Written by: Digital Photography

Portrait Photography

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 how to be a successful photographer.

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 Portrait Photography

Karsh’s portraits where renouned, 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.

Portrait Photography

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

Close up Portrait photography

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.

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.

Totem Portrait Photography

Still life Photography

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.

Friend Portrait Photography

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.

Learn Portrait Photography

Action Portrait Photography

This article is part of the Famous Photographers Series.

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24 Responses to “Portrait Photography”

  1. Where is the picture of the “B&W head shot of the bearded fellow”? Couldn’t find it in your article.

  2. Thanks Sanjay! I had the image pointing to the wrong place :(
    It should be more clear now. Thanks again!

  3. Thank you for the wonderful oppertunity, I am new in this, it started as a hobby and is busy escalating into more, hopefully there is some natural talent an knack involved. I do however love to read and follow the advise from people who is doing this for years.

    Thanks again

    Johan Knoetze

    NS: Is there a way that I can print the articles to study in detail.

  4. Johan, Glad to hear you enjoy the photography course. Currently the only way to view the course offline is to go to “File” and then “Print” in your web browser to print the course.

    We’ve considered putting our material in a book but would rather keep the courses free so that anybody regardless of income can learn how to be a great photographer.

  5. simply best explanations…. thank you.

  6. I am very thankful to have found this site. This is only the first article I have read, and it has already helped. I have been photographing for almost 6 years now. It kind of just happend. I always loved art, but didn’t know my place, till now. I photograph many weddings, portraits, familys, nature, just about anything. I want to open a studio in the next 1-2 years and have no clue about lighting and such. I need the education behind photography. I want to learn more about shooting raw, and learn more of the fundamentals of my camera. Thanks so much for the time you put into this site to help people like myself.

  7. Thankyou for your help. I have dreamt since a child of being a photographer, i used to picture myself sat behind the goal at Old Trafford getting the prize shot of the winning goal. However after leaving school i became a bricklayer! I am 30 now and due to the credit crunch in the UK work is shy so I am taking the chance and going to persue my dream to become a photographer. I am buying my first camera at the weekend. I have found your site extremely interesting and informative. I think you should be very proud of the FREE advice you are giving, as i am sure many people like myself are very grateful of it. Is there a continuation of this site? Or are there any other sites or books you can recommend to aid me in my future career?

    Thanks again

    Steven Roche

  8. Steven, Thanks for your nice comments! Have you tried all the advanced lessons out? What other areas of photography are you interested in learning more about? Without knowing your skill level it’s hard to recommend a book that you’d find helpful. The “Digital Photography Book” by Scott Kelby, is a good one for helping with composition, and some useful photography tips.

  9. BRIAN BLACKMAN on March 7th, 2009 at 6:48 pm

    do you have information on panoramic photography?

  10. Not currently. We’re working on something for you. Thanks for stopping by!

  11. I really dont understand guys, what is good in these photos, and what you trying to teach people. To push the button on camera?? No imagination, no exposition, no meaning. And you call it Portrait!

    Hehe, hope you not gonna delete my comment just because it’s negative and i’m honest.

  12. If you read the article Kate it goes into more depth than depressing the shutter. Thanks for your input.

  13. Hey! I can’t believe I’ve discovered a site that offers FREE photography lessons and information etc. Still waiting for the catch! Anyway, like many here, I’m very new to photography and I’m currently constrained to a low budget (I echo Steven Roche’s difficulty in the UK at the moment!) so this site is amazing.
    If I had one critism, then it’s purely just a request for more excercises! Aside from that, it’s brilliant.
    Thank you to the admins and contributors.

  14. Senthur Pandian R on February 15th, 2010 at 5:57 am

    Thanks to all of your free photography lessons.

    Being a beginner, bought a Bridge cam a couple of days back, i now know what is Exposure, Aperture, Shutter speed, ISO… All because of photographycourse.net.

    Thanks, once again.

    I will surely try out all of your prescriptions and tips.

    Thanks,
    Senthur

  15. I don’t agree with the karsh thing since Stieglitz did the same thing only earlier with J.P. Morgan and had less time to do it. If in fact, karsh had any photo history in him, he would have known this as well. There are a few good tips in here, but the idea of photographing the native american man with the nickel shows without a doubt that he is not the model for the coin. If you were a sketch artist you would see this with only a cursory inspection. Your lighting is perfect, for your preferences and there are many others. I would have also included the rule of thirds in this lesson. Although Kate above may have a superiority complex, which I see a lot of in beginning photographers (and I mean those who have finally grasped exposure as a second nature) I don’t fee the need to be derogatory, but I will say that this article is very basic and quite necessary for anyone who does not know how to set up lighting.

  16. i have two questions to ask.
    1. can a portrait photo be taken with focus lights positioned like where the main light, fill light etc were placed?
    2. i have seen that the fill lights, main light,barn lights are connected to a camera….and when the photographer shoots or clicks, these lights fires for a fraction of second, when the camera’s click button is pressed.why cant those lights be on permanently till the whole photo session is over.what does it do. i can buy the same watts more cheaper if this becomes possible. i joined short courses on photography and i dont understand this.can you please help explain for this ameture?
    if i have to shoot few pictures, do i need this whole expensive set of equipment?
    my friends say that i have a good sense of capturing pictures.but the problem is i dont have money to invest. so please help understand this lighting arrangement?

  17. 1) Photography is an art. Experiment with the lighting as much as you like.
    2) The lighting from a flash is incredibly bright and therefore the lights cannot stay on constantly. Keeping them at the peak brightness at all times would require a high draw of current and could result in high heat or fire, very high energy bills, and photographers and models would probably go blind working with so much light!
    If you have to shoot few pictures you may consider renting nice equipment rather than buying as professional equipment does help you get professional results.

  18. So you are saying that having the umbrellas with the automatice flash that flashes with the camera is not really good? I was told that it was. I am confused Please help?

  19. “umbrella” lighting is good to have. Skip says, “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.” So I think he endorsed using it. I would say that’s not always the best lighting but in a studio doing portraits it’s almost a must.

  20. I just found your website. I’m a hobbyist that would like to progress further. I have to ask, was the photo of the totem pole taken in Ketchikan, Alaska. I just returned from a cruise there and saw one exactly like that in the Saxman Totem Village in Ketchikan. I took over 1200 photos on the week long trip and am anxious to present them in the best manner possible.

  21. Just happened upon this site as I was a photographer in a former life in California. Didn’t loose interest so much as my own business wasn’t successful. Got into technology and we relocated to MA where I was involved as an inside sales rep for software solutions. Make long story short, dot com bubbl burst, software not selling well for few years now, and since technology advancing at a rabbit’s pace, looking to get back into photography from the digital end. Taking these classes to see how much I remember. Surprisingly, and thankfully, it’s quite a bit.

  22. Hi,
    I just wanted to say how much I love this site. To me it is very informative. Do you critique or give tips?

  23. School Prospectus Photography on September 17th, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Karsh is one of my favourite photographers because, as you point out, he knew his subjects and had already pictured the portrait he wanted before he began the photography session.

  24. You people are amazing. Giving all this info away for free!!!! Im so glad I found this site. In high school I dreamed of being a photographer and even did a stint as a yearbook staff photographer. My instructor said I have a great eye. Never knew why, but now im starting to understand what she was seeing. Thanks so much for all you have done!

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