Creating a Unique Portrait

by Guest Author Ted Dayton

Creating a truly unique portrait is challenging for many reasons, one being that we have all seen so many portraits. We see common portraits all day, every day, as we interact with people during the normal course of life, recording those moments mentally. We see faces in places, all day long.

So, it is understandable that we would make portraits that look similar to how we see people during the normal course of things. But creating a portrait that really holds our attention requires that we look more closely, both at our subjects and at ourselves.

The portrait you see here is the result of a combination of many aspects of creativity: conscious intent, fortunate accidents, out-of-the-box thinking, and my favorite, not thinking much at all. Instead, what makes this portrait successful is a willingness to take what comes, absorb what is available whether I am aware of it or not, and trusting my instincts. This all sounds like a recipe for failure and in some cases that is exactly what happens. You must be willing to risk failure and you must refuse to take an ordinary portrait.

"The Photographer"

If you take a portrait by trying to apply things that you understand consciously or have been told to do or have read that you should do, you will be sort of painting-by-numbers. My best portraits have been the result of letting the subject call to me in some way, allowing myself to be led in some direction I hadn’t planned on. Maddening, I know. I have not yet said what it is that I DO.

And that might be just the point. Spontaneity is a key element of creativity, and in portraiture it is required not just of the subject in order to have a natural pose and expression, but also of the photographer. If the technical and mechanical aspects of a portrait session have been worked out quickly, both photographer and subject can then just communicate, which allows them both to be spontaneous.

For this portrait, I started by shooting with the 4×5 camera you see in the frame. But something happened along the way. As I mixed in a few shots using other cameras, I noticed how interesting the shot looked from behind the 4×5, not just through it, and I knew that I had arrived at something unusual. I then refined this as though it was my original plan, knowing it would result in something better than any of the pictures I had taken so far.

The point might be simply to take more time and be open to possibilities that you had not considered before. Loosen your grip, so to speak, and be willing to discover that your original idea doesn’t work. Do get things technically sound but don’t get hung up there. At some point, you have to stop building the picture and just trust your instincts and shoot.


You can see more of Ted’s work at

Ted has a portrait workshop coming up on May 27. For more info, go to

2 thoughts on “Creating a Unique Portrait

  1. Ted,
    This is a very inspiring article. The admonition to be willing to risk failure and to never make an ordinary portrait really speaks to the heart and soul. That’s right on target and your portraiture certainly exemplifies your philosophy.

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