Good portraits are one of the hardest photographic skills to come close to mastering. Notice I didn’t say “master” because I am not sure anyone ever masters the art of photography as it is a lifelong learning process.
There is a huge difference between a snapshot and a candid portrait. Today we are going to talk about candids and not formal studio shots. There is also a big difference between mug shots and portraits. Mug shots are where you stand someone up straight in front of a blank wall, say “smile” and click off a shot — usually with a flash that makes red eye and big shadows behind the subject.
A portrait, on the other hand, is a visual exploration of someone’s personality. Perhaps you are trying to convey how you see a person as opposed to how he or she sees themselves. When I create a portrait I have several things in mind.
I want the person to look good — not ugly or unattractive. Nor do I want them to be embarrassed to show the picture to their friends.
I want the image to be unique. Each person’s face determines what type of image I will make. Even if I do not know the person well, I want the image to be intimate, as if we are longtime friends.
For many years I shot head shots for actors and models. From the moment they walked through my door until they left, they were my “bestest” friends ever!
My goal was to make them look handsome or beautiful, whether they were or not. They had to look approachable, friendly or sexy because their careers depended on it. They also had to show a variety of emotions for multiple set-ups.
By adopting a warm persona I was able to get close to them with a big black camera in front of my face and still have them feel comfortable.
Digital cameras are great for portraiture because you can see the results right away and correct mistakes in pose or lighting. It also helps your subject to be more comfortable in front of the camera.
Before you ever pick up the camera, spend some time talking with your subject getting to know them better and getting them to relax. Watch how their face moves while you are talking together. Which is their “best side?”
While you are posing them and setting up your camera, continue your conversation to keep them at ease and in the moment with you.
Portraits can be photographed either horizontal or vertical. Head and shoulder shots are normally vertical. More arty portraits can be horizontal. You can shoot very tight on a person’s face or wide and loose in an environmental setting. Whatever makes the image stand out is your goal. You want to think deeper, expose the “real” person behind the facade. That is your challenge.
Next time: Down to the nitty gritty of shooting people — with a camera.
“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.
— Richard Avedon