Friday, 29 January 2010

The Portrait

The Portrait
-as requested by Rachel Bramall: Photography Student and Model

*Disclaimer* - I do not presume any of my opinions to be absolute and the following is just that: my opinion.


por⋅trait -/ˈpɔrtrɪt, -treɪt, ˈpoʊr-/ Show Spelled Pronunciation [pawr-trit, -treyt, pohr-] -–noun-

1) a likeness of a person, esp. of the face, as a painting, drawing, or photograph: a gallery of family portraits. (

The way I see things, the first five words of that defintition couldn't be any more precise. When talking portraiture, that's exactly what needs to be remembered: you're capturing the "likeness of a person." Whilst I think the subtext that refers to the face isn't relevant, I won't focus on personal philosophies. 




The definition above, as accurate as it is, remains pretty broad and covers every single style of portrait imaginable. To talk about all of it under one umbrella would not only be wrong, but each individual style requires entirely an entirely different technique and approach than the next! For example, approaching a fashion portrait the way you would approach a family portrait could only end in disaster. Well, in most cases, a family portrait approach might just be perfect for an odd editorial spread, but you get the point.


Alas, family portraits and fashion are only two of the numerous, numerous subcategories of the photographic portrait. the genre also inludes:

  • Fashion

  • Family Portariture

  • Children's Portraiture

  • Newborn Portariture

  • Wedding Portraiture

  • Beauty Portraiture

  • Glamour

  • Boudoir

  • Art

The list can go on and each subcategory has its own many, many subcategories. Essentially, this just proves that the possibilities for portraiture upon the picking up a camera are limitless.


Generally, all of these approaches are completely different; however, and again generally, there are a few constants that pertain to technique and camera craft. Now, presume if you will: you have your camera, you have your subject, you have your location or studio and you know what the end style and purpose will be. Particularly if there is any commercial use involved, the resulting photos rely on you knowing the basics of how to use a camera. Sharp focus, good use of depth of field, correct exposure, composition, the biggest piece of transparency or highest quality digital sensor you can get your hands on, (for output of course becasue we all know that in the right hands a disposable camera can be the right tool for the job) and every other thing that I won't dwell on because of course there is already an infinite wealth of that information to be found.


Essentially, know how to use your camera, know how your going to achieve the realisation of your concept and know how to put it all together long before you put your lens in the subject's face.


Now comes the fun bit and the bit that makes the multitude of images out there interesting to look at. Give two photographers the same location, the same subject and the same camera and ultimately the results will be different, sometimes the results are so hugely far apart that you would never guess the circumstance. Are you the type of person who exposes for highlights or rather shadows? Always black and white? Or always colour? Do you always use the shallowest depth of field or do you prefer everything in the frame razor sharp?  Soft muted tones or brazenly hard contrast?

Again, the possibilities are endless and as a photographer, whether you realise it or not, there will always be subconcious consistencies in everything you shoot (That is of course unless your intentionally do otherwise). Little things stemming from how you learned your techniques, to the type of person you are and even down to the type of music you listen to will inevitably play a part on your photographic style. That's the real beauty of it all. You can either make a concious effort to develop your style or just let it flow or even break apart anytime.

Now, I hear, "How does this relate to the portrait?". Simple. As you are making an image that portrays the likeness of someone else, you are inevitably impressing upon that likeness part of your likeness as an artist or craftsman. Commercially, your personal style could very well be your selling point; however, it could just as easily be your stumbling block. If your portraits are usually very dark, brooding and  dismally atmospheric; you probably won't be taking portraits of very many young children, yet that style might just be perfect for an advertisement in a magazine.

In the end, your style will ultimately effect what type of portraits you take. Of course, you could always train yourself separately in the techniques to take the sort of photos that the clients you wouldn't normally have would swoon over, but that is when it stops being personal and I challenge most people to carry on with it much longer beyond that point.


 Photographic lighting is another one of those subjects that is covered in hundreds of places in immense depth and it also happens to be one of the last few areas chock full of innovation. Because of this, I won't be covering specifics of what to use or illustrate with lighting diagrams because that would be rather pointless.

What you need to know about lighting, as it pertains to portraiture, is that it is the single most important element above all else, in my opinion of course. Fortunately, to that effect, the options are utterly limitless. If an object emits light, then it is a viable lightsource for your portraits. I don't care if it's a £1000 studio flash head or a £10 work lamp. Whether it's the midday sun or a computer screen. Everything is viable and it's up to you to work out how to use it to the best effect. { There is only one source of light that you should never, ever use and that's that little tiny built in flash on your camera. If your ever tempted to use it, just get a small hammer or other "weapon of opportunity" and break it. You won't be tempted again. If this needs explaining, then it's time to visit some of the previously mentioned abundance of sources on photographic lighting. Personally, I like Strobist }

So, in order to consistently create a high grade of portrait, you have to understand light and you have to know how to manipulate that light. Ambient or artificial, manmade or natural, you must master light in order to make it work for you subject. This is far more important than the subject's ease, comfort, expression or anything else you might hear. Remember, photo literally means light. Without light there is no photo and without controlling that light and making it work it's magic for you there is no good photo except by way of an occasional accident.


 I am going to briefly touch on a pet peeve of mine concerning the vernacular commonly used regarding post production. Please, for the sake of my sanity, carefully review the following definitions and commit them to memory.

  • Editing - The process of going through contact sheets or digital files, weeding out the inferior images and selecting the final images to be retouched.

  • Retouching - The physical process of correcting, adjusting and removing flaws from images by way of the darkroom or computer software.

 Now, retouching is another important element in the portrait. That is, unless of course you're of the frame of mind that retouching is evil and refuse to do anything outside of the camera, then fine, that of course is a valid approach to things, just please make sure that Ansel Adams is not on your list of "heroes" before heading off to preach elsewhere.

The amount and type of retouching you will do will of course depend on your personal style and your skill level. You may simply remove blemishes or you may add a little extra contrast to the eyes or you may go all out and remove your subject from where the image was taken and place them in an entirely different scene. Technically, that would be called manipulation but it all falls into the same boat. You could, by all means, remove all "imperfections" from your subject and give them digital liposuction to disguise that extra 40 pounds of "beer weight" but your're not going to do that are you? Are you?


Output is the last part of the process, but in actuality, probably the very first thing you considered when approaching your portrait. The end result of a session will always factor into the planning and the preparation and then the actual shooting, but it is still the end result and what matters at the finish line.

What are the uses for portraits? Nice, gigantic prints on the wall. That's a good start. Some pretty pictures for social media? Increasingly. A good human way to show the people behind the faceless corporations by way of a wall of photos or a section on a website? Yes. The options for the end result aren't  quite limitless; however, you will very badly struggle to run them out in your lifetime. 
Your creativity and the amount of work you're willing to put in are the only true limits. That applies to everything I've written about above. Though this whole thing has mostly been blanket generalisations and a whole lot of opinion,  in the end, whatever portraits you make will be a piece of you and will show the person behind the camera just as much as the one in front of it. That is what truly makes it art.

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