Our thanks to all those involved in setting up the portrait areas on Thursday night, in particular to members Steve Dyer, Gerry Painter and Myk Garton. Also thanks to our models Melisa Wright, Helen Morgan-Rogers and Bethany.
“Portrait photography or portraiture in photography is a photograph of a person or group of people that captures the personality of the subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses”. Wikipedia
The key phrase there is “Effective lighting”. Yes the pose matters and yes the backdrop or background matters, but the lighting has to be effective too, it is the biggest single factor. Let us dig into this a little bit further.
All photography is about the fall of light on a subject, I know. We are here weekly (more or less) in this blog. We are here every time we push the shutter button, for good or otherwise.
Effective – having an expected or intended outcome; producing a strong emotion or response. So, we are talking about lighting that does as we designed it to do and in so doing produce a strong emotion or response in the viewer. Or as we have said (frequently) always start with the end in mind.
This is easier in the studio than outdoors and in fully candid photography a.k.a. Street. It is true that beggars can’t be choosers, but this merely underscores the importance of picking the background first then letting subjects pass through it. Obviously we have to mindful of the fall of light and, if shadows are part of the composition, the dynamic range that we are asking our cameras to deal with. What we want to avoid is the background swamping the subject to we end up with unintended under or over exposure.
Outdoors we need to be more mindful of natural reflectors and flags, that is light sources and environmental shadows rather than the ones we create for the purpose of getting an acceptable shot. Again, putting ourselves in the optimal position and waiting for the subject or scout and bring your model along on the live shoot.
With the studio, as we had in the hall, then the preparation is just as important. For those of us new to it, on a restricted budget, or just casual studio portraitists one light can be used. Grids, beauty dishes and soft boxes can be improvised. Cheap versions can also be sourced (e.g. Grids, beauty dishes and/or softboxes / diffusers) but if we are going to use them often then we are better off on paying for more robust versions.
Poses are as established as any other part of art and the symbolism and interpretations that the idea of the pose creates are based on, or at least can be based on, the assertion that body language accounts for 55% of the communication between two or more actors. A photograph takes out the verbal and the wordage, the other 45%, and in doing so makes the visual element more important, makes the subject’s form and shape the only. So far so obvious, but the human body can express so much with just a few small adjustments.
There are differences in posing men and in posing women, based in culturally based perceptions of masculinity and femininity. As ever practice makes perfect and preferably with the same subjects. Posing in itself is a big subject, but in essence it is a form of composition, or at least a branch thereof. Mastering the art is still 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration, and as ever, having the end in mind when we start can help us immeasurably.
There are any number of poses that work, but the pose itself may break an image but it is not going to make an image. The eyes have it. Engagement between the subject and the viewer make the image, the rest of the subjects body, that is that of it which is visible in the image. This goes for any pose, and any gender and age.
In putting these three essentials, light, background and pose, together meaningfully lies the art of photographing people. And here we are talking the difference between grabbing a picture and making a photograph, between reciting the alphabet of buttons on our camera body and writing with light. It doesn’t have to be complicated, though that won’t stop people trying to make it so. It is about two (or more) humans communicating to a common purpose. Even so it has its own grammar.
It is worth repeating that the image that works most effectively is the one that is the product of the photographers craft, not their camera’s algorithms. As was once said of the example of the great American Jazz player, John Coltrane, their “Must be a priority of integrity, honesty, decency, and mastery of craft” (Cornel West).
I think the same can be said of portrait photography, whatever its form.