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 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, and Robert Mapplethorpe 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. Bring your best mood to the shoot. Your model will mirror your mood so do everything you can to bring your best self to the shoot. It’s very hard to have an energetic shoot if you are feeling flat, lethargic or on auto pilot.
  2. Give people actions and ask them to repeat them over and over. Nothing too complicated and one thing at a time. If you’ve ever tried rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time you know how difficult this can be.
  3. Look for the in between moments when people start to naturally engage or laugh off camera
  4. Allow people to settle into a pose or set up and interpret it in their own way.
  5. Give eyelines and poses as starting points and allow everyone to relax into each shot.
  6. Have fun, laugh with your models, joke, tell stories and do whatever it takes.


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About Gina

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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