1) Portrait understanding
Painting or drawing or shooting with a camera doesn't change the essence of the meaning “portrait”. A portrait is created to tell the story, the attitude or to stop in a eternal moment a feeling of the sitter.
One of the most important things about portrait photography is an interest in our subjects or humanity in general.
The subject that we are going to draw with our camera needs our attention, our focus, our full understanding to better appear on our lighted description of him/her. When we look at portraits, we learn about the people in them, more often there is just one person but we can have portraits of families, groups or historical representatives of social groups, classes or events.
We all reveal our feelings and attitudes differently. Some of us may show our individual character with immediate transparency, while others may be more difficult to “read” at first. The photographer must become proficient at studying people whom he or she doesn’t know in order to capture their essence. This means watching for signals in a subject’s mannerism, reactions, expressions, body language and so on, and then judging how best to have the subject’s character revealed for the camera.
This requires passion and an understanding of human nature. It is almost always better engaging the subject in conversation, and quickly finding a suitable topic that will grab her or his interest and evoke a reaction. Find common ground or a topic of particular interest to your subject, which can be a hobby, the latest news, a mutual acquaintance, or any number of topics. Building a rapport with the subject is important, whether a three-year-old child or a ninety-five-year old statesman, because it makes the subject more at ease in your presence, and therefore more-relaxed and natural-looking for the lens. We must take all possible steps to put a subject at ease in order for her or him to appear natural.
2) In studio or in location
There are two elements to a photo studio for portrait photography. One is a controlled background. We want to focus attention on our subject and avoid distracting elements in the frame. Probably the best portraits are not taken against a grey seamless paper roll but in the natural subject location, in a city market, on a river, inside their own house or on the streets. On the other hand, we are unlikely to screw up and leave something distracting in the frame if we confine ourselves to using seamless paper or other monochromatic backgrounds. We don't have to build a special room to have a controlled background. Usually a monochromatic wall it is enough. If we absolutely cannot control the background, the standard way to cheat is to use a long lens, e.g., 300/2.8. Fast telephoto lenses have very little depth of field. Our subject's eyes and nose will be sharp. Everything else that might have been distracting will be blurred into blobs of colour.
We can notice that both pictures are taken in a photo studio but the first from the left
is concerning about the pose and the lighting, the second one, instead, it is focusing on showing the set behind and emotions behind the photo.
What if we don't have a big open space with diffuse light and a neutral background? We can find one. Everywhere we live, in every city or village, there is a vast open space with natural light or artificial lights like a train station a shopping mall a museum, a mountain or a beach . With any lens set to f/2.8 or f/3.5, the background will be thrown out of focus. Here are some examples from city shooting:
The background is not blur but doesn't
steal the focus from the subject.
The overexposure and the image composition
are driving the viewer to the subject face
following a virtual line
|In this image we show the location but we leave it blur to keep the focus on the subject.|
3) Composition, point of view and prospective
Most portraits are taken with the camera at (or around) the eye level of the subject. While this is good common sense – completely changing the angle that you shoot from can give your portrait a real WOW factor.
We can get up high and shoot down on our subject or get as close to the ground as we can and shoot up. Either way we’ll be seeing our subject from an angle that is bound to create interest.
It is amazing how much the direction of our subject’s eyes can impact an image. Most portraits have the subject looking in the lens – something that can create a real sense of connection between a subject and those viewing the image but there are a couple of other things that we can try:
A) The off camera looking, have our subject focus their attention on something unseen and outside the field of view of your camera. This can create a feeling of candidness and also create a little intrigue and interest as the viewer of the shot wonders what they are looking at. This intrigue is particularly drawn about when the subject is showing some kind of emotion (for example ‘what’s making them laugh?’ or ‘what is making them look surprised?’). We must be aware that when we have a subject looking out of frame that we can also draw the eye of the viewer of the shot to the edge of the image also (taking them away from the point of interest in our shot) the subject.
B) Looks within the frame, alternatively you could have your subject looking at something (or someone) within the frame. A child looking at a ball, a woman looking at her new baby, a man looking hungrily at a big plate of pasta…. When you give your subject something to look at that is inside the frame you create a second point of interest and a relationship between it and your primary subject. It also helps create ’story’ within the image.