Mastering Portrait Photography

Portrait photography is a mesmerising field that aims to encapsulate a subject's deepest self. The fascination with portrait photography lies in the oxymoron of the genre. While the aim is to exhibit the most intimate truth of the person, it also maintains an air of mystery and ambiguity. It's a skill that goes beyond simply capturing a person's face and connecting with them on a personal level. It is much deeper than that and often creates a life story through a single shot. Let’s dip into the realm of portrait photography and look at its significance, equipment, techniques, ethical considerations, and more.

The Essence of Portrait Photography

1- Relationship to the Subject

In portrait photography, making a connection with the subject is critical. The photographer must have empathy with the subject and make them feel at ease. A subject will not allow their vulnerability to show if they do not connect with the photographer. This is vital when attempting to capture genuine emotions and expressions. This may take time, including time away from the camera so a photographer may need to practise some patience.

2- Capturing Emotions and Characteristics

Once a photographer has an understanding of the subject, they can then begin to design the shot. Lighting angles, backdrop and sometimes even props can enhance the story being told. A portrait can portray the subject's personality, their feelings, or even their entire life narrative through appropriate angles, lighting, and expression.

3- Historical Context

In general, the only connection people have to prominent figures in history is through portraiture. Politicians and army generals for example, prefer to appear large and powerful and artists often liked to be photographed in their studio or nex to their artwork. These compositions give an insight to the story of the person and of the time they were photographed.  Portrait photography has a long history that reflects societal changes plus creative and technological advances.

4- Well-known Portrait Photographers

Many photographers have left an everlasting stamp on this genre with their work continuing to motivate and educate people. Annie Leibovitz is famous for taking portraiture to a creative level using both humour and poignancy to reveal something about her famous subjects. Richard Avedon is mostly known for his fashion and political portraiture. Research portrait photographers over the years and analyse their different approaches. The photographers that have come before you can be hugely inspirational.

Required Equipment

1. Cameras

DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are popular options, with each providing distinct advantages. A portrait photographer has the luxury of choosing a location or a studio which means they can use any type of camera, analogue or digital. Studio based portraiture gives photographers more freedom to experiment with different equipment.

2. Lenses

Different lenses, such as prime and zoom, provide different viewpoints and aesthetics. A general rule of thumb is a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens will offer the most flexibility and generate a greater depth of field.

3. Lighting Supplies

Softboxes, reflectors, and flashes can all be used to improve or perhaps completely modify a portrait. Lighting is an important aspect of portraiture but the right lighting depends on the subject. A black & white portrait of an actor may be better suited to more stark dramatic lighting than, say, a soft focus colour image of a newborn baby.

4. Props and backdrops

These can be used to offer context, tell a story, or simply make the portrait more visually appealing. Get to know the subject, their passions and their lifestyle. Props can give hints about the subject and can often enrich an otherwise bland setting.

Composition Techniques

1- Subject Framing:

Different angles can create a much more interesting portrait than a simple headshot.Think about your subject and the kind of person they are. Perhaps a full body shot would better suit a portrait of a dancer, or maybe a person with a tattooed face could work well with an extreme close-up. The subject’s placement within the frame can tell the viewer what to focus on when they view the image.

2- Rule of Thirds:

Regardless of the person and their story, the same composition rules will still apply to shooting a portrait. Portraits will rarely fill the frame so rules of third and hierarchy for example should still be part of the framing process. Gridlines are always a useful tool when positioning a subject.

3- Depth of Field:

Changing the aperture creates a blurred background, allowing the subject to stand out. For a more blurred background, use a lens with low f stops. Play around with lenses and backgrounds to find the best depth for your subject.

4- Historical Considerations:

Background selection should complement the subject rather than clash with it but it should also be relevant. Props can be part of the subject's story but can also suggest more about the person than immediately revealed. Some objects or colours can be symbolic and can lead the viewer to a surprising conclusion. It is, however, the photographer's responsibility to accurately and fairly represent their subject. They must fully understand everything in the frame.

5- Using Natural vs. Artificial Lighting:

Understanding light's quality and direction can help to create mood and depth. If shooting outside, choose the best time of day to suit your subject. Artificial lighting can create dramatic or indeed subtle moods so the photographer should understand and consider the subject before committing to a lighting style.

Technical tips:

Understanding aperture, shutter speed, and ISO will allow you to customise the exposure and overall look of the image. Whether shooting sharp, clean photographs or softer, more creative shots, the photographer must master the use of focus. White balance should not be underestimated. This guarantees that your image's colours are as true as possible.

Post-Production Techniques

Photography editing software such as Photoshop or Lightroom can be used to enhance or fix a photograph. Subtle retouching can improve the portrait while still maintaining its integrity but unless the image is becoming an obvious illustration or effects are being added, retouching should not be something a photographer depends on.

Colour changes can enhance a tone or create contrast and saturation or highlight specific parts of the photograph.

Portrait Photography in Various Genres

Different techniques are required in different settings. Corporate portraiture, lifestyle, fashion, and street photography are all different approaches to portrait photography. While creativity and experimentation is always important, a photographer is hired to do a job and many clients will have a set expectation for the type of image they expect to receive.

Considerations for Ethical Behaviour

Always ensure you have received official consent, especially in business or public settings. It is also important to respect the integrity of the subject by accurately and respectfully portraying them and never deliberately misrepresenting a person.

Representation and Diversification

In your art, embrace and appreciate diversity while depicting subjects with dignity and respect. The world is full of fascinating cultures and people. Travel is a great way to explore different types of lifestyles and social norms. Portraiture can paint a picture of many different ways of life.

Professional Tips and Tricks

Learn from professionals, attend courses, and read about their experiences. Learn how to avoid typical pitfalls and invest in ongoing learning and development. As a creative person, your learning should never end.

Portrait photography is a highly gratifying and diverse field that includes technical abilities, creative vision, and human connection. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned master, we hope you are inspired to experiment, learn, and create.

Curious to learn more about Photography, then join our courses. And feel free to share your ideas and experiences in the comments section below.

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Written by: Fiona Byrne

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