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Portrait Photography


Portrait of Winston Churchill

You are looking at one of the most famous portraits ever made by one of THE greatest portrait photographers ever. Josef Karsh, also known as Karsh of Ottawa. Over his lifetime he made over 15,000 portraits.

But this portrait of Sir Winston Churchill stands out. Churchill was a bulldog of a Prime Minister known for his surliness and determination and this picture captures it all.

It didn't just happen. This quick, true story spells out exactly how this world-famous portrait was accomplished and will teach A LOT about Portrait Photography.

Karsh was hired to do this portrait and knew he would have very little time to make the picture. He began by researching Churchill, taking notes on all of the Minister's habits, quirks, attitudes and tendencies.

When he finally got Churchill seated in the chair, with lights blazing, Churchill snapped "You have two minutes. And that's it, two minutes."

Karsh asked the man to remove the cigar in his mouth. Churchill didn't budge. Karsh knew he wouldn't and, with a shutter release cable in hand, he walked up to the side of Churchill and yanked the cigar from his mouth.

Church stiffened and growled SNAPwent the shutter and Karsh knew he had the portrait he wanted. Soon it became world famous.

Karsh was successful because he researched his subject matter, knew his equipment (lights, camera, etc.) and knew what he wanted.



Karsh's portraits where renowned amongst photographers for his amazing lighting and few have duplicated his style. I tried in my studio, and like to believe I came close, but I couldn't resist placing a "hair light" (coming from behind left) so I cannot claim I mastered Karsh's style. But I do like the photo and so did the subject and that is all that matters.

Notice that his eyes are not centered on the picture. You should try to avoid making the eyes centered - from top to bottom. It simply makes the viewer uncomfortable. See more about this below.

This portrait was made using standard studio lighting except I used "umbrella" lighting (the flash is aimed into a silverized umbrella which is pointed at the subject. The main light came from my right, while the fill was at my left.

mother with young child on her lap


If you like the "hair light" effect and don't have studio lights (like I had for the above B&W) then just make sure your subject is seated next to a lamp. Here the light source is from the ceiling lamp. Notice how it highlights my daughter's hair and puts a nice sheen on my grand-daughter Ivy.

If I had used flash it would have overpowered the 75watt bulb and you would see nothing in the background but harsh shadows. Thus, even though the color balance is "off" this is a very warm, pleasing portrait of two warm and pleasant family members.

Generally our "eye" feels most comfortable with a portrait if the subjects eyes are NOT centered in the photo. Try to frame the subject so that their eyes are above center. Also, make sure that you do not crop off the top of the head. Unless you are deliberately cropping just on the eyes (for impact) you should leave a little space on the top.

Here are two acceptable exceptions to the rule:

The long reason for why these two portraits are acceptable would take volumes in explanation. The short reason is ... they work.
They are pleasing and interesting.

Portrait Photography Simile

Portrait Photography Light

I love candid (un-posed) portraits but have, on occasion had to pose folks and use studio lighting. There are volumes of pages on studio lighting which I don't have room or time for. Here is the basic, standard lighting used in a studio. (Pardon the crude illustration but it is accurate and does get the job done). Notice that the subject (in the center) is facing the lens but the shoulders are turned. This is to reduce the shoulder width a tad.
close-up of man with glasses

The main light is at the bottom left, with the fill light at the right. The fill light should be one to two stops less bright, it's purpose is just to fill in the shadow created by the main light.

The hair light (upper left) is elevated above the subjects head, shining downward so as not to cast any light on the subjects face, just the hair.

To see the results of this lighting, see the B&W head shot of the bearded fellow above.

Fact is, it takes a good studio photographer years to become accomplished. If you wish to pursue studio lighting I would suggest
you head out to a good library or book store.

Personally, I think most studio portraits are rather wooden and "posed" and they only work when they offer a real insight into the person's true nature.





And there are some instances when they are a MUST. This is a portrait of Chief John Big Tree who is believed to be the original model for the Indian Head Nickel. (When this was taken he was 101 years old). I made a point of finding out if he had a poster of the nickel so I could compare his profile to the nickel. It seems to lend credibility to his claim of being the model. Numismatists (coin collectors) around the world still talk about this photograph.


And, in this instance, my friend Harley Sorensen - proud as heck about becoming a new father (through adoption process) wanted a pic that spoke to that. He had spotted the sign and I lined him up; complete with caption.

But, generally, spontaneous, candid (un-posed) portraits are much more preferable and interesting.

baby in highchair wearing sunglasses




This article is part of the Famous Photographers Series.

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