Capturing a Portrait Subject’s Essence

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

The other day after lunch at my favorite taco stand, I walked by a group of young women also having lunch and while passing overheard one of them saying, “You can’t capture the essence of a person with a photograph.”

While metaphysically we could argue about what constitutes a person’s “essence,” but I’m sure that most photographers would agree that it is not only possible but also desirable that you capture a portrait subject’s essence. Otherwise, it’s just a picture of a person. And it could be that in some young people’s mind the idea of a portrait is limited to their concept of a selfie, which I believe is the farthest thing from capturing anyone’s essence.

I went looking for an example where I captured a portrait subject’s essence starting with model, Pam Simpson, who I’ve photographed the most over the past several years.* She has many different aspects to her personality and is terrifically talented in front of the camera, capable of expressing many emotions and moods. Yet when it came time to select an image for this post I knew exactly where to look and I wanted to pass the story behind this image along for all of the aspiring portrait and glamour photographers out there:

When working with a new model, it’s been my experience that even when working with a professional it takes time to become photographically comfortable with one another. Even though the images that Pam and I made on our first shoot were quite good, any really great photographic relationship takes time. The above image was produced on our ninth shoot, almost one year after our first one. I remember the exact second I shot it as if it were yesterday: It was the moment when I realized that every one of the images we were making that day were great! And that trend of excellence continued over the next several years that we worked together.

This image, I feel captures the essence of a beautiful, uniquely stylish woman who is strong, confident in who she is as a modern woman and is in total control of her craft as a a model. There were other interesting and impressive images that we created later but this one remains in my mind as the first time we made photographic magic. I hope she agrees that this portrait captures her essence.

*I’m excited to report after an absence in my studio of more than two years, I’ll be photographing Pam later today. Is this going to be a great reunion or a Thomas Wolfe You Can’t Go Home Again moment. I can’t wait to find out. Look for some images from today’s shoot real soon now.

How I made the above image: Film noir is usually thought of as a black and white medium but I challenge that assumption as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo literally explodes with color. Two Westcott Daylight fluorescent D5’s are placed on either side of Pam, enhanced by slight underexposure at 1/100 sec at f/4 and ISO 640. It was photographed with a Panasonic Lumix GH4 and Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 lens. I used Alien Skin Software’s Exposure plug-in with the 2-Strip Technicolor preset to echo the vibrant Technicolor used in the film. A light layer of Glamour Glow filter was used to mimic the soft focus often used in movie close-ups of that era.

Pam is featured on the cover of my book Posing for Portrait & Glamour Photography and in its 159 pages you can see more of her and learn about my posing techniques. For some reason Amazon sometime displays the preliminary cover photograph, instead of the one at left.  Brand new copies of the book are available from for just $18.70, as I write this. If you would like some hands-on training, check out my one-on-one workshops.