What is Portrait Photography?
Portrait photography is often considered an art form that involves capturing facial expressions, personality, or mood of your subject or group using composition, lighting, and backgrounds. Portraiture is seen by some photographers as an artistic representation of a subject’s attitude. Portraiture is by far the most common form of photography and creating compelling portraits requires in part the ability to connect with people.
You can easily distinguish famous portrait photographers work based on their distinct style and the deep connection they have with their subjects. When it comes to techniques used in portrait photography and photographing people, you’ll find they fall into one of two categories: Candid and Portraits. Each category requires a slightly different approach.
Before you take your first shot, take some time and build a rapport with your subject. Get to know a little about them, their likes and dislikes, favorite foods, music, or anything to help you make a connection.
Adorama Photography TV has an excellent video tutorial on How To Photograph Small Groups and Families by renowned professional photographer Tamara Lackey. Tamara shows you how to photograph a mother and her two adorable children using reflector (and without an assistant!!!).
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.
If you like the “hair light” effect and don’t have studio lights, 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 75 watt 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 subject’s 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.
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. 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.
What Makes a Portrait Special?
When shooting a portrait, it is more than pointing and shooting so that your subject is in the right part of the picture. You want to create a portrait that goes beyond a picture. What would make you stop in front of portrait of a complete stranger and study it beyond a mere perusal?
The Mona Lisa is a famous portrait that continues to draw people to it in order to try and glean its secrets. There needs to be something deeper, something that pulls a viewer to the picture and captivates them, an ambiance that can be felt rather than just seen. You want people to stop in front of the portrait and contemplate the story exuding from the subject and the background.
A great way to delve further into a portrait than the surface is to look at how you can reveal the personality of the individual you are shooting. Whether you are showcasing an endearing quirk or telling a story that shaped their life, it needs to shine through. Every part of your portrait, including the background and ‘props’, take a role in telling that story. This does not mean you should be stuffing your background and foreground with props.
Use an artistic eye to figure out what could enhance and accentuate what you are wanting to be seen from that individual. That means you can always change where you place your props so that you know you got the best shot possible.
As the photographer you are the one creating the portrait. It falls to you to look beyond the smile and posture to look deeper and draw out what treasures and unique qualities your subject has. This may require you to have a conversation or two with them before you start the photo shoot. Get to know the person you are taking portraits of. Ask them random questions, see what makes them laugh, what makes them cry, what causes them to get that far off look in their eyes. The more you know about them the better able you will be to establish a meaningful shot.
Questions You Might Ask:
- What do you like to do when you are bored?
- What do people compliment you the most on?
- What’s an embarrassing story you like to tell others?
- What’s your favorite color?
- Who is your hero and why?
- If married, How did you meet?
- What do you do for work?
- What hobbies do you have?
- What’s your favorite thing to do in your spare time?
- Favorite music, food, place to go, vacation, etc?
- What would you like me to capture?
- What’s your best funny face? (Capture it and then the true smile that comes afterwards)
- What one word would you use to describe yourself?
Do not be afraid to evoke emotions through a funny joke or an honest truth to capture and bring to life the feelings you want to present. You shouldn’t settle for a fake smile or tears, because true emotions can change their entire face into a beauty you don’t want to miss. If you’ve taken the time to lay your groundwork you will know what needs to be done to catch the image you are wanting to convey. If successful, you can portray more than just a good picture with a pretty person being showcased.
Create a visual story instead of picture. Show more than a reflected image on paper. Shoot a portrait worth keeping, cherishing, and displaying.