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Portrait photography - a practical guide

It's not just about light and exposure, Alex Lee suggests gaining a rapport with your subject is essential if you want to take natural and relaxed portraits.

| Portraits and People
Words & Pictures Alex Lee

Portrait photography - a practical guide

Before every portrait session I ask questions and you probably do too. What light source am I going to use? How will the light fall on the subject? How will the background look in the finished photograph? What film should I use? What camera and lens should I use?

Answering these questions will help the photographer create an acceptable image. But an acceptable image is not enough for me; I want an exceptional image. As a portrait photographer, I need to know my client, knowing their background, desires, pains, and motivations helps me create distinctive portraits. For the portrait to be distinctive, a touch of the client's personality needs to emerge from the photo. This is especially true in taking female portraits. I don't want a pretty face, all painted up by a make-up artist; the result is a facade without knowing what is inside.

Portrait photography - a practical guide

I seldom do a photo session without first meeting and talking with the client. There are many reasons to do this. One important reason is to build rapport between the client and the photographer. More importantly, I want to talk with the client; I want to talk about anything they care to talk about. I ask questions. I study their expressions, body language, and how they project their passion. I also look for 'transitions'. My definition of transitions is when the subject moves from one train of thought to another. Often, the transition will reveal a unique movement of their eyes or mouth. I try to capture that in my portraits.

Except for fashion and editorial work, I give complete freedom to my client in term of clothing, makeup, and hairstyle. I give suggestions and recommendations, but will leave the decision to the client. Because of this, a planning session is very important. I need to know their wardrobe and their look. My job is to select the locations and the time of day for the photo session.

Portrait photography - a practical guide

Meeting with the client, building rapport, knowing the client, and planning the session are essential elements of my portrait sessions. Without the advance work, the photographer is going on luck alone. I love portrait work, because the look, feel, and reaction of the person are always changing. I enjoy the interaction. I cannot talk a still life object into changing their shape, but I can make a person look and feel completely different by the way they respond to me.

Portrait photography - a practical guide

Most of my images use available natural light, so the lighting conditions and locations are very important. The background must compliment the subject. The subject needs to be separated from the background. The separation is critical. Too close and the background looses any meaning. Too broad, the background will overwhelm the model. Make certain the background and the model are not merged into an indistinguishable shape, this happens frequently with dark hair and a dark background.

Portrait photography - a practical guide

One of the benefit, or limitation, of natural lighting is the need to use a wide-open aperture. I use this to enhance my images, by selecting where I want to focus. I love focusing on the eyes. I like to see the eyes shine. Another benefit of the wide-open aperture is the soft gentle feel of the photograph. The depth of field can be very selective. I use a Minolta Maxxum/Dynax 9 and an 800si as my primary cameras. The 50mm lens works extremely well in close up work. The 100mm to 135mm lenses are wonderful for outdoor portrait work where I want a defocused background. For larger format, I use the Mamiya 645 system. I get beautiful results using both systems. I just ordered an Olympus E-10 digital camera and am anxiously awaiting my new toy. The E-10 will be my first serious investment into digital photography.

Lighting is always critical. I prefer a gentle directional light that casts a bit of shadow. Train your eyes to see the subtle differences in the lighting of a space. Our eyes tend to even out the light level inside a space. Our brain makes the adjustments without us realizing it. Film does not make that adjustment. Different types of film react to the light level and contrast of a space differently. Some films have more range than others. In some of your images, you may want to reduce the range to create a more dramatic effect. I like to use Kodak T400CN, Afga APX, Fuji NPS, and Fuji NPH. I like them because of my experience in using different type of film, but this is just my preference. Try using all type and brand until you find the ones you like for your style of photography.

Portrait photography - a practical guide

Practice and your style will emerge. Your portrait style should let you be creative, be loved by your subjects, and let viewers see the images as exceptional work. A portrait photographer is powerful. The portrait you create can launch a new career for your client, create confidence in others, engender support of a cause (for good or for ill), and may leave a lasting impression of your client in others for many years to come. Know your power, invest the time with your client, and create exceptional images.

Alex Lee is a portrait photographer in San Francisco. He specialises in female portraits, and his portraits have a great deal of dignity and sensitivity as described by other photographers. Alex is an engineer by training with a MA in Liberal Studies. It was during his graduate studies that art and photography became a passionate part of Alex's life. See his portfolio on
Portrait photography - a practical guide: Alex Lee




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