What’s the secret ingredient to the best portraits?

Above: Image by Gina Milicia

I once worked as a pasta chef in an Italian restaurant that was famous for its bolognese sauce. It was packed out every night with bolognese junkies who couldn’t get enough of Chef Rosa’s secret sauce.

Whenever anyone asked if Chef Rosa would share the recipe she would generously hand it out. At the time I thought that by giving away her precious recipe that Rosa would eventually lose patrons. Why eat out when you can make it at home for free? When I voiced my concerns, Rosa smiled and said, “I only give them the raw ingredients, the secret to a great sauce can’t be measured, bought or taught. It has to be earned from hard work and experience.”

This was a powerful life lesson. Finding out “how” something is done is the easy part. Mastering a skill and making something memorable can’t be hacked together.

A great portrait has many similarities to a great bolognese sauce. First, you need the best raw ingredients – pose, aperture, focal length, lighting and post-production. These come in many different styles but without the secret ingredient, even the most technically brilliant image will always feel like something is missing.

Whenever I see a great portrait by my favourite photography masters I always remember Rosa’s words of wisdom. The portraits of Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Leibovitz are all technically brilliant but that’s not why I’m inspired by them. The thing these masters all have in common is that “it” factor or a dash of secret sauce.

The secret sauce is the “life” that they bring to their portraits. This “life” is hard to define or break down and impossible to copy because just like Rosa’s special sauce it can’t be imitated. Every photographer will bring a different energy to a portrait.

So next time you photograph someone don’t forget to add the most crucial ingredient – a dash of life. These tiny tweaks make a big difference to the final product. If you’re not sure how to do this, here are a few tips.

1. Photograph the things you care about

If you don’t care about the subjects you photograph then why would anyone else? Great artists make the ordinary look extraordinary. Start with photographing the subjects that are meaningful to you.

2. “Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second rate version of somebody else.” – Judy Garland

If you want your work to stand out and have depth and authenticity then be original.

If you want to blend in or become invisible then copy the latest “so hot right now” trends on Instagram.

3. Emotion

Everything your model is thinking and feeling will show in their eyes. A portrait with cold, emotionless eyes will look flat. Try and do everything in your power to change their thoughts to capture some emotion in their eyes. This can be done by visualization techniques, storytelling or distraction.

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About Gina

Gina Milicia is one of the most widely known and respected photographers in Australia. She is the master of capturing that ‘magical moment’... READ MORE

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