Some Thoughts on Portrait Photography

Model 2portrait by Enmanm

Photographers have been making portraits since the first camera was invented. In spite of the popularity of landscape, wildlife, and sports photography, I believe that most of the pictures that have been made, and still being made, are portraits of people.

Peter Bunnell in Creative Camera International Year Book 1977 wrote,  “There is no single form or style of portraiture. Portraiture means individualism and as such means diversity, self-expression, private point of view. The most successful images seem to be those which exist on several planes at once and which reflect the fantasy and understanding of many.”

I like that because I recall being bothered by my college photography instructor’s contention that we should always follow what he referred to as rules for portraiture. Guide lines possibly, but rules? When I examined the great portrait photographers like Irving Penn, Arnold Newman, Bert Stern, Richard Avedon, Eve Arnold, and Annie Leibovitz, to name a few, in my opinion they are anything but rule followers.

One might be able to recognize the photographic work of Penn, Avedon, or Leibovitz and casually use the words “that’s their style”. However, what marks their work, as Brunnell says, is “individualism .…..self-expression, (and a) private point of view.”  That is a lot to aspire to for mortal photographers as we struggle to make our portraits something more than mere documentaries.

When I approach portraiture I try to create portraits that are, well, creative. Sometimes everything works and sometimes it doesn’t.  I want something different in each.

Of course, one must be aware of how a person sees themselves and the circumstances and conditions under which the portrait is made, and I always (using a word coined by Minor White) previsualize the final portrait.  In Ansel Adam’s writings on photography he defined previsualization as, “The ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure.”

I know that for a successful portrait the person I am photographing needs to be the main point of interest. I am aware that a way to capture the attention of the viewer one could fill the frame with the subject’s face so there’s really nowhere else to look.

Sometimes it’s the expression on a subject’s face that makes the image. And to get that expression the photographer and subject may need to experiment with different moods and emotions.  Portraitists spend much time putting people at ease and making them comfortable in front of a camera. I think it’s all about gaining a person’s trust that we are going to help them look the best they can.

Some photographers get stuck in a rut by only shooting either horizontally, or vertically, or always from the same angle. To them I suggest mixing up framing in each portrait session so there will be a variety of images.

The internet is packed with “How to” advice on portraiture photography. Some of it is worth thinking about and some is bewildering. Those serious about bettering his or her portrait photography will select what works best and is the most comfortable.

Everything comes down to one’s personal definition of what a portrait is. According to Wikipedia, “it is a picture of a person, a description. It can be a photograph, a sketch, a sculpture, but a portrait is so much more than that. It is collaboration between the subject and in this case the photographer.”  Collaboration is the key word for me in that description, and in my experience those portraits I have made that I think are the most successful, is because the person who was in front of the camera was willing to work, or collaborate, with me towards the final image.

Following up on last week’s column there has been lots of discussion by the photographers that attended the strobist meetup. What lens worked, thoughts and suggestions on the lighting, and on posing models. We have been looking at each other’s pictures from that day, and a good critique among friends on what worked and what didn’t is always welcome and fun.

As always, I appreciate your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

2 responses to “Some Thoughts on Portrait Photography

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