Portrait Photography: some thoughts


I enjoy looking at pictures, especially at portraits of people. I am not so interested in the image content, or subject, as I am in the process of how the image was made. I study the environment, background, camera angle, the subject’s pose, and, of course, lighting.  I am continually searching to add something new and valuable to my own photography, and there isn’t much better way to get new ideas, and learn new techniques, than studying how other photographers work with their subjects.

I was impressed at a lecture I attended given by Jim Britt, who in 1972 was photographer at Motown Records. (Britt did Michael Jackson’s early photographs.)  At the lecture Britt discussed studio portraiture lighting which was all very interesting, but what stuck with me was that he said we should continually be changing how we phototograph our subjects, to not be too predictable, or to get caught in a rut, and to emphasize that he remarked we should never say “it’s my style” because “That just makes you a cliché”.

I do try to be creative with my portraiture, remembering that a good portrait should have lasting power. I want future generations to see a portrait of their parent or grandparent and still like it. If one gets too edgy, or trendy, the portrait will not stand the test of time and be discarded by its owner when trends change. Many of the portraits I see show people too quickly photographed under unflattering lights, uncomfortable, awkwardly posed, and struggling to stay calm.

When someone asks me for a portrait I never move into candid mode; I try to gain a degree of mastery over the location, the lighting, and an understanding of person I am about to photograph. That means I evaluate the location, the background, and how much room I have between me and my subject. I check the ambient exposure, and decide if I need to add lighting. And when the person that I am about to photograph gets in front of my camera I start working at making them relax, and get in the mood. This usually means talking a lot and directing the session.

One of the most famous portraiture photographers, Helmut Newton said, “My job as a portrait photographer is to seduce, amuse, and entertain.” I absolutely agree with his assessment. A photographer standing with a camera up to their face waiting for the perfect expressive moment would generally make the subject to be photographed nervous.  I am sure there are times when candid portraits work quite well, and there are those people that are “naturals” and just know how to pose, but in my experience most people rely on the photographer for direction.

A photographer’s goal is to produce a photograph that visually speaks of the subject’s personality. Premier Canadian Photographer Yusuf Karsh states, “I try to photograph people’s spirits and thoughts. As to the soul-taking by the photographer, I don’t feel I take away, but rather that the sitter and I give to each other. It becomes an act of mutual participation.”

Portrait photography is a real challenge and the photographer usually doesn’t get to spend much time with their subject or get to know them all that well. Much of the time photographers struggle to get a likeness, let alone an image that says something about their subject. However, Richard Avedon commented,  “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.”

Portrait photography is more than pointing a camera at someone and releasing the shutter. However, there are those out there that obviously don’t agree with that, or we wouldn’t have as many portraits of uncomfortable, awkwardly posed people under unflattering lighting. Maybe the problem is the obsession so many have with camera technology, or maybe it’s something more egotistical with feelings that there isn’t any need to learn from others. My advice? Don’t be in a rush, interact with the subject having developed a plan, don’t take the lighting for granted, work with it; and remember that you, your subject, and any others who will view the portrait, have to like it.


Thanks to my model, Kisa



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