Those of you who are familiar with how I like to explain things won’t be surprised when I tell you that understanding portraiture is pretty simple. You won’t be surprised I say this because I’m going to tell you that I can break it down into 5 main categories. However you may be surprised when I tell you that this is where the simplicity stops.
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.
For this article about portraiture I am going to give a mention to photographs of professional models. The reason? Photographers like myself use professional models to make our lives easier. We obtain impacting images of people (portraits) that reinforce an advertising message, by using professional models. The skills and confidence of a good model cannot be underestimated. A good model will almost predict, or at the very least work with the photographer to achieve the goal; making a good image become an outstanding image. There are some truly brilliant and innovative fashion photographers out there who produce stunning images, but there are also many images that would simply fall by the wayside without the collection and combined skills of models, make-up, hair stylists, clothes stylists and the retouchers involved in the project. Even rather average fashion or advertising images have become noticeable because a $10,000 a day team of models, make-up artists and stylists brought a bit of otherwise missing “X” factor to the image. A good photographer will utilise all these outside skills but also combine them with his or her own; an exemplary knowledge of lighting, locations, composition, lenses, equipment and good people skills.
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.
Another common mistake for less experienced photographers (one which I was also guilty of when starting out) is succumbing to the pressure of time constraints. However I soon realised that to take a good portrait you could not surrender to this pressure or you will not be able to produce your best image.
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.
Once you have the time you hoped for with your subject it is a good idea to start some form of friendly conversation that you sense will help put them at ease. This can be done whilst you are setting up (although if you have an assistant it is always a good idea to use them for test shots so that you have more time available for your subject) and I always recommend you start a conversation before you point a camera in their direction. If you don’t have an assistant then calmly explain your process of setting up and testing your shot to your subject and then continue to make conversation throughout the process explaining that you have a number of test shots to undertake before the actual photograph. In most cases this actually gets your subject used to the camera. Or if you prefer test the shot on yourself with a tripod and self-timer first. If you do not engage your subject I can assure you it will be ten times harder to capture a good image. You won’t communicate well with all your subjects but when you can your job will become easier.
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.
With most portraits it is the upper body or head and shoulders area that will be photographed and it is important to consider how a subject perceives themself. We see ourselves most frequently in a mirror, at a perceived distance of about 3 to 4 feet away (1.5 – 2ft away from the mirror). Having two eyes we are viewing in 3D allowing us to perceive depth accurately and also enabiling us to see slightly “around” ourselves. A camera does not. Photographs are two-dimensional as if viewing through one eye, so choosing the right focal length is important. This will also affect the camera to subject distance which is also important; if you are too close to your subject (less than 5 feet) they will start to feel more uncomfortable. But if you are too far away your ability to communicate will diminish.
I find a good working distance at about 6 - 8 feet and my choice of lens on a 35mm format (full frame sensor camera) would be 85mm to 100mm. On very rare occasions I have used a 50mm or 150mm because the subject was just not photographing well on my preferred focal lengths. On my 645 format digital Hasselblad then the lens of choice is a 150mm which is an incredible portrait lens for a realistic representation of the subject. I had in the past used a 200mm lens for this format, only to find that most of my subjects looked stocky so I reserved this lens for people who were too thin!
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?
Often business clients get hung up on including something to do with their company in the background, usually to the detriment of the message, the subject and the image. How many times do you see the businessman photographed badly infront of the company logo? If you don’t believe the image will work then tell them why, even show them a version of what they have in mind compared with what you have in mind. Don’t be afraid to offer your opinion, after all that is what they are paying you for. In many instances it is safer to go with something neutral or not too busy (or at least not to busy with shallow depth of field) and often slightly darker than the skin tone so that your subject appears more prominent; the exception to this is a portrait on a pure white background which can have a clean fresh appeal to it. Most of all look for depth try to find somewhere with a bit of space so that you can add a sense of depth to the image and allow you more flexibility in controlling your depth of field.
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