Monday, September 14, 2015

Creating Strong Portraits with Forest McMullin

 I am a freelance photographer, consultant, and photographic educator based in Atlanta, Georgia. For over twenty-five years, I have specialized in photographing people on location.

My portraits have varied as widely as inmates in prison, neo-Nazi skinheads, Mormons at sacred sites in upstate New York, CEOs, janitors, patrons of rural pubs in Wales, workers in ethnic restaurants in suburban Atlanta, professional dominatrices, African American rodeo cowboys, and homeless LGBTQ youth.

What connects all of this varied work is my genuine interest in people's stories and thoughts. I want to know why they do what they do and how they feel about their lives. I’m naturally a very curious person, and sincerely want to learn as much as I can about anyone I meet.

Photography has proven to be the perfect tool to indulge my curiosity. Having a camera gives me permission to ask questions that in other circumstances might be considered too personal or rude. It’s my skills at talking, not photography, that allow me to go into virtually any environment and come out with a strong portrait.

As an educator, students often ask me how I create portraits in which my subjects appear relaxed and comfortable even if we are strangers. After contemplating my process, I have put together a guide of what to consider when photographing portraits:

1.       In the beginning, keep your photography as simple as possible. This might mean shooting with the available light or with a simple one light setup. Make sure you’re completely familiar with your equipment. Don’t use that new, borrowed or rented camera with controls that could confuse you. At first you need to be able to concentrate on your relationship with your subject and not let the photography get in the way.

2.       Consider scouting your location in advance. This can allow you to avoid struggling with the situation in front of you and distracting you from the communication with your subject. If this isn’t possible, then keep it simple.

3.       Do research on your subject(s). This will prepare you to have a few questions and will hopefully provide you with information that you’ll want to learn more about. You don’t need to know everything about them, just enough to give you the basis for a conversation.

4.       If possible, pre-light the scene so the person doesn’t have to sit around waiting for you to wrestle with your gear. When I was shooting regularly for major magazines, I arrived at locations a minimum of two hours early to figure out where I was going to shoot and how I was going to light. If this isn’t possible, again, keep it simple.

5.       Build trust with your subject, even if you only have a few minutes, by showing genuine interest in them and engaging in conversation.

6.       Keep the conversation focused on them and ask open-ended questions: “How do feel about. . .?” “Tell me about. . .” “What was it like when. . .?” “How do you go about. . .?” Almost everyone responds to someone who expresses a genuine interest in who they are and what they think. Make sure you’re that person for anyone who has taken the time to sit in front of you and your camera.

7.       Keep part of your mind on the visual conditions of the person and the location. Use the conversation to get clues to how to tell their story visually. Is there one corner of the room that will make for a more dynamic composition? Is there a specific prop I should use in the image? While paying attention to our conversation, I’m also letting my eyes do visual reconnaissance. After all, making a great picture is why I’m there.

Great photography is still possible even if you aren’t able to follow all of these guidelines. Everything in this article is intended as starting points, not rules. Whether you’re new to photography or just new to portraiture, you’ll discover what works for you and how you can make the best pictures possible. The most important thing to discover is how to make your pictures--not mine or anyone else’s-- yours. That’s where the joy of the craft comes from!

Learn more about Forest and his work at:


  1. This was very helpful....I will put this into practice...Thanks Professor

  2. Great advice. Asking open ended questions is a perfect way to keep things moving and not awkward. Fantastic tip!