the past few weeks. Experienced both giving up early – and sticking through it.
    Reading your post just now helped bring a lot of it home. Thanks!

    Yes working through the awkwardness might break the tension sometimes. Other times it’s better to put the camera down first – and perhaps (or perhaps not) pick it up again later. There’s no golden recipe to say when what will work best, but that’s what makes it all the more interesting – and sometimes rewarding. Whether or not there’s a good picture at the end of it.

  3. I always wondered why I’ve gotten great photographs of my friends. This answers it. I just hope I can translate that when photographing strangers.

  4. @David,

    yes, i am on your side, its an organic process of interacting with people, of getting to know each other, of establishing a kind of relationship to the people (as a person, e.g. subject) and not as an object (e.g. picture).

    For me its diffecult to put it into words mostly, i spent a lot of time in streets, markets, … myself and kind of wait for the magic to happen.

    On posed situation i can’t say anything, i take the light and situation as it is, no instructions, no moving around to better backgrounds, whatever.

    By reading the comments i got the impression that some people might want to learn a technique how to do this, maybe i am wrong in this.

    In don’ t have a technique myself, its more like a feeling when the moment is perfectly right, nothing more, call it a “feeling” in a situation, but definetely no technique for this kind of thing.

    Comparable to looking at Steve McCurry’s picture for example and realizing that there is absolutely nothing you could have done to make it better by changing anything.

    Same thing works other way round, realizing when it’s not working out, when its time to move on, maybe come back afterwards.

    Sorry, I can not explain it better with words.


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  6. Nice post David,
    I totally agree with this, as I need a lot of time to get good portrait. And that’s the way I like working.

    I’m very unconfortable turning up in a village and shoot every things that move. I usualy spend fex days without the camera, wandering around the place, making conctact, understand what make the people I meet so special.

    As you say, It’s a matter of love, not gear once again. A simple 50mm f1,4 can capture this love as much as a 80mm 1,2 on a 1D Mk XII…

  7. Author

    @David Galalis – All of this is an organic approach. Yes, I still talk to my subjects, and engage them, but at the point where I’d normally stop, I find myself waiting longer, giving it some time, waiting to see what happens.

    @Thomas – Not sure what gives you the impression that others think this is a matter of simply waiting in front of a whole. This is a long process, organic, and each situation is different. I wasn’t intending here to give yet another technique, but to encourage people to wait, even in more posed situations, for something more human, more emotional, to reveal itself.

  8. Great post David i’m now travveling trough Laos and your stories are very much of inspiring me.

    greetings Ronald

  9. hi,

    browsing through the comments i am really amazed how people seem to believe that one is just sitting like the cat in front of the hole for the mouse to appear in order to get eaten by the photographer armed with a huge camera and a big lense attached from a close-up distance.

    Literally taken i would say, waiting for the right moment (e.g. !”the soul”, the decisive moment whatever), does make sense, the actual picture, when it arises is taken in the blink of an eye.

    What isnt said, is wether you are loitering around, e.g. on a street, in a market, wether you just wander around, try to blend in, interact with the locals, your planned model or other people in the surrounding.

    Whatever does the trick, time is needed, acceptance and an inner understanding in between the photographer and the model.

    Sometimes you are lucky, sometimes the moment never appears, sometimes you get something unexpected instead.

    I do like the thought of the article, but I for myself cant make the connection to the picture attached which looks somehow stage-managed and set-up to me.

    Food for thought. Thx


  10. Great post, David. And agreed. Thanks to your writings I’m learning to wait too. No need to rush. We’re all better for it! :c)

  11. “I wait longer now – just waiting, no talking, no trying to make the moment happen.”

    I am very intrigued by this, because it is contrary to a lot I have read about how you need to engage with the subject, smile, laugh, joke, and shoot the breeze.

    I am wondering if you could elaborate — are you saying that you do all of this, but you are just more patient at waiting for the moment to unfold, or do you literally just sit and watch your subject, not engaging? If the latter, then this is a revelation for me. What do your subjects think of this approach? Can you give an example of how this actually played out? I am very curious about this paradigm busting method. The results certainly support it. Thank you!

  12. Thanks David.

    Your post is short but it says so much. I like the idea of capturing the moment when people finally reveal themselves.

  13. Great Post! I just finished a workshop with Steve and sometimes he would take 45 min+ to photograph the person. There is truth in waiting but I also feel that the personality of the photographer is a strong catalyst. There is a link on my blog to my Myanmar workshop taken with Steve. Hope you will take time to visit and comment.

  14. I find street portraiture some of the hardest photography to do – and it has nothing to do with the technicalities of light, lenses, colour, tone and composition – and one one of the most satisfying when it comes good. Engaging with strangers and then asking for permission to photograph is contrary to the natural instincts of most of us. But it is worth the effort, and worth the discomfort. Not least for the joy of engagement itself, quite apart from the image which results.

  15. So true. And it’s even harder when you tend to be introverted. When taking portraits of people you have to draw them out sometimes, engage them, and patience is key, and overcoming being somewhat introverted myself has been a struggle…
    There are times I’m not as vocal as I should be in a shoot, therefore not getting the shots I’m really looking for, but could get if I spoke up, or just waited (patience) for that shot.
    Most importantly for me though, is patience for myself…I lack it very often and tend to be over critical.
    Great post David! 🙂

  16. Wonderful concept. Sounds easier to write about than put into practice, but I’m going to see if I can add that to my too-light bag of tricks. Thanks for the thought-provoking post David.

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  18. Totally and utterly agree.
    As I have tried to tell many learners – “shoot the soul, don’t shoot the skin”.

    Easier to say than do, but still possible.

    Keep up the great work!

  19. Coincidentally, I posted a quote today, along similar lines, about the essence of shooting sunsets.

    You are right. The challenge for me has been to lean into the discomfort that becomes before the soul, or moment reveals itself. Of course, that doesn’t really have much to do with photography, per se, and more to do with my relationship to the world and to other people.

  20. David, you are one-third photographer, one-third comedian and two-thirds magician! 😉 How did you EVER get them both looking in the right direction at the same time? ..priceless! (I might love this one more than the girl with the goat).

  21. David:

    Like others, I am afraid of taking too long to shoot a subject because I fear they will lose interest and quit. When you wait, with no talking, etc., how long are we talking about – seconds, minutes?

  22. Thank you David. A point to keep in mind.
    This past weedend, I did my first ever outdoor portrait shoot and felt limitations both in technique and introspectiveness of the outcome. I have a blog where I journal what I learn each day. if interested it’s

  23. Thank you for yet another timely advice! I was in the same situation earlier this month. And I could definitely relate to the joy of making THAT shot with a mile of patience is far precious than those “instant gratification” shots. Indeed he who learns to wait wins the soul.

  24. Better to wait than snap.

    With film I tend wait…

    My brother once told me to think about if you really would take the time to print, frame, and hang the image before you. If you can’t see it, don’t bother. Everything will not be a masterpiece, but better to snipe than to machine gun.

  25. Great insight. When shooting I am drawn more to taking portraits than other options. But even more I love it when I am finially able to not just get a good technical shot, but one that reflects who they are. I’ve been wondering how to do that better as it seems so hit and misss with me. This helps point me in the right direction.

  26. Thank you for this note David. It is perfect timing as I’m preparing to do portraits at a local Assisted Living facility in town. I’ve been trying to plan how to get the best photos, but this is probably the most important tip – to let the residents relax for me. LOVE the portrait also!
    thanks so much

  27. Hey David,
    great insight and I totally agree with you. Having traveled a fair bit outside my home culture and had to learn to wait (something I’m not naturally good at), this is a good reminder to me. Pressure, and impatience rarely produces a great portrait.

  28. Being a landscape photographer, I think sometimes that patience is even more key! Great thoughts, David.

  29. I love this post. Thank you. My husband is constantly telling me I’m too slow, that I take too much time trying to get the shot right, that people don’t want that and to just take the picture because fast is all that people care about. WRONG. WRONG. WRONG. WRONG.

  30. I’ve never taken a portrait because I don’t think I would be good at it. Sure I have taken images of my family and I like those, but the thought of trying to get a stranger’s soul to come through seemed to much of a challenge for me. David, your post has me thinking that perhaps it is something I need to try, something to get me out of my comfort zone. Coincidentally I just picked up my first Steve McCurry book, The Unguarded Moment. It is amazing and full of soul.

  31. David, as always … you lead and make it easy for the rest of us to follow. Thank you for that post. Love the portrait.

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  33. Lovely post. What value is a portrait if it doesn’t truly portray the person? And how can you portray someone without getting to know a little about him/her? Great insight. Love the photo.

  34. Oh goodness…I couldn’t agree with this more. I often find the soul of a person lost in the trendy props of the current day and it makes me sad. All you need for a great portrait a some personality and the willingness (or talent) to draw it out.

    Great post!

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