Pinoy photographers reveal what makes a good portrait 2
"My Mother" by E.S.L. Chen

6 Filipino photographers share what makes a good portrait—and the most memorable ones they shot

On the occasion of what might be the largest photography exhibition happening in the country, we asked six of our favorite photogs what makes a great portrait
ANCX Staff | Nov 27 2021

“A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it,” said Edward Steichen, the great American photographer credited for elevating photography into an art form. His description of portraiture is echoed below by six Filipino photographers who we asked to share with us the most memorable portraits they’ve taken over the years—all products of powerful, awkward, harmonious, trusting, reverential engagements with varied subjects. 

All six—E.S.L. Chen, Jes Aznar, Jason Quibilan, Geric Cruz, Raena Abella and JL Javier—are joining more than a hundred Filipino photographers participating in the first photo fair of the newly-formed collective FotomotoPH. The event formally launched at KONDWI in Poblacion Makati, and subsequent openings will be held at The Alley at Karrivin Plaza along Chino Roces Jr. Extension (this Saturday, November 27), at Manila House in Bonifacio Global City, as well as other venues in BGC and Makati. Each venue will show a unique set of images. Some shows will run until the end of the year, while others will continue until the first quarter of 2022.

Portraits at Fotomoto
Some of the portraits included in the ongoing Fotomoto: Portraits show.

Part of Fotomoto’s plans is to mount an annual festival celebrating Philippine photography. The inaugural exhibition highlights portraits capturing the Filipino visual and cultural context. But why start with portraiture? “Because of our prolonged isolation during the pandemic,” says the group’s statement. “As a society still reeling from the pandemic, portraits play with and question our sense of familiarity, estrangement, and even of solidarity.” Portraits below included. 

Here are the responses from six of our favorite photographers on the subject: 

E.S.L. Chen

What makes a good portrait?

A portrait is a conversation between the sitter and the photographer. It's nearly impossible to account for all the different combinations of both parties, and all the possible scenarios the two will be put in. Some sessions last for days and even years but some only last for minutes. In my opinion, it is nearly impossible to assign arbitrary rules that define a good portrait.

The beauty of portraiture is found in the interaction between the sitter and the photographer. Personally, I am interested in the extremes. That means either the subject gives the photographer one second of attention to pose or gives a nearly unlimited supply of time in which the two can interact. Anything in between feels contrived. Obviously, time is only one aspect. There are many others including emotion, place, composition and context.

Even if I am hesitant to define what makes a good portrait, I can say that I am drawn to those that move me. I also believe that most great portraits result from a truce between the sitter and the photographer. One of them has to surrender to the other’s intention.

Why a truce? Because both the photographer and the sitter are both invading each other’s psyches in any sitting.

My Mother, by Edric Chen.
My Mother, by E.S.L. Chen

What's the most memorable portrait you've shot and why?

The only trouble with this question is that I mostly will remember the circumstances behind any portrait I’ve taken once I see it again.

For more E.S.L. Chen photographs, click here. 



What makes a good portrait?

A photographic portrait rich with stories to read is a good portrait for me. Of all the images of faces that we see everyday, a good portrait also has the power to quickly make a connection with the viewer, it has this instant attraction and makes us want to look at the picture more.  

Photo of Imelda Marcos by Jes Aznar
Portrait of Imelda Marcos by Jes Aznar

What's the most memorable portrait you've shot and why?

I remember shooting Imelda Marcos once inside their mansion in Ilocos Norte for a story. She kept on changing wardrobes and was always trying to pose whenever I raise my camera to shoot. But being the gracious host, she showed us every part of the house and shared the story of every trinket inside the rooms that caught our eye, and even asked helpers to bring out items that came up in the discussions. But I was having a hard time thinking how to tell her that she need not pose for me—in a not too imposing way, a way she would easily understand.

That day, I tried so hard to restrain myself not to tell her that all I wanted was a stolen shot. Things might get too awkward.

For more Jes Aznar photographs, click here. 



What makes a good portrait?

A portrait can be likened to a conversation between two people. A good portrait happens when (1) the subject opens up completely, and (2) the photographer “listens.” The photographer listens with intent, technique, timing, and context. When the image reveals something true about the subject, and it is shot well, timed well, framed well, lit well, with clear intent, then, I believe, a portrait becomes exceptional. 

What's the most memorable portrait you've shot and why?

Memorable for me? Or for other people?

For me, it would be that time I photographed the late Mayor Lim in his condominium in Makati. Why? Simply because I stepped on some stinking dog shit right outside his unit and I had to shoot barefoot the whole time. Nice guy, got good images out of it. And he handed me and my editor some cash! Haha! (We donated it to church!)

On a more serious note:

I had the privilege to photograph a doctor who was a breast cancer survivor, warrior and advocate. She allowed me to photograph her nude, to show her scars where her cancer was taken. I felt an enormous privilege to be able to witness such beauty and courage in a human being. And also, great responsibility, as I was then part of her journey as a storyteller.

For more Jason Quibilan photographs, click here. 



What makes a good portrait?

More than the camera technicalities and the elements of art needed in making a good composition, for me taking a good portrait is connecting with the subject and capturing their story. There should be a narrative that says something about the person so the viewers can understand what the photo is about. 

What's the most memorable portrait you've shot and why?

My favorite portraits are of my favorite muse/subject: my son, Razi. I’ve done several bodies of work about him and his journey to becoming his own person. Borrowing a line from a photographer I look up to, the bond my son and I made during those shoots are “‘marrow deep and stronger than death.”

Raena Abella
"Underneath the Surface" by Raena Abella. Silver gelatin print on fiber based paper
Raena Abella
"Underneath the Surface" by Raena Abella. Silver gelatin print on fiber based paper
Raena Abella
"Journey to Becoming" by Raena Abella. Ambrotype, wetplate positive on glass

But I stopped shooting him when he turned 16. Ayaw na niya daw. But now that he’s 22, he’s game to be my muse again. So I’m planning to do another series we can both collaborate on.

For more Raena Abella photographs, click here. 



What makes a good portrait?

I think what makes a makes a good portrait is a good story. A good portrait or any good photo speaks for itself and speaks something true.


A post shared by JL Javier (@jljavier)

What’s the most memorable portrait you’ve shot and why? 

Of the portraits I’ve shot, I still look back on my shoot with Kidlat Tahimik in 2018. It was such an honor to have captured the spirit of someone who, at least to me, seems so much bigger than life. So much of what he spoke about during that shoot still resonates with me, too — about art, about storytelling, about point of view.

For more JL Javier photographs, click here. 



What makes a good portrait?

When I am able to have an exchange or an understanding between me and the sitter, and eventually a friendship comes out of it. 

Geric Cruz
Photo by Geric Cruz

What’s the most memorable portrait you’ve shot and why? 

I have a lot. It’s hard to pick favorites. But the most memorable ones are usually when things happen organically and it doesn’t feel like work.

For more Geric Cruz portraits, click here. 


[Access to the Fotomoto: Portraits exhibition on site is free to the public; however, exhibition access per venue will follow the IATF health guidelines and safety protocols implemented in each LGU. All images will also be shown online at Many of the images will be available for sale as mounted archival prints (separate from the exhibition prints). For more information about the exhibition in other participating venues and online events, follow Fotomoto’s social media pages ( and on Instagram) or email]