Creating Affecting Character Portraits: Fstoppers Interviews Wayne Simpson

Canadian portrait photographer Wayne Simpson is known for his highly personal, beautifully lit character portraits. The emotional quality of his work isn’t just created with the camera or lights, though. It’s in how he relates to his subjects.

I was introduced to Simpson’s work by a mutual friend, and as soon as I saw the intimate portraits of compelling people, I wanted to know their stories. To me, that is the sign of a master portraitist, and I immediately wanted to find out more about Simpson and how he approaches the art of portrait photography.

Simpson’s journey into character portraits started with hard advice from a friend who told him: “Buddy, you need to do personal work. You gotta experiment, you gotta get out there and do something for you.” At the time, Simpson was focused on weddings and environmental portraits, but wasn’t making a personal connection with his subjects, either emotionally or with the camera. “I was ‘attempting’ to do portraits,” he said with a chuckle. “For some reason, I thought it was okay to put a little, tiny person in a landscape and call it a portrait. And I’ll specialize in lighting if I just throw some light at them and lift the shadows.”

Shared with permission of Wayne Simpson

During the first shoot he organized after getting that advice, Simpson was experimenting with light with no pressure from a client, and when he looked at the back of his camera, it changed everything. Since then, he’s never looked back. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. He knew where he wanted to take his vision but had yet to develop his own style, so he studied the work of photographers he admired, like Joey L, Joe McNally, and Drew Gardener. Simpson would try to replicate their work or post-processing. “To tell you the truth, I basically failed miserably,” he remembers with a laugh. “But the good thing is that was the birth of my own style.”

So, it was in the ability to take chances with his personal work and having the option to fail and make mistakes that Simpson began to craft the affecting visual style that so lovingly captures his subjects. And it’s in his connection to those subjects that the power of his work comes through. “For some reason, I tend to be drawn to people that demonstrate some kind of resilience,” Simpson said.

Shared with permission of Wayne Simpson

How does Simpson find these fascinating subjects? Over the years of photographing people, he’s trained himself to pay attention, to watch people and listen for those snippets of conversation that signal a person has an interesting story to tell. In the beginning, he looked for people to work with who had interesting visual appeal, but that has progressed and been refined into something more heartfelt and personal. Now, Simpson takes the time to learn about his subjects, getting to know them and finding ways he can appreciate and relate to their stories. “The longer it went on, the more I realize that every one of these experiences with people is life-changing and life-enriching in some way, whether it’s big or small.” 

From stories of tragedies and triumph, Simpson lovingly crafts portraits that celebrate the resilience of his subjects. When he begins conceptualizing his portraits, he puts story first, sometimes writing about his subjects to get in the right frame of mind. That purpose carries through to the choice of location, making sure the environment helps tell the story of his subject or reveals something of their character. He also looks for the ability to create depth during a shoot; the environment must give him the option for both wide establishing shots with background and tighter, more intimate shots. That depth also shows itself in the way he lights a scene, often with more than one light source, whether natural or artificial, so there is good separation between subject and the background.

Shared with permission of Wayne Simpson

He prefers for his subjects to feel like they’re part of the space they’re in, and rather than using color contrast to create visual separation, he prefers to use light and depth of field. Along with a generally desaturated color palette, what stands out most about Simpson’s work is the clear care and admiration he has for his subjects. Each is rendered with care and exacting detail as Simpson creates portraits that tell stories about the grit, resilience, and character of his subjects. For other photographers looking to create character portraits in the same vein, it’s important to keep in mind that the portraits Simpson creates have their genesis in the honest interest, care, and empathy Simpson has for the people he works with. Every creative choice he makes is a reflection of his desire to tell their stories well, and any photographer starting from that place is on a hopeful path.

To see more of Simpson’s work or get updates on his book, head over to his website or follow him on Instagram.

Lead image courtesy of Wayne Simpson

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microteck's picture

Totally love these shots. It's almost magical.

Nicole York's picture


Wayne Simpson's picture

Appreciate that, thanks for the comment!

Andrew Morse's picture

Wayne spoke at my local camera club not that long ago - he was an excellent speaker and absolutely worth the attendance. I'm not a portrait guy, but I love his work.

Wayne Simpson's picture

Thanks so much, happy you enjoyed the talk!

Marek Stefech's picture

i dont like when is flash too obvious in pictures, it killing atmosphere.

Lawrence S's picture

He does have some skill. But I see lots of old weathered men with big beards lit up in the same way. I get you pick your models, but making a intriguing portrait with a boring face is a lot more challenging.

microteck's picture

I agree that an old weathered face has character and a boring face would be harder to photograph. Can you please post a few examples below.

Lawrence S's picture

You really want me to post a random photo of a weathered face and a boring face? Try going outside and look around. Or Google.

microteck's picture

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. That's why I wanted to see something with your opinion, since you were the one that mentioned a boring face is harder. Perhaps I could learn something from you. Just asking.

Lawrence S's picture

Your first sentence was a complete agreement with my point. And yet you ask me to post photos. In a comment section. It makes little sense. If I said "I make better pictures of boring people than this guy does from super photogenic people", it might. But I did not. So yes, you came on a bit strong for no reason.

Nicole York's picture

An interesting point that has nothing to do with the article. I appreciate what you're trying to say, but that would be like showing up on an article about beauty photography and saying "you're pretty good, but landscapes are harder." It's unnecessary. And if you head to Wayne's website, you'll see that while he'd obviously photographed many bearded men, he has equally well taken photos of young women, climbers, and burly young men, all photographed with equal care and facility.

Lawrence S's picture

First, nowhere did I claim that he -only- takes pictures of bearded men. Secondly, why state that incredible false analogy? You're talking about two completely different subdomains within the craft of photography, each with equally different techniques, subjects and equipment. I was merely talking about different -faces- in the art of portraits, beneath an article about... portraits. Thirdly, three other people gave their opinion about his work in the comments, without mentioning anything about the content of the article.

It's amazing you're actually the author, tuning in to come and point out my comment (1 out of 9) was unnecessary.

Nicole York's picture

If I didn't bother to respond to anyone else, you might want to consider why that is.

Lawrence S's picture

Yes, we already know you believe my comment is unnecessary. You already tried to explain that with a ridiculous analogy. Maybe add a disclaimer at the end of your next article, asking to only post short and one-sided comments.

Wayne Simpson's picture

I can't believe I'm actually stooping to the this level but once you turned on Nicole (who is a wonderful writer, photographer and person), I just had to chime in. First of all, it is absolutely fine if you don't like my work... I get it and I am okay with that. To feel that you should chime in on an article that has made someone proud and happy only to belittle them is simply unacceptable and wrong. I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt and thought to myself "maybe he's just had a bad day or something..." but you kept on demonstrating in the comments that you were not simply having a bad day. I thought I'd look back at other comments you have left in the forum and it's sadly very consistent... you are a very negative person. I'm sorry that you feel you need to be that way. I realize that everyone is the way they are for a reason, I'm not trying to be nasty here... but I think you should pause for a moment and look back at your comments... then think of how some of those comments make others feel.

I'm sure you are a wonderful photographer, but even if you were not I'd only comment with kindness in hopes of encouraging you... a fellow photographer who is doing something they love. If a critique was solicited, I'd happily accept your criticism, but no criticism was requested. My work was shared because many people enjoy it, and I am doing something that many people connect with. If you don't like it or disagree with the subject matter I can respect that... but if you try to belittle me or the writer of the article... I've got zero respect.

Lawrence S's picture

Amazing. More twisting of words, just to make sure it fits the crusade. How do you expect me to react if you quote me wrong or just make up things? Be thankful? Laugh about it? Shake hands?

Let's zoom out and look back at my initial comment, you know, before my comment was compared to "saying to a portrait photographer that landscape is harder" and other passive aggressiveness for no reason.

The comment:

"He does have some skill. But I see lots of old weathered men with big beards lit up in the same way. I get you pick your models, but making a intriguing portrait with a boring face is a lot more challenging. "

I start with a compliment. Than I pseudo sarcastically describe what I saw from a quick glance on your portfolio. I end my comment with a general remark that applies to anyone taking any photo of anyone. It's based on my own experience, it is based on photos of other people. It was just a statement. Without giving myself too much credit, it was the only comment with more than one layer or just a compliment. Actually - the mistake I made, is to state something that is obvious, namely that it's easier to make a good photo of people with a face with lots of character. Nobody is going to deny it is not. But apparently this is a red flag for some people.

In another place and in many talks I had with colleagues and friends around me, this statement could have resulted in a short but healthy debat about pros and cons and how people pick their models, how to be consistent, how they are lit etc...

But no. This comment has resulted in someone demanding I show examples of my own work and the author dropping in to tell that my comment - and thus my opinion - is irrelevant. Is that connecting with your community. Your readers? How is that respectful? This is really the first time ever that I watch an author chiming in to tell a comment is unnecessary without any valid reason, just a ridiculous analogy. If the only reason is that I was not 100% positive about your work, but about 80%, it's extremely childish.

To end it all, you come in and start to imply that I heavily criticised your work (I did not) and attacked the author (I did not). You accuse me of belittling her - while I only reacted to her condescending tone and what she said about my comment - which, again she called unnecessary - which is objectively slightly arrogant.

If you believe that this is fine and her privilege as an author, there is something seriously wrong with both your vision of what remains of true journalism.

But why bother, I'm sure you're going to ignore all these points and correct quotations and just call me negative again. But I'm not going to let it slide if someone accuses me of things I have not done nor said.

Wayne Simpson's picture

This will be my last time wasting time replying to you and I'll keep it short. Say whatever you like, try as you may to stand up for yourself and believe what you want... I know with 100% certainty that your initial remark would be taken as offensive by probably 95 percent of the population. It's very clear that you don't see the wrong in your wording and backhanded compliments so round and round things go. You'll clearly never see it and I'm clearly not the one to help you. Good luck with your future endeavours and I sincerely hope that karma doesn't come back on you with an equal negative force to that which you put out into the world. Signing off... keep on spinning your wheels if you wish.

Lawrence S's picture

As expected, no surprises here. Even after levelling it down to what actually was posted word for word, compared to a bubble of wild accusations and random analogies.

Funny thing is, my comment is just underneath a comment that says your style of lightning kills the atmosphere in your pictures. Will I merely stated the obvious that it's hard to take good photos of boring faces.

If this is what I'm getting for my "extremely offensive" statement, I can't imagine the wrath that will strike down upon him. It will break the internet.