Bong S. Eliab
School of Arts and Sciences
Ateneo de Davao University
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Great portraiture is primarily the result of successful interaction between the photographer and the subject. Even in candid situations, the subject is usually aware that you are there. Your attitude is everything. Some photographers take a "fly-on-the-wall" approach, becoming more or less invisible. But even they have taken many of the steps suggested below.
First, you must honor the worth of your subject. Establish a trusting relationship. Find ways to show that you think your subject is special and has dignity. This can be done in conversation or gesture (in a foreign country, for example), through showing real interest in your subject's hobby, sport, family, or craft. Often, a good photographer will do all this before even getting out camera equipment. Once the equipment is out, body language is important; don't be confrontational with your camera. Some photographers hang the camera on their shoulder rather than point it at the subject, and when the time is right they'll take the photograph. The goal is to put your subject at ease. Make the subject your partner in your effort to get a good picture. In candid photography, once you've established this relationship, back away and let your subjects be themselves.
Timing can be crucial in candid photography. Henri Cartier-Bresson, a pioneering 35mm photographer, called it the "decisive moment." Based on your knowledge of the subject, you'll find that people photography has a sort of rhythm to it. If you've done your homework, you'll know when the best moments happen.
Sometimes people "stiffen" up when you're taking their photographs. Do the above preparation, then take lots of photographs (some people even go to the extreme of pretending to take photographs in a camera without film, then loading up for the real photos). After a while, your subjects will loosen up, going about their work or forgetting to be stiff. Often, the last frames on your roll will be the best.
Preset everything on your camera before you begin to take photos or pose your subjects. You can prefocus and preexpose on a similar area near the subject if your subject is sensitive about being having a camera aimed at them for extended periods. How often we've seen photographers who pose their subjects and ask them to smile, then take five minutes to adjust their cameras. If you want a photo of a smiling adult, you can often ask them to smile on the count of three. But of course, not all portraits need to be of smiling people. If you're photographing a moving person, prefocus on the spot where you think they're going to be. Unless you're creating a really different abstract photo, at least one eye of the subject MUST be in focus; this is where we perceive the center of consciousness, or soul, if you will...
Always ask before you take a photo, either verbally or tacitly by holding up your camera or using other body language. (Exceptions to this are public events, like a parade, stage play or living history demonstration, where people know they're on display.) A hostile subject is a poor subject, except in the case of gritty photojournalism. With candid travel portraiture, you can establish a sort of rhythm, photographing other things first, demonstrating to your intended subject that you're an okay person and not there to take advantage of them. In some foreign countries, your subjects will demand money. Avoid doing this if you can, though this is a personal choice and safety can become an issue, especially in a region that's politically unstable; be aware of local customs and laws. Polaroids work fabulously in difficult situations; your subjects can photograph one another and become part of your "team."
Taking photos of children can be especially difficult, or especially fun, depending on how you go about it. More than ever, you must preset your camera so you're ready ahead of when you're going to take the photo. You must plan ahead. Then, as Peter and Elsje Brandt, New York photographers who specialize in photos of children for commercial use, say, "It's play time." Says Peter, "You don't tell a kid to smile. You do something funny or stupid that makes them smile." If the child doesn't enjoy the photo session, he/she shouldn't be asked to do it. With babies, squeak toys, jingling keys, bells and peekaboo work. Toddlers love it when you, the photographer, are just plain silly. Toddlers will also relax with a favorite toy. With older children, keep on hand some props: bubbles, chewing gum, funny hats, costumes, puppets and more. Use pets if they are available. Sometimes a willing helper can stand behind you and act silly while you concentrate on the camera. Or photograph the child at a playground. You can crop out the playground equipment with a telephoto lens. Once the child is interacting with props or whatever, you need to work fast. Don't try for perfection in your subjects; the photos of your children covered with mud or smeared with food in their high chairs are the ones you'll cherish a generation from now. Most of the time, shoot at the child's eye level; shooting down at them is demeaning. Just for fun when shooting a family portrait that includes both adults and children, try putting them on the floor or ground; interesting things can happen.
Framing and Composing the Subject
Most people photos are vertical rather than horizontal because of the nature of the subject. But many-a child sleeping in her bed, a family grouping, a "man in his world" photo shot wide-angle showing a subject surrounded by, say, his workshop tools-are horizontal.
Portraiture doesn't always mean a photograph of someone's face. You can photograph a person's hands, the graceful pose of a ballet dancer or the bent back of an elderly person. Or photograph objects that are significant to that person.
Keep good composition in mind. Look for leading lines, contrasts and more. Ask the subject to dress simply. Be aware of the position of hands and arms. In classical portraiture, the subject should be looking into the frame slightly or looking straight into the camera lens. But the subjects can be interacting with one another, too. The most important aspect of portraiture is to show something of the subject's personality. If you are in a position to pose a person, have them look slightly to one side or the other, as few people have symmetrical faces. You can make a heavy person look more slender by arranging their bodies so they are at a three-quarter angle to the camera, and then have the subject turn his/her face toward you. Side lighting can slenderize a heavy face. A slightly higher camera angle also slenderizes. If hands are included in the portrait, position them carefully for good composition. Above all, your subject should appear natural and relaxed.
In most situations, use a telephoto lens. A moderate telephoto (anything from a 70mm on up to a 200mm) is ideal for a portrait of an individual and easy to handle. Telephotos foreshorten, creating a more flattering arrangement of nose and other elements of a person's face. Also, their inherent shallow depth of field gets rid of distracting background elements. Telephoto lenses "free" the photographer and the subject from operating at what may for some be too close a working distance. All of us have a psychological boundary to some degree, and some subjects may not appreciate you getting too close to them to take a photograph. Go ahead and experiment with larger lenses; the foreshortening is even better, though it's harder to interact with your subject when you're standing 30 feet away. And hand-holding the lens becomes more difficult with longer focal lengths.
When photographing a small group, a standard 50mm lens is effective, partly because of the angle that such a lens provides and because of the increased depth of field, a consideration when you have several faces at different distances from your lens. You may want to use a moderate wide-angle for a large group. Wide-angle lenses are also great when showing a subject's environment, but be aware of distortion problems. To minimize distortion, try not to point up or down with your camera. You can "trick" a camera-shy subject with a wide-angle lens, making a show of photographing something next to them, or something they're working on; the subject doesn't realize he/she is in the photograph, too.
Try to keep your equipment as minimal as possible. With people photography you need to be spontaneous and too much equipment can ruin this spontaneity. You'll need to shoot quite a bit of film so that after a few frames the subject realizes that each frame is not so important. You may wish to use a warming filter. A soft-focus filter (Nikon makes a great silver-coated one that softens only highlight areas, making it effective in wrinkle reduction; it's called "soft-focus 1.") lends a pleasing look for many portraits, especially for wedding and romantic portraits. A flash is effective for a backlight/fill set-up. Try to get the flash off-camera with an extension cord so that you get more modeling of the face. If your camera has autofocus and auto-exposure capabilities, now is the time to use them because of the spontaneity they provide. As usual, be aware of how dark and light areas can fool your camera meter.
The "KIS" (keep it simple) rule works here as it does in other areas of photography. If you are asked to take a portrait of someone, direct them to dress simply. Neutral tones are effective. Dark clothes detract attention from the body unless you're shooting a silhoette against a light background. Avoid loud, busy patterns. Avoid white or bright red. T-shirts with logos or other designs should be avoided as well. On women, soft, muted-colored, flowing garments are effective. A V-neck sets off the face better than a turtleneck.
In most cases, avoid direct hard light (as in sunlight) on the subject's face; the contrast between shadow and highlight details is seldom flattering. Amateur photographers often line up their families in full sunshine, with everyone squinting into the harsh light for several minutes while the photographer fuses with the camera settings; the results are not favorable. A lightly overcast day is great. Heavy overcast can produce light that's too flat, so that details of the person's face are swallowed up.
Open shade works well. You'll find open shade outdoors near a wall, tree or under a covered area that blocks the direct sunshine; you get softer lighting. The light is reflected off the ground or surfaces of the walls, or even white cards placed in front of the subject. You may wish to use a warming filter.
Window light is a great source. This gives the subject a wonderful side lighting, often creating a contemplative mood in the image. Contrast between lit and shaded areas will be very high, if sunlight falls on the subject. You can even use a white card on the side of the subject opposite the window to fill in the dark shadows.
Fill flash outdoors. Great in backlit or direct sunlight situations, where you need to fill those shadows with strobe light. Set the flash so its illuminative power is at least one stop less than the illuminative power of the sun (1.5 to 2.0 is best if you have this flash capability). You don't want to overpower sunlight, as your photograph will look artificial. If you don't have a flash, you can use a reflector, whether it's a piece of white cardboard or a folding reflector available in photo stores.
Back lighting. Sometimes, light coming from behind the subject works well. The most common of these situations is a silhouette; detail is not rendered in the face. A great setup is backlight/fill. The sun (or in the studio, a strobe) backlights the hair for a halo effect, then soft flash or fill card (or natural sources such as bright soil or a wall) is used to illuminate the subject's face.
Front lighting. Usually the least desirable kind of lighting, as this brings very little modeling or shadow to the subject's face. Usually done with an on-camera strobe as the primary source of light. Red-eye can be a problem.
Side lighting. If used inappropriately, subject can appear cut in half. Window lighting is an example of this. Look for other sources of reflection to fill in your side lighting, or make your own.
Learn from the Masters
Study how the great portrait artists have made their images. The library abounds with great books of portraits. Life magazine has documented our celebrities and day-to-day lives for many decades. Among the many great photographers: contemporary Mary Ellen Mark and Eddie Adams, known for their often-disturbing photojournalistic images of tragedy around the world. Arnold Newman and Yousuf Karsh made powerful "environmental" images of celebrities, as former Rolling Stones staff photographer Annie Leibovitz still does. Sally Mann is famous for her strange, surrealistic black and white 4"x5" portraits of children. Diane Arbus made us squirm with her stark, wide-angle images. Dorothea Lange captured the essence of the Great Depression in her portraits.
Syllabus | Notes | Papers | Projects
All Rights Reserved 2001
Ateneo de Davao University
10 June 2002