Tips for great portraits

Breaking all "rules for great portraits", this is one of my favorite pictures from the Third Eye Workshop, done by a 15-year old Roma participant

Blogs with photo tips on taking great portraits really annoy me. And every informational photography website has them, especially those dedicated to selling cameras and photographic gear. It’s clear that their canned advice is mostly about marketing. Even if they are not selling anything directly through those tips, they steer your photographic thinking in the direction of technicalities and gear instead of developing your vision as a photographer. And they help perpetuate clichés.

Does that mean that I don’t read them? I often do. Impulsively – out of curiosity to see if there is something new or unexpected there – but I don’t find anything revealing, every time. And the checklist form in which these tips are doled out is just as useful as a hypotetical checklist of “tips for great cooking” could be, starting with a recommendation to saute some onion. Well, great cuisine is not about making sure you start with onion.

Even when tips are about non-commercial things such as “use good light”, they are meaningless. That’s just like saying “you should serve great food when company comes”.  Well, what IS great food? It all depends on the occasion, the tastes and allergies of your guests, and your desires of the moment.  So “great light” means nothing – it all depends on what you are trying to say or achieve with your portrait, what mood are you looking for and whether you want to show your sitter in a role or capture something deeply personal about him.

Does that mean technicalities don’t matter? They do, if they are your tools, if you control them and so use them for what you are trying to convey. But if you think about them instead of how they are related to your vision, they’d control you instead.

Here is my advice:

Develop a vision. Think about what you want to say with your portrait and actually, what you want to reveal about your sitter, too. Do you want to show her as strong or fragile, mysterious or innocent? Would the sitter allow you to capture her like that and how can can you achieve it? What is the purpose of the portrait – a poster covering the wall at home, a book cover, a publicity page? Or maybe something totally unplanned and experimental? Then think about the technical means you have at your disposal in realizing your goal, such as perspective, light, angle, lens, etc. And if you want to perfect your craft, learn from other portrait artists, such as the Dutch masters or any portraitist whom you admire, even if not photographers.

And here is a deconstruction of the most frequent photo tips and how wrong they can be for your creativity:

1. Use great light. As I said, this is meaningless. Advice given is usually about looking for diffused light, etc. But maybe you want to use strong directional light with deep shadows, to show a certain character of your subject. Maybe you want to show furrows and life experience on your subject’s face.

2. Telephoto/long lens. They say it’s more flattering because, since it compresses layers, it makes for thinner bodies and faces. But maybe this is not what you are looking for.  Maybe you are looking to show volume, to set apart an expressive hand gesture or the ambiance, for an environmental portrait. Maybe you are looking to show the smallness of a child with a portrait from a high angle or the towering masculinity of a man from low angle. You’d need a wide angle lens for that.

Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), Woman of the High Plains, 1938. Carter Museum

3. Don’t put subject in center. Putting your subject off center may be a nice way to make your portrait more dynamic. But there is nothing wrong with a portrait where your subject is in the dead middle. In fact, one of the best photographs I know are “centered-subject” – like “Woman of the High Plains” by Dorothea Lange – which is also an example of a great use of harsh light and low angle. There is a reason she placed her subject in that position and it made her portrait much more compelling. While off-centering may not be necessarily bad advice, it is meaningless when served in a bullet-point list. And if you take it as a rule, you can also break it, as all rules should be.

4. Open up your aperture for shallow depth of field. Yes, a blurred background is an easy-peasy, off the hook way to force the viewer to focus on your subject. But there are other, more sophisticated ways to achieve that. You can use the graphic elements the environment offers you, as well as the spirit environment. See, for example, this powerful portrait by Carlo Gianferro, in which shallow depth of field wasn’t necessary and in fact wouldn’t allow for the richness of the presentation of the sitter’s identity.

The Dollar Room, from the series Roma/Gypsy Interiors by Carlo Gianferro

5. Subject should look into the lens, to engage the viewer. It is true that, along with strong contrast and lines, we are psychologically programmed to pay strong attention to eyes. And someone who looks at us automatically gets our attention. However, this is a baseless rule for portraits. Not looking into the lens, but somewhere else within the frame or outside creates tensions and guides the viewer’s mental attention to something else. While a subject looking into our eyes may be captivating, a portrait with the opposite can be just as emotional. I’ll make sure to check the percentage of “look into the lens” examples at the next portrait photography show I happen upon. I bet it won’t be over 50%.

6. Focus on the eyes. Or focus on other body part. Or go totally unfocused. Eyes, said to be windows of the soul, are typically perceived as the carrier of identity. Of all the visual information we can get from a portrait, eyes are paramount for us also because we tend to focus on eyes if we were to see the sitter in person (see the look the viewer in the eye tip above). However, a portrait is a portrait and not a person exactly because the photographer is the one who controls and guides the perception process of the viewer. The impact of a portrait depends heavily on where the photographer decides to direct us. It’s a conscious artistic choice and not a simple snap of reality. So there is nothing wrong to focus on something else – hands, for example, in fact a frequent focusing favorite of many masterpieces – or even to exclude the eyes from the picture whatsoever.

7. Avoid cluttered backgrounds. This advice, which is similar to the “shallow depth of field” rule, is something I don’t understand. A cluttered background may be what you need to give context to your portrait. Or a great graphic rhythm. A place where the gaze can wander and find meaning.

Two Girls Unsure of Camera. Disfarmer

8. Make your subject feel comfortable. This one is probably the most trite standard photo advice usually given to commercial portrait photographers and presumably for any kind of posed portraiture using models. If your goal is producing those trite, run of the mill portraits, then sure, it is a sound advice. But it’s much better to think about the picture before you make it and actually understand your subject to project a personality. Maybe it’s better that the subject guides you in the process of capturing his or her soul instead of allowing you to lead. Or that you take your subject out of their comfort zone. The most amazing example for me is Mike Meyers, a.k.a. Disfarmer: a genius unsung in his lifetime who had a private studio in rural Arkansas and shot portraits of local people for cheap money. His personality was rather haughty and he definitely didn’t even think about making his subjects feel comfortable in front of his camera. While I don’t advocate confronting your subjects and making them feel UNcomfortable, it is hard not to admit the intensity and raw power of his portraits.

What are your favorite examples that break those trite rules?


4 responses to “Tips for great portraits

  1. I’m not sure where the conclusion that the above girls are “unsure of camera” comes from. There’s absolutely no context in the frame leading to that notion. In fact, they look quite at ease with the whole thing. I know of the Disfarmer work and have looked at and find it unimpressive. There were hundreds of portrait photographers doing similar work in small-town America in the same era producing similar work. It’s very good, no doubt, it’s just, imho, unexceptional. I would recommend the book “The Champion Pig” if you can find it. I have no idea if it’s still in print but it celebrates similar work of 15 studio photographers from various states, some of whom took their skills out onto location, to make a living doing portraits.
    I suppose Disfarmer would’ve been a good subject for this study too.

    Here’s an example of making a subject uncomfortable: Karsh’s Churchill. It’s one of the best portraits I’ve ever seen. And the backstory is illuminating about both photographer and subject.

    Guy Reynolds
    Photo Editor
    The Dallas Morning News

  2. Thank you for the informative comment and the links! (And sorry that your comment was first caught in the akismet spam protection – could’ve been because of the links…)

    I took Disfarmer’s picture with its title from the online gallery dedicated to his work My guess is the curator gave it that title.

    Yes, you are right – Disfarmer would’ve been quite fitting as part of Champion Pig. I’ll try to locate it. The difference is his work was done in studio only, as far as I know, and the piglet book seems to be on location, in subjects’ own context. By the way, I am really interested in this kind of photography – the only book I have so far is American Character If you have other recommendations it would be awesome~

    • The Champion Pig wasn’t among our studied books when I was in school in Austin, just one I came across in a used book store at the time. And it has always been a favorite. Some stunning work is showcased. I’m not a studio or portrait photographer really but as a newspaper photographer for 30 years it’s a very big part of what I do/did.

      Guy Reynolds
      Photo Editor
      The Dallas Morning News

  3. Pingback: Students work this semester in Photography 1 | Parasol Photography

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