I wanted to share some of my personal thoughts on how to capture a soul in a photograph.
1. Why capture a soul?
So when I say capturing a soul in a photograph, I don’t want to say it in some sort of creepy way. Rather, I love the idea that you can capture someone’s essence— their emotions, their being, their soul — in a photograph.
2. What is a soul anyways?
I believe that we all have a soul. Something that is deeper, more meaningful, and more essential than just our bodies.
Our soul is our spirit. Our soul is what guides us. Our soul is what makes us who we are.
The interesting thing is that everyday, our molecules, atoms, and body parts are being changed. From when we were 5 years old to now, our atoms are totally different and changed. There is no one identical cell in our bodies from when we were children until now. The only thing that (possibly) could have stayed consistent is our soul.
I don’t think you need to be religious to believe in a soul. Even for myself (I’m Catholic), I am starting to become less religious, and more spiritual. I follow the life and examples of Jesus, the Stoics, and believe that a soul does exist.
For myself, I don’t believe that a soul exists that can be weighed like matter. It is something deeper, that us human beings could never understand or comprehend. I certainly have no proof that a soul exists; but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have one. I also believe that everyone has a soul. I feel that having a soul is what separates us human beings from other animals.
3. Peeling away the layers of an onion
So soul questions aside, how can we go about capturing the soul of a person?
To start off, I think to capture the soul of a person is to peel away layers of an onion.
Everyone on the outside has a ‘front’ — an exterior that they want to show to others. Sociologists call this the ‘presentation of self’ — we all want to show ourselves in a favorable light to others. This is what dictates how we present ourselves to the rest of the world, through our Facebook profile pictures, through our Instagram feeds, through the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, and the ‘lifestyle’ that we live.
But as photographers, we need to go deeper. We need to peel away these superficial layers of our subjects, to reveal something deeper. We need to peel away these layers, to reveal the inner-soul of our subjects.
So how do we do that?
I will outline some possible ideas:
4. Capture the ‘unguarded moment’
I think it is the photography writer Geoff Dyer who used the phrase the ‘unguarded moment’ — the moment that a person drops their guard.
In my vernacular, it means when people ‘stop fronting’ — or stop pretending to be someone that they’re not.
There are certain ways you can do this. This is what has worked for me:
First of all, you can photograph your subject while you’re talking to them. Whenever I approach a stranger and ask to make a portrait of them, I usually ask them open-ended questions like:
- What is your life story?
- What are you up to today?
- Can you tell me the story behind your necklace?
I cannot talk to people and photograph at the same time. Therefore, the benefit of asking these open-ended questions is that your subject goes into ‘storytelling mode’ — and totally forgets that you’re there. They drop their guard. These moments are often the ‘unguarded moment’ you are trying to capture.
Another way you can get someone to drop their guard is this: to make physical contact with them. By reaching out your hand, to shake their hand. The moment you make physical touch with them (through a fist-bump, a hand-shake, or maybe even a hug), people instantly trust you a lot more.
I know for myself, I will ask people: “How’s it going boss?” (and offer my fist to fist-bump them). I’ve never had anyone (not) fist-bump me back. Not only that, but whenever I ask people: “How are you doing?” while offering them my hand (to shake their hand) I have never had someone not shake my hand back.
I even often pat people on their shoulder or their back, in a friendly way. Even if they are a total stranger. And almost nobody minds this. And once I make that physical contact with someone, they are more likely to tell me their life story, to let me make many photos of them, or for them to even pose for me.
5. Ask deep questions
If you really want to capture deep in someone’s soul — you need to ask them deeper questions.
One question I have asked my subjects: “Can you tell me a story of a very difficult time you had in your life, and how you overcame it?” This way, I dig deep— with a deep question, yet still frame it in a positive way.
When I usually ask people this question, they look down, they ruminate, think, and something deeper about their personality comes out. Not only that, but strangers are often very willing to tell their deepest, darkest, and saddest life experiences with (other fellow) strangers, like myself.
We often are scared to ask people deep questions about life. Especially with our loved ones, friends, and close acquaintances.
As for me, I’m sick of fluffy ‘filler’ talk. I hate doing small talk (beyond the necessary). I want to ask people deeper questions about life. I want to know people’s life philosophies. I want to learn their life struggles, and how they overcame it. I want to do this as a chance to get people to reveal their soul to me, and for a chance for me to connect with them deeper.
6. First, share your own soul
I have also found it easier to have someone open up their soul to me, if I first open up their soul to them.
For example, I don’t really have a big problem telling people that I grew up poor, not knowing if I would become homeless at the end of the month, or the shitty childhood I had growing up. And frankly speaking, everyone has (in one way or another) had a shitty childhood. And problems in the house— between parents, or extended family. We have all had struggles, difficult times, and hardships. The sooner we open up to others, the sooner they open up to us.
7. Try to bridge the gap by finding the ‘common ground’ between you and your subject
I’m always trying to bridge the gap. No matter how different I may seem from someone else— regardless of the difference in our skin tone, our religion, our upbringing, our age, gender, whatever — there is always some common ground we can agree on. And that is what I’m looking for.
It can be something as simple as food, taste in art, photography, music, or movies. It can be something deeper— like a life philosophy. Things we believe in, or things we don’t believe in.
But you need to probe people, and ask them tough questions, if you want honest-to-God answers.
8. Push yourself to take 25% more photos
For myself, when I’m making portraits of someone, the first shots are never any good. Usually my best photos are somewhere in the middle, or in the end. This is because when I start making portraits of someone, they are still cold and stiff. They haven’t warmed up to me yet; and I haven’t warmed up to them yet.
I need to engage my subjects to get better expressions— through their face, their hands, and their body language. I try to follow the 25% rule — when I think I got a good photo, I remind myself: I haven’t got a good photo. I try to shoot 25% more than I think I should. And often by pushing myself that extra 25% (in terms of making more photos, or trying a different angle or composition) — I get a much better image.
I think the biggest misconception that photographers have is that a ‘decisive moment’ is just one or two photos, and that is it. No. We need to ‘work the scene’ and take many photos, before we can catch one ‘decisive moment’ or one good ‘unguarded moment’ where someone reveals their soul to us.
So when in doubt, try to shoot 25% more than you think you should.
9. Do you like having your own portrait made?
One of the biggest deterrents that gets in the way of photographers in making portraits is this: they aren’t comfortable having their own photograph taken.
If you don’t like having your own portrait taken — you will have a very hard time feeling comfortable making the portraits of others.
The mistake we make is this: we think that everyone else thinks like us. For example, if you don’t like having your own photograph taken, you will assume (wrongly) that everyone else doesn’t like to have their portrait made. But in reality, there are people (like myself) that love having their image made.
So the first step to capturing someone’s soul in a photograph is to learn how to capture your own soul in your own photograph.
You can do this in different ways. Give your camera to a loved one and ask them to make portraits of you. Or put your camera on a tripod, and photograph yourself. Or just use your smartphone camera to do artistic selfies of yourself. Learn how you look on the other side of the lens. Become comfortable with yourself. And be comfortable opening up yourself, your soul, to the lens. Don’t hide anything. The more naked (not literally) you make yourself, the more honest your photos will be.
Shoot your shadow, your reflection in the mirror, or yourself in a pool of water. Study the self-portraits of Vivian Maier and Lee Friedlander, for some good selfie inspiration.
10. Fake it ‘till you make it
Even now, I am often afraid of making portraits of others— especially strangers.
You gotta fake it ‘till you make it. If you’re nervous, pretend like you’re not nervous. Then your fear will go away.
I always pretend to be more confident than I am. And that manifests in a positive way. I speak with a clearer voice, I stand up straighter, and I don’t hesitate when I talk. I make eye contact. I laugh. I am more physically affectionate. This helps build my confidence through actions.
I know for myself when I hesitate, I stall. I freeze. I die a little inside. I lose my confidence when I hesitate.
11. Make a portrait (Don’t take a picture)
Therefore, the only step is forward. Say hello, and introduce yourself. Extend your hand to build a connection. And ask your subject for permission to make their portrait (not to just ‘take’ their ‘picture’).
Asking someone to make their portrait sounds much more artistic, meaningful, and purposeful. And you can offer to email them a copy of their portrait. Who doesn’t want an artistic portrait of themselves? Especially if the photographer has some fancy camera.
Also another tip is while you’re making the portrait of someone, show them the LCD on the back of your camera. Make them a part of the portrait session.
Another tip — if your subject is nervous or uncomfortable, hand your camera to them, and ask them to make some portraits of you. This will help bridge the gap, create you and your subject as equals, and build more trust and intimacy.
12. All portraits are self-portraits
When you’re making a portrait of someone, you are revealing something about yourself. So in a sense, trying to capture the soul of a person is to reveal your own soul in the photo.
For example, I am a very optimistic person, and I love people (this is why several of my photos have laughing ladies). But at the same time, there are times that I feel darker, more cynical about society, and depressive. Therefore, when I feel in a darker mood, my photos reflect it.
To be frank, most of my photos are actually pretty dark and depressing. I think that shows something deep about my soul.
So know that no matter how ‘objective’ you try to be as a photographer, your images will always show a bit of your own soul.
13. Which portrait do you choose?
I feel one of the biggest decisions you make as a photographer is choosing the image you prefer the most. You choose the photograph (which you think) reveals your subject’s soul.
Follow your heart and gut. If a photograph doesn’t feel right, listen to your heart. Trust your instincts.
When I look through portraits I make of others, I try to find some sort of emotion, soul, or gesture, or eye contact— that stirs something in my heart. It must hit me in the gut. If a photograph doesn’t immediately punch me in the stomach with some sort of deeper meaning or mood — I must ditch the photo. Only photographs with emotions are worthwhile.
There is really no science to choosing your best images. It is like poetry; a combination of structure (composition), but mostly emotion and mood.
Trust your heart and soul, and instinct to choose the right image.
14. Portraiture is a life-long journey
I know for myself, making portraits is my primary passion. I know that portraits of fellow human beings will be eternal. They won’t fade out of fashion.
Humans have been making portraits for millennia. I actually find some of the best inspiration for portraits from Renaissance painters (Leonardo da Vinci) being a main character, as well as sculptors from ancient Rome/Greece.
Even Richard Avedon, who I consider the best portrait photographer who ever lived, was never fully able to master portraiture. He was a perfectionist, and he was active until he died. Avedon captured many great souls in his photographs; and his photographs still live with us. But they show more about Avedon than his subjects. So I guess Avedon got a win-win situation— capturing the souls of his subjects and his own soul.
15. Practical assignments to capture soul in a portrait
Okay, so this article is a bit theoretical, and maybe too wishy-washy.
I want to give you some practical assignment which could help you make more soulful portraits:
1. Self-portrait project:
Shoot a self-portrait project of yourself. Learn how to become comfortable on the other side of the lens. Have your partner photograph you, or just photograph yourself. Make a series of 5 photos which you feel reveals your soul.
2. 5 Yes, 5 No
Approach a bunch of strangers one day, and keep asking people to make their portrait until you get 5 people to say ‘yes’ and 5 people to say ‘no.’ You must keep asking until you get 5/5. And trust me, often getting the no’s are harder than it may seem.
This will help you overcome any sort of hesitancy you might have approaching strangers. And it will help you overcome the fear of rejection.
3. Ask deep, open-ended questions
If you do get someone to agree to having their portrait made, push your comfort zone, and ask deep questions, like:
- What do you think is your purpose in life?
- How do you define happiness?
- What was the most difficult situation in your life, and how did you overcome it?
- Do you believe in a soul?
- Who is your hero in life, and why?
This will cause people to drop their guard, and no longer think of you. And it will give you a chance for people to reveal their inner-soul with you.
Conclusion: Never stop searching
So try out these 3 simple assignments to get you started.
And if you want to learn how to make better portraits, I recommend studying the sketches/drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, studying the portraits of Richard Avedon, and by spending more time looking at faces.
There is nothing more fascinating than a human face. Let us strive to capture it in all its beauty, with all its flaws, and with all its soul.
For further guidance, check out my free ebook: “The Street Portrait Manual”