Monday, November 19, 2007

The Art of Portrait Photography

So you're interested in portrait photography, and you want to know what separates snapshots from art? Here are the things I consider vitally important:


Billie Bullet

Light is the single most important aspect of photography!

STOP right now, and read that back again and again until it sinks in. After all, the essence of the photographic art is the process of capturing light from the scene in order to create an artistic rendering. In a very real sense, photography is painting with light.

Long before photography and flashes were invented, classical painters posed their subjects next to large windows that acted like big soft boxes in order to create the right light to capture the mood they wanted to paint. Always pay attention to the light, and go to whatever lengths you need to (scheduling, rescheduling, adding light, etc...) in order to make sure you get the light right.

If you can't get great light, don't even bother clicking the shutter release -- your photo is just going to look like every other amateur with a point and shoot camera, otherwise.


Last Chance

You absolutely must have light to make a photograph, which is why it got top billing. It is absolutely the foundation of photography, but equally important is the subject. A strong subject is more than a good looking model. The setting, clothing, props, accessories, pose, and emotional expression all work together to tell a story. It's up to the photographer to make sure it's a story worth telling.



Focus isn't just about what to focus on, it's also about how much depth of field to show in the portrait. How much do you want to blur out background/foreground elements? How much of the subject really needs a sharp focus? With the right set of lenses, you can really have a lot of control over that aspect, and it makes a significant difference in the resulting images!

Also, don't discount the possibilities with regards to alternative points of focus. Generally, it's good to concentrate on eyes, but I often focus on lips, and sometimes create dramatic tension by having the primary subject out of focus, and instead focus on things like hands, or some object being held by the model. In one of my favorite shots, I focussed on a chess board with a very shallow depth of field, and lit up the subject's face so much that the highlights are all blown out.


DJ Craze

For backgrounds, the general rule is to keep it simple. It is possible to do nice environmental portraits (and I have shot many), but it's very easy for backgrounds to clash and distract from the focus of your image. One thing to watch out for when you're just starting out is mergers -- background and foreground images have a tendency to seem to merge together in a photograph, so, for example, watch out that it doesn't look like trees are growing from the subject's head, and so on.



One key difference between an amateur shot, and a professional shot is composition. A great portrait photographer considers shapes, lines, framing, angles, negative space, where to place the point of focus in the frame for maximum impact, and so on.



Photographs are two dimensional, which makes it challenging to get a good sense of texture. The best way to play it up is to use strong shapes, composition, and light angles that compliment the textures in the scene.



If you're shooting for color, make sure that the colors compliment each other. If they don't, change up the wardrobe, the setting, etc... until they do. Painters don't choose random colors for their paintings. Why should photographers allow outside forces to dictate color choices?



Exposure isn't just about getting a proper exposure to record the scene. In especially high contrast scenes, for example, you have choices. You can get a proper exposure for shadows, or propper exposure for bright areas, but often, not both, and that can be a good thing. You can choose to take a high-key or low-key approach, and expose to emphasize certain areas of an image over others.

Keep in mind that you can use color, texture, and exposure to emphasize shapes in your compositions.



When you can coordinate all of these things, and get them working in harmony, that's when magic starts to happen. Like music, visual arts rely on harmony (shape, color, exposure), rhythm (texture), and plot elements to tell a story (setting, model).

Next time you point a camera at somebody, consider some of these ideas. Are you taking a snapshot, or creating art?

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Blogger Buzz said...

I found this very helpful and liked the example photos that you used. I think they represented the aspect that each was being asked to demonstrate. Thank you for linking this from New & Learning...I expect that many of our members will find it helpful (if only to remind us about what's important and why).

November 19, 2007 2:26 PM  
Blogger jim.westbrook said...

Eric, I agree with Buzz. This is great. Thank you for sharing this. I really want to make better portraits and this is very helpful.

November 19, 2007 2:55 PM  
Blogger t said...

Great tutorial Eric!
I would like tot try tyour advices.


November 20, 2007 12:01 PM  
Blogger Brian Auer said...

Wow Eric, this is great stuff -- and the timing is perfect. There are a few of us doing a "December Challenge" in which we're taking a-portrait-a-day for the entire month. My portrait skills suck, so it should be fun... and this article will certainly help.

I've been getting more into street photography and candid people shots, but not so much on the posed portrait stuff. It's definitely a topic I'm interested in learning more about though.

December 2, 2007 12:52 PM  
Blogger Susheel said...


A great post. I followed Brian's Shout on Digg...

I'll be sure to refer back here when I'm next shooting portraits.


December 2, 2007 2:38 PM  
Blogger udijw said...

I can only echo what my predecessors said. This article is a great resource for anyone wanting to go into portraits.
I just love the way you highlighted each of the important aspects of portrait photography.
Oh yea - got here by Brian's Shout on Digg...

December 2, 2007 2:59 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

Fantastic advice! Definitely some great tips to keep in mind next time I'm out getting some shots. amdargat-ITIS

December 3, 2007 9:19 PM  
Blogger surekha said...

Very, very helpful advice; I shall try using the given tips, and await my photographed portrait come alive !
Surekha Tenneti Venugopal

December 4, 2007 3:53 AM  
Blogger jacob said...

I was just wondering if I could use your photographs in this blog, to post an article on my blog - Credit will be given :)

December 7, 2007 6:01 AM  
Blogger hexfire said...

Great advice, and well illustrated with awesome shots too. Keep up the great posts!

December 11, 2007 8:15 AM  
Blogger korben said...

i'm ( not ) sorry for saying this but the advice was obvious and the pictures chosen as examples not that good and by not that good i mean bad. except for that last one maybe.

December 11, 2007 9:13 AM  
Blogger Eric said...


To each his own. With over 750 Diggs, a front-page Digg feature, and about 100 new flickr favorites, I'm happy to say that your opinion, while seemingly popular judging by the Digg comments, is in the very small minority.

December 12, 2007 11:13 PM  
Blogger Jen Weaver Photography said...

Nicely written! Thanks!

December 23, 2007 3:43 PM  
Blogger Paula.bird said...

I have to agree with Korben. The lighting in all these photos is too harsh a dosn't permit the viewers eyes to fall on any focal point of the photographers choosing, for example the first photo only shows off the negative aspects of the models skin and the last image would have been more dynamic if the lighting had focused ours eyes on her beautiful hands and led us up to her face, I didn't know what to look at first.

January 25, 2008 5:10 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Penney said...

Very instructive, solid info that helps build a foundation for creative vision. Thanks for sharing. Jonathan Penney

January 28, 2008 1:27 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Great piece. Interesting comments as well. I always find it funny to read the critics of photos when the shots be critiqued are just great, but are being slammed for subjective preferences. Photographic art is in the eye of beholder, as with any art. I enjoyed your straightforward coverage of important points to remember when tackling a photographic opportunity.

March 19, 2008 2:30 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

Thanks for addressing the negative criticism, Jeremy. A lot of people have had negative things to say about my photos, particularly on Digg, and via anonymous emails.

It seems people go out of their way to tell me things like, "if you have any real clients, you're ripping them off. crawl back under your rock and die" That's an actual email quote. It's burned into my brain.

March 22, 2008 6:32 AM  

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