Today we continue with a lesson on candid portraits, that is, portraits shot outside of a portrait studio. In this situation you have two choices: shoot tight on just the face and shoulders, or shoot wider to allow some of the environment to show.

Tighter is good when the background is distracting, or when you want to highlight a stunning face. The shots of Saranne Curtin, a dancer with an English dance company, fit into that category.

     
1-3 – English dancer Saranne Curtin sits for an informal portrait session for a new headshot to be displayed in souvenir books and other publicity materials.
What not to do: Do not photograph your friends and family with a wide angle lens.

I like the wider approach when I think the environment is crucial to the personality of the subject. The image of the Mojave Mechanic is a good example of that type of environment portrait. This man was leaning on the counter of the service station at the Rasor Road exit off I-15 when I drove up several years ago to get gas. I just loved the way the whole scene came together and I asked him if I could snap a few shots. Obviously he said “yes.”

This portrait of a mechanic in California’s Mojave Desert was a spur-of-the-moment shot precipitated by a great face and great light.

You might notice that most of the portraits I have used as examples so far, are in black and white. B&W portraits can be very powerful without color getting in the way of the basic face and image. I think color can be distracting when one is really looking at a person’s face.

Here are a number of tips I gathered from personal experience and from the Internet:

  1. Don’t rush your portrait session. Take the time to get things all set up as you like before you start shooting.
  2. Be professional acting even if you aren’t a professional. It will give your subject confidence in what you are doing.
  3. Keep people well in front of the background so it can go out of focus. Bushes and plants do not make good background material. They can be very distracting with a myriad of tones even if they are out of focus. Light dappled spots behind your subject can draw the eye away. I like to put people in situations where the background is darker than their face and the foreground. But not so dark as to obscure the definition between dark hair and the background. There needs to be visual separation.
  4. Position yourself somewhat above your subject. This will cause your subject to look up slightly at you. This accomplishes several things: a: The person’s eyes will be more open if they are looking up at you. b: If there are any shadows, they will fall below the suject’s chin disguising or obscuring a double chin. c: Looking up someone’s nose is just NOT attractive.
  5. Don’t use a wide angle lens or the widest setting on your point and shoot camera as this causes severe distortion. It makes noses look way bigger than they really are and people can look deranged. Now if that is the look you are going for, then have at it!
  6. Help people in choosing a pose if they seem unsure of how they should sit or stand.
  7. The most flattering light for most portraits is soft and off-camera. A large north-facing window works, as does a reflector to fill in shadows. Note the portrait again of Saranne. She was in a shaded area that was brightly lit by the sun bouncing off many light-colored buildings and I added a reflector to add more light in her eyes. It is very important that there be light in a person’s eyes, otherwise they look quite dead. If your subject is outdoors, an overcast day is best or in open shade. If the day is sunny, make sure to use a reflector or electronic flash to fill in shadows underneath the eyes.
  8. Should your subject look directly into the camera? This is purely a matter of personal preference. I never know the answer to that until after the shoot and I am looking at proofs. Looking directly into the camera is intimate because the person is essentially looking right into your eyes and into the eyes of the viewer. But eyes that are downcast or looking away can add a certain mood to your final portrait.
  9. To smile or not to smile, that is the question. A serious or thoughtful expression can often be more revealing of character, and make a better portrait. But a smile can send a message of friendliness and emotional availability. Again, this is between you and your subject.
  10. The best portrait photographers have a genuine interest in people and people’s faces. That is the most important tip of all.

“A portrait photographer depends upon another person to complete his picture. The subject imagined, which in a sense is me, must be discovered in someone else willing to take part in a fiction he cannot possibly know about.”
— Richard Avedon

>>for more of lara’s portraits of actors and dancers, please visit: www.criticaldance.com/amp-la2001/index.html<<

2 COMMENTS

  1. Although we did documentation photography mostly, we were asked to shoot group photos of owners, employees, and customers now and then. In most of these we needed the people to smile. Saying smile doesn’t get it 90% of the time – it’s an old trip that doesn’t work, they’ll look phony, and not with the normal smile that you need. What to do — right before taking the shot just say — Boy you people are really ugly. It works all the time even with the hardest ones. In our line of work they wanted to look agreeable and be smiling, not moody. Of course this is what makes photography interesting, it’s all different and challenging.
    Thanks for the article….

    Don….

  2. Hi Lara,
    Although I’ve taken many upper div. college courses and enjoyed photo shoots with a couple of groups I joined over the years in CA when I lived there, I still love to learn more since I consider myself an amateur. Thank you for the tips. Enjoyed your photos and Avedon’s. I lived in the desert several yrs and hope to go back in a few. There’s a peace, a wildness, stars,P and serenity I have found nowhere else. My best, Patricia
    PS I loved skiing the mts, being raised by the sea, and now I most enjoy—the sun.

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