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|Category:||Portraits and People|
Professional Portraiture - Learn how to take great portraits with the help of Karl Taylor.
The complexity of human nature, human emotion and the multiple of environments in which portraits are photographed mean that to obtain an effective, artistic but true to life portrait of your subject can be a testing task for even an experienced photographer.
Unfortunately for “real life” portraits the subjects (especially business portraits) are rather more reluctant in having their image captured than a professional model. Photographers who work in the more general commercial and advertising world find themselves having to work on a variety of projects from still life, product photography, lifestyle to tourism and business photography and many of these areas require you to take pictures of real people in a real world environment. For portrait and wedding photographers the requirements can be slightly different in that their subjects actually want to be photographed but for the most part the information and advice I impart will apply to these areas too.
So let me break it down into the 5 categories that I believe are most important for good portraiture and then I will examine the complexities of each! Firstly, the one factor I consider most important is communication, second is the choice of lens, third the choice of aperture, four the environment and finally number five your lighting. Master your skills on these 5 with the ability to combine them at a moments notice and then you will become an expert in the art of portraiture.
I believe there is nothing more important than building a good rapport with your subject in a short space of time. I cannot emphasize how important it is to calmly place your subject at ease based on your perception of their character and using your skills in handling people.
In most instances people are afraid of having their photograph taken. Many subjects have a fear of how they will be portrayed and view the idea of having their image displayed to the public as an unfortunate side effect of their business. Insecurities can often include; weight, wrinkles, hair or simply facial expression. A photographer who has poor communication skills or is unable to make their subject feel at ease has already diminished the quality of the final result before the shutter button has even been pushed. Another and often overlooked factor is the photographers own projection of confidence, not just in communication but also in the way he is setting up his shot and the adjustments that he or she makes to their lighting. A fumbling fool will always be perceived as a fumbling fool.
A good job takes a certain amount of time whatever it is and you are the person who has to decide how long that will be, not the client. If I am contracted to take a shot then I will advise the client what will be involved and give them an estimate of the time I expect it to take. I will usually try to arrange a site visit or at the very least get an accurate description of the location. If my subject is a CEO or other extremely time constrained individual then I have only two courses of action that I follow. One; I be offered unrestricted access to the area where the portrait will be taken providing me sufficient time to set up and test the shot on my assistant, then be given a minimum of 10 minutes with the subject to complete the shot. The second course of action, if the first one is not an option, is to advise the client that I am unable to undertake the shoot and ask them to look elsewhere. Although many photographers find the idea of turning away work uncomfortable I have learnt over the years that rushing a picture and turning out a bad result is only going to waste your time, your clients time, probably result in you not getting paid and even worse getting a bad reputation. If your client respects your work and your professional advice then they will usually at the very least accept option one.
Choice of Lens
The choice of lens has a dramatic effect on how your subjects head, face and body will be rendered in the final photograph. Too long a focal length and they will look stocky, too low a focal length and they will look distorted. Your choice of focal length will also be relative to the environment that you are placing the subject, the scene that you wish to capture and whether the subject will be displayed full length or head and shoulders only.
The choice of aperture is linked to the choice of lens and the format, but essentially the answer is the same. Purchase a lens with the largest aperture you can afford. The ability to reduce depth of field and blur the background is crucial to most portraits as is the requirement to sometimes work in the lowest amount of available light. With a large aperture lens you can always close the aperture down if you require more depth of field but with a smaller aperture lens you do not have the ability to reduce depth of field to artistic levels. On my 85mm lens (for the 35mm full frame format) the maximum aperture is 1.2, on my 645 format camera 150mm lens the aperture is 3.2. Lenses for larger format cameras appear to have naturally shallower depth of field, this is due to the larger format size combined with the focal length and the effective camera to subject distance. For my 35mm camera my 1.2, 85mm lens is an exceptional but expensive piece of glass. If you are restricted on budget then at the very minimum aim for an 85mm or 100mm lens with a maximum aperture of 1.8 for portraiture.
I’ll define environment as the location where you place your subject and in most cases it will be your choice. If as a photographer you choose a poor location or background or do not point out to the client that the location they have chosen is not suitable then it really is only your own fault. When considering your location think about whether the background will enhance the subject or distract from it. Consider if your choice of background is in keeping with the subject and the message to be portrayed and if not why have you chosen it?
Lighting is a difficult one for me to explain in this article as there can be so many variables based on the location or whether you are skilled in using studio lighting on location or if you are just working with a simple on camera flashgun. So I’ll run through this briefly. If you have no lights and you are working outdoors then a scrim and a reflector would be an advantage. At the very least a collapsible reflector is esential so that you can back light your subject and then bounce some softer light back on them. A scrim is useful to soften harsh light but you would need an assistant to hold it. If you are indoors positioning your subject alongside a large window is always a good bet with a large reflector on the opposite side to fill in light on the shadow side. If you have a flashgun then don’t fire it straight at your subject as the light will be too hard. A much better idea would be to aim it at a nearby white or neutral wall to create a reflection of larger soft side lighting. If you are using studio lights then you have many options available to you but I find as mentioned above that soft side, slightly front lighting to be the most flattering. Then simply place a large reflector close to the shadow side of the face keeping a second light free for backlighting your subject or lighting your background. I always choose my lighting based on the location and what it has to offer and what I can turn it into. This may be four studio lights on location or it may simply be daylight – theses creative choices only come with experience.
So those are my 5 key areas and you can see that combined it can be a lot to think about, especially if you are having to work fast on your feet. One final tip I would offer is to position your subject at an angle to camera not front on, that way the shoulder furthest away can drift slightly out of focus with shallow depth of field and your subject will not look too wide. The head can be looking at camera or looking away if you are going for a “reportage” style. Finally don’t restrict yourself to shooting eye level with your subject, I find many people look more flattered when you have a slightly elevated viewpoint looking down to your subject with their eyes looking slightly up.
Learn more from Karl Taylor at: Karl Taylor photography
Words and pictures by Karl Taylor.