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When I became a photojournalist, portraits were a dreaded assignment. I wanted to document real people living real lives, not direct them like a studio photographer.
Initially I hid behind my documentarian role to avoid the hard work of corralling light. But as I learned more about portraiture, I wanted to get better—so I consumed the lavish sets of Annie Leibovitz; the sculpted light of Martin Schoeller; the whimsical, dark vision of Dan Winters; the dynamism of Robert Seale.
Making an emotional connection with a subject to tell a story with an image is a skill I find more valuable than slick lighting, perfect hair and teeth, or a celebrity face. The portraits made by Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Walker Evans and Sally Mann have helped me tell the story of a person, a place or a moment in history.
I’ve gotten better at lighting and directing people who begin a photo session with, “I hate photos of myself.” The most meaningful portraits I have made are not those for a newspaper or a business client. They’ve been grandparents at someone’s wedding, my nieces as they grow, my family at ease. The portraits I value the most are the environmental and the informal.
Looking back through my family photos, it’s the candid portraits that stand out. A moment of connection between family members, the peak action of a laugh, the details of a bedroom or a set of toys that add to the nostalgia. Portraits don’t always need to be taken in a studio or in our best clothes. They can be “found” in our everyday lives.
The class photo on the mantel has an official purpose—to pause the march of time from grade to grade. The same is true for the annual family Christmas card and the child in bluebonnets. The images that stop me in my tracks, however, are the laughter, the quiet connection, the unaware expressions of self.
The only secret is practice. Try bringing your camera everywhere for a day. If you make picture-taking a seamless part of everyday life, the people you photograph won’t think twice when you point the lens in their direction.
Hunt the good light in your house, your backyard or on the walk to the park. If you want to make a noncandid portrait, the window light from a north- or south-facing window will be the most flattering, along with the golden hours just before dusk and just after dawn.
Observe the moments that spark your connection and joy. Think about what makes a person light up, and see if you can capture it. One fleeting and hard-won image like this is worth a thousand studio sessions.
Julia Robinson is a photojournalist and her Austin family’s unofficial archivist. See more of her work at juliarobinsonphoto.com.