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Quite a few articles have been written about portraiture being one of the most difficult photography genres to master. Search online, and more than half a million blogs write about portraiture—a lot of people are trying to make sense of all the things that go into making a beautiful portrait.
Portraits are the most interesting images for people, and because shooting portraits is not that easy, a photographer can have loads of fun learning about how to make a compelling portrait – one that will haunt or be memorable. For someone who is slightly obsessed, there are some simple things to do to practice essential portraiture skills without using a camera.
How Watching People Will Make You a Better Portrait Photographer
A portrait photographer tries to capture someone’s personality in a photo. Sounds cliché, I know, but there we are. Unless it’s for a passport photo or an ID, a portrait is more interesting if it tells us something about the person in it. Watching people in public places, if you can pull it off without being rude, is a great way to practice your skill of studying a person and finding an expression or a gesture that tells you how they feel, what they might be thinking, or something about their likes and dislikes.
Pay Attention to Their Faces
Changes in expression happen at split seconds, and it pays to anticipate a facial expression of the subject the split second before you press the shutter. One of the best observation skills I’ve learned without my camera in front of my face is learning to anticipate when something will make someone smile, or frown, or do something interesting with their face.
How the Light Can Make or Break a Photo
Light distracts me to no end. I’ll be walking somewhere or driving somewhere, and all of a sudden in the middle of a conversation, I’ll yell “Ah! Look at that light!” simply because it’s so beautiful. And scenarios would form in my mind of the kinds of beautiful portraits I could make using that light.
Lighting changes the mood of a portrait, so it pays to know in which light you can achieve a certain mood in a portrait.
The photo below was taken indoors around 3:00 in the afternoon, with the light still a little too white, and the effect is that the light looks blue on Akuri. Another observation you might make is that the light is coming from one direction, giving her face the classic window light effect, one side lit and the other side darker.
The next photo below was taken in a wide open room with the setting sun turning orange in color. The time of day the photo is taken changes the color of the light, and gives this image a warmer feeling compared to the previous one. But one thing the two photos have in common is the direction of the light source. The light is coming from one side of the model, and that produces a simple lighting set up which makes the portrait a little more interesting than if the light was coming from the front, behind the photographer.
If I spent time walking around and watching how people look in different kinds of light, I bet I would improve at identifying good light during a photoshoot—it becomes second nature, a good habit to have.
You can practice your ‘photographer’s eye’ even when you don’t have a camera in hand. All it takes is a bit of attentiveness, and a focus on portrait essentials.
Aloha Lavina is a Bangkok based photographer whose photographs have appeared in CNNGo (USA), UTATA Tribal Photography Magazine (USA), Seventeen magazine (USA), Estamos! (Ecuador), The Korea Times (South Korea), and several books. You can see her work at her website, read her articles on her blog or follow her on Twitter.