How to Shoot the Perfect Portrait: Tom Johnson

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Portrait of Britain is inviting photographers to submit images that reflect the unique heritage and diversity of our country and show the face of modern Britain. 100 winning portraits will be selected for a public exhibition showcased nationwide in September 2016. Due to exceptional demand we’ve extended the deadline to Saturday 2 July – find out more here and get involved.
We’re asking portrait photographers what goes into making the perfect portrait – this week we hear from photographer Tom Johnson. 
In your view, what makes a compelling portrait?
All the normal rules are really important – connection, structure & emotion. But I think there’s this element that you can’t really describe: that ‘off’ moment, or where everything seems to make sense and come together. What I find compelling about portraiture is the element of mystery each time. There is no formula of how it will turn out. It’s a combination between you and the subject, and sometimes that connection is instantaneous and other times more difficult and that can be a part of the reward. A compelling portrait is in many ways that tension.
What attracts you to a potential subject?
Sometimes people just have something about them. It might be a feeling, the way they are sitting when I see them, the way the light is falling on them. I think it’s important to treat anyone you photograph correctly with sensitivity, dignity and respect; you have a lot of responsibility in how you portray someone in 1/250th of a second.
How do you connect with your subjects and gain their trust?
If you’re open and honest and open with your intentions, this tends to put people at ease. I think people can tell quite quickly if your heart isn’t in it. There are lots of people I’ve approached where something didn’t click and the moment was lost. I run it over in my head why it didn’t and what I could have done differently. The more experience you get, the quicker you can begin to see whether it will work or not. You can try and orchestrate a situation as much as you want but really, you’re in the hands of your subject. Sometimes you can do very little and it can say a lot.
What makes you turn to portraiture over other genres?
Quite simply, people. Out of a simple interaction with another human you can learn so much. If you want to learn about a city, a place, a feeling – I don’t think there’s any better way. When I get a camera in my hands I feel like it as an excuse to interact with people and go to places I wouldn’t normally feel comfortable.
When was the first time you became aware of photography?
When I was younger I wanted a way to express myself visually, I realised I couldn’t draw or paint so I got a camera and would photograph everything and anything. I started shooting gigs I went to and people I met. I fell in love with the process of being able to create something instantly and most of all wandering around and learning about the world in my own kind of way.

What’s your favourite portrait/series of a British person/people?
A series I feel an affinity with has to be Daniel Meadow’s The Free Photographic Omnibus. In the 1970s he drove across the UK in this old double-decker bus photographing people. He used it as his house, his darkroom and a gallery and would give the pictures back to the people he photographed. The notion of being mobile & uninhibited geographically gives you the freedom to connect with anyone.

Want millions of people nationwide to see your image? 100 winning portraits for a public exhibition to be showcased on JCDecaux digital screens nationwide – enter Portrait of Britain. Deadline: Monday 20th June 2016.