The Key To Portrait Photography

Framefox interviewed Joel Pratley, Australia’s 2021 National Photographic Portrait prize winner to understand the key to good portrait photography. This Sydney Portrait Photographer is a self-confessed storytelling enthusiast with a knack for capturing the vulnerability of the human spirit.

Introduce Yourself…

Joel Pratley Sydney Photographer

I’m Joel Pratley, I’m currently 32, living in Redfern and I consider myself a photographic story teller. I found photography was a way for me to process the world. It is my perspective, usually capturing the underdog. I’m grateful to be able to share these images with a growing audience who get something important out of viewing them.

Your portrait photography style has a sense of under dog to your sitter. Why you are passionate about portrait photography?

I got home from an overseas trip, I was broke, and living in my grandmothers spare room. Even at rock bottom, there is a moment I knew I wanted to do portrait photography. It was the result of a backpacking photo trip I did overseas, photographing holy men and women across Asia. I got OK images, but only ok. There was something missing in most of them. I felt on the surface sure they looked great. However there was something deeper missing, an essence, or maybe an understanding? I spent a lot of time in my early twenties backpacking, so each time I came home I would fall back in with things oddly Australian.

The Japanese have an expression, called Wabi-Sabi, which is realising the beauty of somewhat mundane and ordinary things you may take for granted. I feel Australia is teeming with this. We always look outwards to pop culture of the US and sometimes Europe. I love a good underdog story. What’s not a better back drop with the subject of ‘the battlers’ in a way you mightn’t normally imagine, here in Australia.

What’s the key to a powerful portrait? 

Australia Day Sentiments
Australia Day Sentiments

Lots of layers. A shot itself can be simple, but it can also have lots of meaning, lots of feeling. ‘Drought Story’ for me, when I acknowledge both subject and a viewer is this in a image. This image is like a symbol of deeper psyche. On the surface it is a farmer marching stoically off into the distance on his property during the harshest drought Australia had ever experienced. Deeper, it represents our willingness to survive against the back drop of uncertain an future. Odds sometimes stacked well against us, yet we persist, even with just a glimmer of hope. We don’t need to see his face. In fact we relate to the figure in the picture when we face our own hardships and overcome adversity, and are better for it. That is deeply meaningful for me, beautifully human. Plus the colours and light, are just sublime. It compliments the mood and message so well.

Do you have tips for others wanting to capture the perfect portrait?

Ask yourself, what’s the image about? Ansel Adams had a great saying “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” I find the time I spend with people, a good portrait will eventually present itself. You may direct a little, or simple say hold it right there! So being aware, knowing when to click the button and more importantly, when not to. What image to choose and share is very important. Lighting, composition, all that is secondary, but a great photographer is conscious of all these things.  

Do you have any tips for picking the right portrait photograph to frame?

Portraits can be tricky, there’s a big difference between hanging a framed landscape opposed to a portrait of a stranger in your home. They’re a bold move. I find them more fascinating and engaging than a landscape, which tends to fade away from your attention after time with only guests reminding you have it. Don’t sit on the fence with portraits, if you don’t absolutely love it, don’t get it. I like to think of the meaning, the mood or the energy, and where that can be best used in the space. If it is more serious, perhaps the study or a work zone. Is it fun, playful energetic – than a living room or kitchen.

What’s your favourite thing about being behind the lens?

Being able to take risks. It take’s me to places, physically, mentally and sometimes spiritually I would never dare step without my camera. And in the end, I love that.

Congratulations on winning Australia’s 2021 National Photographic Portrait prize for your shot, Why Am I Here. Can you share the story behind the image with us?

Drought Story Australia’s 2021 National Photographic Portrait
Why Am I Here? Drought Story 2020. Australia’s 2021 National Photographic Portrait Prize Winner

I didn’t think that I would ever personally win, I’ve never won anything in my life! This image however isn’t about me, and I believe in the image itself. And I am glad to know it connects with others as well.

The image, ‘Why am I here?’ captures David Kalisch on his farm in Forbes, New South Wales. What brought us out to Forbes originally was that we wanted to capture how tough farmers were doing it in the peak of drought, and help promote how people could donate and help. This shot was made possible with the help of A real special thanks to @campbellbrown_dp (DOP) & @kyrabartley (Director). I wouldn’t of got this photo if it wasn’t for them. I’d also like to thank other members involved with this project Rurual Aid @basirsalleh & Doug Hamilton at @bmfaustralia . Dung, Britt & Sarah at BPAY. Selena Simpson at @sunstudios for bringing this image to life as a gorgeous print that’s now hung in the gallery.

There’s the Kalisch’s of course, who gave us their time during this moment of hardship along with other farmers we visited as well, including Rhonda, Tony and Mark. As you can see, I was a very small piece of that puzzle who happened to get this photo. Right place, right time. So again, I am so grateful. Thank you to everyone who is part of this. It is so special, and so rewarding for everyone who gets to be involved within the image, and the National Portrait Prize.

Purchase ‘Why am I here’ the print >
$100 from each sale goes to RuralAid
Get the print, Framefox can help frame it for you.

Where can our community connect with you?

Visit Joel Pratley’s website >
Connect on Instagram, @Pratley >