As a photographer, all our problems would be solved if we could simply ask: “Please move into a wonderful light and do something beautiful, meaningful and original,” but things don’t work that way. In such situations, photographers must draw their subjects out. The photographer is expected to connect the viewers with the subject: What do I look like? What am I like? Who am I?
The Informal Approach
A portrait should reveal either what the subject wants to project (i.e. alluring, humourous, tough, powerful, earnest, genuine, kind, etc…), or capture the essence oftheir true personality. In December 1941, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, visited Ottawa and during his stay, was privately photographed by the soft-spoken, Canadian photographer, Yousuf Karsh. “I removed Churchill’s symbolic cigar,” recalled Karsh, “because I felt that it did not belong on that occasion.” The result was the creation of a universal iconic image reflecting the indomitable British spirit, and a catalyst for Karsh’s meteoric six-decade career. A more recent example is the contrived but very effective images of footballer, David Beckham – bare-chested, tattooed and sweating – raw and sexy.
On average, most people become too self-conscious, nervous or embarrassed when being photographed. To avoid this, have your subject pre-occupied with a hobby or ask a pertinent question about their occupation, their latest work, an upcoming or past speech, their future predictions, politics, current affairs or music. To a CEO, ask how their product benefits society, than ask how it affects the environment. When reacting to the latter question, take the shot.
It all boils down to communication. If you hide behind the camera and only speak in monosyllables, the end result will be disappointing for both parties. Don’t forget, your reputation will be reflected by the final outcome. Be relaxed. Talk about what you would like to achieve in the shoot. Suggest some ideas for their feedback. Their explanations could lead to interesting conversations. Keep talking to them, offering suggestions for facial expressions and bolster their confidence by paying them regular compliments.
Tips on Portraiture
Body language plays a key element in the mood of the subject. The worst thing you can do is expect a person to just stand there while you fire away – provide a chair, table or banister to lean on. Better still, use their industrial environment as a backdrop. This is particularly effective with heavy industry. When seated, avoid shooting your subject head-on since this will produce a flat, static look. Instead, position the chair at a 45 degree angle and ask the subject to turn their head to face the camera. An alternative is to angle the camera which gives a more action-like perspective.
Choose the Most Effective Viewpoint
The most important aspect when shooting portraits is deciding what viewpoint to take. A ground-up shot, particularly with soaring skyscrapers behind, gives the impression of power and superiority. An aerial view down, gives a passive or submissive air. Other advantages to a view down shot are reducing a long nose and hiding a weak or double chin.
Focus on the Eyes
Find a strong focal point. With portraiture, this is normally achieved by ensuring your subject provides eye contact by looking directly into the lens. I say this because direct eye contact is an important aspect of everyday communication between people. If you are using a multi-point autofocus on your camera, a good method is to engage the central point only, focus lock the autofocus on the eye and recompose the frame before fully depressing the shutter button.
The Hands Say So Much
Hands are so expressive, yet in many cases, are not the prettiest features. Pay close attention as to the use of hands. Avoid making the hands look larger than the head by having them too close to the camera, unless it is intended. Alternatively, hands can be used to frame the face. They can also be interesting subjects themselves (i.e. the hands of a boxer, painter, etc…) The same can be applied to feet (i.e. the worn feet of a ballet dancer). These elements can say as much as a facial shot.
Create a Mood
With somber tones and expressions accompanied by reflective poses, a portrait can provoke powerful and complex emotions. Looking downwards implies a deep and pensive mood. Looking skyward or to the distance, an air of determination is projected. Make sure the subject is the center of attention and the surrounding scenery is complimentary rather than a distraction. To capture a mood, create a story. For example, a humourous shot could be of a man in a tuxedo, standing in water with a leash, apparently walking his pet fish.
Empty spaces can provide ideal compositions between weight and balance. Shoot a graffiti-sprayed wall on one side of the subject juxtaposed to the model leaning on a plain wall. When shooting an image in this style, look for something that separates the main subject from the rest of the scene while still connecting all the elements.
Geometric angles of architecture make striking frames around the subject, but make sure not to loose the main objective of the shoot. Is there an association between the subject and the building? Is there a high contrast between the moment (i.e. high fashion with an ancient ruin)? Does the subject blend with the environment?
Backlighting creates a desirable halo-like effect of the subject’s hair and body to separate the subject from the background. Make sure the background isn’t in focus. The principle is simple enough: the subject is placed so that the sun is directly behind them. Since the person has their back to the sun, their face will be in shade. To rectify the problem, use a white or silver reflector positioned in such a way to reflect light back to illuminate the model’s face in a warm tone. To avoid lensflare, position your camera so that the sun cannot directly reach it, either by shooting from a shaded area or by having the subject block the sun from view.
Use black reflectors closely to the face to absorb light and to control the amount reaching the subject. When applied effectively, it can add a three-dimensional feeling by accentuating contours. It is usually used for head-and-shoulder portraits. Any form of black material can be used, but velvet is the best as it is so light-absorbent. There are times when it isn’t possible to use a reflector to bounce light back into the frame. In this instance, use fill-in flash. Flash is regularly used by portrait, wedding and glamour photographers to highlight their subject when shooting against the light or to soften the harsh shadows created by bright sunlight. As a general rule of thumb, set the fill-in flash to two stops under the ambient exposure to retain a natural effect.
Natural sunlight through a window provides an attractive side-lit effect that reveals half the face and partially conceals the other half. This is also known as “Rembrandt” lighting. If you want more even illumination, place a white reflector board opposite the window to bounce stray light into the shadows or ask your subject to face the window so the light strikes them head-on. For the best results, shoot in bright but slightly overcast weather. If the light is too harsh, tape a sheet of tracing paper or muslin over the window to diffuse the light even further. Alternatively, to get that soft glow, schedule your shoot (if possible) for early in the day or towards dusk.
Only your own imagination can limit you to the range of studio techniques – whether it is studio flash units or tungsten lighting. The advantage of studio flash units is that they are daylight-balanced which is compatible with normal colour film, whereas tungsten lamps require tungsten-balanced film or a blue 80B filter to get rid of the orange tinge. Tungsten lamps can also produce a lot of heat which can become uncomfortable for your model. If you do use flash, you will need a flash meter to measure the exposure required. To use the meter, simply hold it close to your subject, point it back towards the camera and press the button so reading is displayed.
A single light fitted with a softbox and placed at 90 degrees to the subject creates a dramatic side-lighting achievement. An added second light on the background completes a perfectly balanced image. A large white reflector placed on the opposite side of the subject helps to fill in shadows for a more flattering profile. For very clean, even lighting, place large white reflectors either side of your subject and bounce light onto them from two flash units. Add soft lighting from behind to enhance a halo-effect around the hair.
By following these tips, you should have satisfaction in experimenting until you develop your own personal style.
About the author
Clive Branson is a graduate in Photography from Parsons School of Design (1984) in New York City and a graduate in Communications from the University of Ottawa in Ontario. Clive's background involves over 17 years of experience as Creative Director/Copywriter with global agencies and an international roster of clients in the United States, Canada, Northern Ireland, the Caribbean and Bermuda. Clive presently lives and works in Ottawa serving clients in Toronto, New York, California, Hawaii, Belfast, and Nova Scotia. His website can be found here www.provocadv.com