At the heart of all good portraits is the need to tell a story, to show a person as they really are (a personal family photograph), how they’d like to be remembered (perhaps a retouched portrait), or how they’d like people to think they look (the glamour portraits seen in the fashion magazines if any are still published these days).
Unfortunately, the majority of portrait photographs are relatively horrible. Sure, we can recognise little Christian or Aunt Muriel and this makes the photograph ‘successful’ or even ‘good’. But you’re reading a magazine Better Photography this because you want to create more than a snapshot. You’ll also be using post-production to refine the composition, colour, contrast and exposure, not to mention removing a few unwanted facial blemishes.
However, no matter how good your post-production skills, even more important will be your camera skills. Great portraits don’t come from Photoshop, they come from the photographer. Different cameras can produce different results, different photographers will have different ideas, but the things that define a successful portrait are the subject and his or her interaction with the photographer, the lighting, and the timing.
Some photographers will wax lyrically about how a good portrait captures the subject’s soul. While a little poetic, there is an element of truth in these statements and you will indeed capture more sensitive, more relevant portraits if you get your subject to relax and interact with you in an interesting way. You don’t have to make ‘pretty’ portraits, rather you must make them ‘interesting’.
Timing is also very important, especially for the candid and documentary photographers. Many a great portrait has been missed because the photographer wasn’t ready. Perhaps he was fiddling around with his equipment rather than watching his subject, or perhaps she simply didn’t interact with her subject. Whatever the reason, timing is essential – whether it’s a posed portrait or a candid one.
In addition to interaction and timing, the one technique that seems more important than all others is lighting. Light is fundamental to how a person’s face and character is portrayed and, although improvements can be made, it’s best to get the lighting correct in-camera, rather than fiddling around the edges in post-production.
In Better Photography this month, we're taking a look at the equipment and techniques that you’ll need to create great portraiture – in camera. Not a subscriber yet? Why not subscribe and gain access to a huge resource of ideas, techniques and inspiration. Visit our sister website for details - www.betterphotographyeducation.com.