Visual Culture

Celebrity Photographer Benedict Evans Shares How to Take Better Portraits

Benedict Evans, Tessa Thompson. Courtesy of the artist.

Benedict Evans, Tessa Thompson. Courtesy of the artist.

Benedict Evans,  ASAP Rocky.  Courtesy of the artist.

Benedict Evans, ASAP Rocky. Courtesy of the artist.

The first rule when taking someone’s portrait is to be confident, said celebrity portrait photographer Benedict Evans. No matter how long you have been shooting, if you’re confident behind the camera, the people you photograph will be, too.
“In my experience, it’s important for all subjects—those who are used to being photographed, as well as those who are not—to feel that their image is in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing,” Evans said. He demonstrates confidence by starting each session with specific direction, though he frequently gives less instruction as the shoot goes on. “Often, the unexpected reactions are what make the picture work,” he said.
Benedict Evans,  Matthew McConaughey.  Courtesy of the artist.

Benedict Evans, Matthew McConaughey. Courtesy of the artist.

The British, Brooklyn-based photographer has only been freelancing full-time for under five years, yet he has already worked on intensive, high-profile projects, such as the “Body Issue” for ESPN The Magazine, and a series of over 100 Republican voters for New York magazine. He also regularly takes portraits for The Guardian, Variety, and Wired UK.
A good portrait can be deceptively simple. Evans recalled a fellow photographer’s preference for a portrait to be like “a line in a poem that the reader keeps going back to, re-reading, and unpacking.” It should also feel genuine, which can be hard to do in a contrived setting, he added.
And while photographers may look to others for inspiration, “imitation can be the death of [the creative process],” Evans said.
Here, Evans shares five essential tips for taking portraits.

Focus all of your attention on the subject

Benedict Evans,  India Arie.  Courtesy of the artist.

Benedict Evans, India Arie. Courtesy of the artist.

“Nothing encourages a subject to open themselves up to you and be present more than the feeling that they are of genuine interest to you,” Evans emphasized. Before each sitting, he clears his mind of everything but the person he is about to shoot; during the shoot, he is sensitive to how they react to his direction.

Be wary of mistaking the familiar for the interesting

“Sometimes, I’ll look through the camera and momentarily think, ‘This is fantastic,’ but then I realize that [it’s] just reminding me of something I’ve seen before,” Evans said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also one of the reasons I often play Miles Davis while I shoot: He used to say to his band, ‘Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.’”

Stay open to the unexpected, no matter how much pressure you’re under

Benedict Evans,  Ronan Farrow.  Courtesy of the artist.

Benedict Evans, Ronan Farrow. Courtesy of the artist.

Benedict Evans,  Janet Mock.  Courtesy of the artist.

Benedict Evans, Janet Mock. Courtesy of the artist.

While it’s important to have a plan, it’s just as important to be aware when the unexpected happens, “as it’s very likely to be more interesting than what you’d imagined,” Evans said. At times, he has less than five minutes of a celebrity’s time, so he is always prepared with an outline for the shoot, but he also knows when to forego it. “You have to give room to the subject to bring something unexpected to the picture,” he noted. “Often, my favorite picture from a sitting is the one I never thought I’d be taking when I got up that morning.”

Avoid relying on technical tricks to develop your voice

“I think the days of being able to carve a career out of being the only person who lights in a certain way, or uses a certain type of camera, or does a certain thing in post-production are in the past,” Evans said. He works “in a fairly fluid way,” aiming for his voice to be present in all of his work, without pushing a signature look or trope. “The photographers I admire the most are those whose work is identifiable at a glance, and yet continue to surprise me,” he said.

Gauge how far you should push your subject

Benedict Evans, Jonathon Lethem.  Courtesy of the artist.

Benedict Evans, Jonathon Lethem. Courtesy of the artist.

Photographers control how much they ask of their subjects, both emotionally and physically. “[Push] too far, and you’ve been disrespectful; not far enough, and you’ve left something on the table,” Evans cautioned. When he assesses where the line is, he “steps just over it, and then retreats,” he explained. “I’ve been thanked after the fact by subjects for pushing them a littlebit out of their comfort zone. Be willing to get out of yours, too.”
Jacqui Palumbo is a Senior Editor at Artsy.