Lessons Learned and Unveiling the Art of Creating Authentic Portraits with Iowa Farm Families

Lessons Learned and Unveiling the Art of Creating Authentic Portraits with Iowa Farm Families

Embarking on the journey of crafting a portrait as a non-portrait photographer can be daunting, often accompanied by feelings of anxiety and low confidence. However, creating a photograph need not be an overwhelming task. With a few simple pointers, you can step into the realm of portrait photography with a newfound sense of capability and confidence.


Whether you are a portrait photographer or not, posing is one of the most critical aspects of creating a portrait. Having a well-posed subject will tell the story you are trying to communicate.

  • Body Language: Your subject’s body language will express their personality. Having your subject with arms crossed and a rigid stance will show anger and frustration. If your subject’s hands are on their hips, it will convey power and assertiveness. Remember that body language can enhance the visual impact of creating impactful images.
  • Simple and Relaxed Poses: Not all subjects will be comfortable in front of the camera, and you may not be behind the camera. Keeping it simple makes it much less stressful for you and the subject. People will naturally pose themselves without knowing it. I will ask them to stand while I figure out camera settings or composition. I use that time to see how they are posing themselves. Most of the time, I make minor adjustments to the pose, and we are ready to start.
  • Incorporate the Environment: Choose a natural environment that will make the subject feel at ease. Most individuals will naturally feel more comfortable in an environment they are familiar with. Using props and surroundings will add context to your photograph. Our main goal is to tell the individual's story, and adding their environment can help tell their story. While working on a project about Iowa family farms, I used locations around the farm to tell the story. Surroundings do not have to be extravagant and complex; they are one piece of the puzzle to tell the individual's story.

Build Rapport and Become Comfortable

Building rapport is the easiest way for you and your subject to be compatible, both behind and in front of the camera.

  • First Impressions: Building rapport starts with a great first impression, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. It's as simple as good eye contact and a friendly smile. Dressing for the occasion can dramatically help make an excellent first impression. When photographing Iowa farm families, I won’t show up in blue jeans and a polo. I arrive in work boots, Carhartt work pants, and plain-colored shirts. First, this establishes that I understand their way of life and builds authenticity. Secondly, it portrays that I am here to tell their story and not worry about putting in hard work like they do every day.
  • Be Authentic: It pays to be yourself. Working with these farm families is usually my first meeting with my subjects. A family member has reached out to have me come with their approval. Being authentic while making an excellent first impression sets the tone for the entire day. Don’t try to be someone you are not because your subjects will know immediately that it is not you, and now you have another barrier to break through: trust.

Natural Lighting

Natural lighting is the easiest way to get started shooting portraits. Now, it has drawbacks, but starting your portrait journey will be less intimidating and stressful when working with your subjects. Eventually, I would work up to learning off-camera flash for endless creativity. I chose to use natural light for my project as it portrays a more authentic style to the subjects I work with and our environments. Don’t get me wrong, I show up with a truck bed of lighting gear, just in case. I have yet to use it and take it as I am a person who would rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. 

Plan Ahead

Planning is invaluable if you can. Usually, I do not have the luxury of planning the photo shoots, as it's my first time on location. You might be wondering why. First, these farm families are extremely busy, and I do not waste their time out of respect. This makes a great first impression and lets them understand that I also comprehend their way of life. It is a one-and-done commitment for them, and the rest is up to me.

Overall, each shoot is very similar, so planning and learning from past experiences is like preparing for each shoot. Once you start photographing more, you will rely on past photo shoots to prepare for the next one. Remember, if you have time to go to a location ahead of time for your session, it will be invaluable and make for a much less stressful time when the real deal comes around.

Get to Know Your Subject

Want to find the best location for your session? Get to know your subject and their story! I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the times I have found locations based on understanding the families' stories. I use this while on location, and it is beneficial. Getting to know your subjects also builds rapport and shows them that you genuinely care about creating images for them. Ultimately, you make a relationship that may be fruitful, all because you took the time to get to know them and their story.  

Communicate and Collaborate

Communication is vital while on location and is much easier when you have already gotten to know your subject and built rapport. While going from location to location, I like to create small talk with the family. I tell them my story, and they get to know me personally and see my passion for farm families like theirs and the project. This comes full circle as this small talk starts a collaboration between us to unlock new opportunities and locations while walking around. This has led to unique places to photograph on the farm.

Creating authentic portraits can be very simple and does not have to be overly complicated. Remember to take your time and get to know your subjects; great things will happen!

Justin Tedford's picture

Justin Tedford, a Midwest photographer, captures the essence of rural America along Iowa's backroads. He's a road trip junkie, enjoys exploring national parks, and savors a good cup of coffee while focusing on showcasing the beauty of the rural American landscapes.

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Thanks for writing this, it's something a lot of photographers will benefit from. And the image at the top is fantastic - a perfect example of great environmental portraiture.

Thank you Jeb! I hope you could take something away from the article!

Yes very very good advice! Not a farmer myself, just a photographer of the land and live some months a year with several farm families while doing some deer hunting. Think of it like there is a lot of alone time, like being a introvert BUT then there is friendship and working with others all over a county.
Also not a portrait photographer, my deal is just going out say at sunrise/set to catch the light but always at a meal time. There are months where there are Milky Ways or even Lunar Eclipses, it is dark at night and taking advantage of it. Also critters. All these things should also be known for if you can capture a everyday thing or say something no one ever sees but you show them it.
Like a night with a MW over their house or even over a tractor or them just enjoying sometime out, this point is during the late months the MW is seen right after sunset like June to October great for a cool night outdoors family capture with the MW in the background! Also things rarely seen like ice that forms into shapes during the night.
Sometimes that eye of yours catches something that is seen every once in awhile but worthy of a place on a wall.

Nice images! Thank you for commenting!

For me, it opens up a lot of interesting subjects for photo shoots. I had a photo shoot two years ago. The state Farm Bureau had a sporting clays shoot as fundraiser to help feed needy children. I was born and raised on a dairy farm in central Ohio; even had a cow and calf. I know of two farmers, one dairy farmer, in the county. Need to contact them. In reviewing the photos, not only are people interesting subjects but the landscape adds to their stories. Obviously there is a strong connection between the two. Justin, thanks for sharing your experience and observations.

Your welcome and thanks for commenting!

Great advice! Knowing your subject’s comfort level is important and placing them in natural positions and poses definitely makes them more comfortable.

Yes it does!