In portrait photography, there are a few technical and artistic elements to consider when you are on the quest for the perfect photograph. You will find five such tips in this post. I applied many of these ideas while taking photographs at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club in Toronto which were used to produce an award-winning zine.
1. You and Your Subject
The first, and perhaps the most important element to consider is your relationship to the subject. Think about whether you are an insider or an outsider vis-a-vis your subject and the power dynamics at a play.
Are you Edward Curtis photographing Native Americans? Diane Arbus photographing transvestites and circus performers? Annie Leibovitz photographing celebrities? Or are you Nan Goldin photographing your inner circle?
Photographing your subject looking up at them from below can convey a sense of empowerment. Photographing your subject at a distance, or with obstructions, may project a sense of the unknown or unknowable. Understanding your subject and their circumstances may create more opportunities for truth and intimacy in your craft.
2. Distance Matters
The contact sheet of shots including ‘Migrant Mother’ by Dorothea Lange features a number of images taken at a greater distance than the iconic one of the mother flanked by two of her children with their backs to the camera.
3. Setting the Scene
In the 1800s it was mostly affluent people who could afford to have portrait photos taken, typically in very formal, stiff studio settings. As technology improved, photography became more accessible and portrait photos started becoming more common and varied. Later, with the advent of the digital camera and its widespread use towards the end of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, photos of all types, including portraits, proliferated.
With the ability now, to take photos in a variety of lighting situations and environs, the question is one of choice much more so than ever before. Think about your setting, and what is included and excluded. Are you building a sense of your subject based on other objects included in your shot? Picture a photo of Stephen King and a backdrop of books.
Think too, about lighting. Harsh, direct lighting makes for a more severe, and perhaps in the extreme, a grotesque or surreal ambience. Soft lighting can convey a sense of peace and calm.
Also consider whether you have control over the lighting. In a studio, you can decide on the number and the positioning of the lights. In an outdoor shot, you can often still decide at what time of day you photograph. Early morning and evening offer softer lighting than mid-day. Cloud-covered days require that you use a faster ISO, or slower shutter speed, or larger aperture, than on bright days.
5. Capturing Movement
If your portrait involves photographing a moving subject, think about whether the person is moving into or out of the frame. Also consider whether you are panning – moving the camera with the subject (which could render the background blurry) or are holding the camera still.
And finally… When shooting portraits, always think about who you are taking the picture for? Is it for yourself, the subject, the public, or perhaps all three?