Elements of Contemporary Portraiture
In today’s day and age, the true meaning of portraiture seems to have become lost behind digital manipulation of images even before they come out of the camera. Contemporary portraiture, as we knew it in the past was something only the rich and the noble could afford. And they were drawn on canvas as opposed to film. That is where our understanding of portraiture came from. During the film days, every small detail of light and shadow were obsessed over prior to pressing the shutter. I’m certain that had digital cameras already made their advent, we would never have seen the beautiful works of art of the great masters that we still study and try to emulate to this day.
Modern contemporary portraiture has deviated a lot from the static and somber poses of the past and evolved into something that is more dynamic and true to life. But as artists, our approach to this genre of photography should be representative of our psyche, an expression of our view of humankind.
My Interpretation of Contemporary Portraiture
There was a time when I shrank from the idea of photographing people. With time and much encouragement from friends, I slowly started turning my camera at creatures more evolved than four-legged beasts and insects. This led to my interest in portraiture, which has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years.
In my humble opinion, and from following the work of other great photographers, I have come up with some very basic ways to bring together the principles of photography, human psychology and a creative vision to produce contemporary portraits. I am going to list them out as I see them working for me, but I suggest that we all adapt and adopt from others and add our own special twist to make it unique and work for our particular situations.
The following elements help me plan, prepare and then run a portrait shoot with my clients and I have fine-tuned these over time. I encourage you to consider the points I’ve outlined below and add your special touch to make them yours.
Every client that comes to me has a story to tell! I always make it a point to spend a few minutes getting to know my client even before I bring them in for a session. This helps not only to serve as an icebreaker, but gives me an idea of what kind of images they might be looking for.
Result: It helps immensely in creating a story especially for your clients and then putting them in it.
This one is really obvious! Our mission is to create beautiful images of our subjects – why else are we taking pictures, right? However, I like to dwell on this point a little longer with my clients. I make sure they know they can trust me to make them look and feel beautiful because I listen to and address their concerns.
Especially when I’m photographing expectant mothers who are now more conscious of their body weight or shape, I make sure I explain that each one of us is beautiful but sometimes need just a little help by way of makeup, posing, facial expressions and body language to bring our inner beauty to the surface.
Fortunately, this is rarely a point of conversation with my male clients because all that they are worried about is showing or not showing their abs, their biceps and shoulders they might or might not have worked out. If you can reassure them by letting them know that you will draw the attention away from their problematic parts, they go back to being their confident selves!
Result: You have more confident subjects who trust you to capture flattering images of themselves.
Connection & Engagement
The only way to achieve connection and engagement is through the eyes! I am always looking for my subject to show emotion by looking straight into the camera, looking away at a distant object and creating a sense of mystery, or by looking down to convey a calm and pensive mood.
To get them to start showing emotions, I will typically ask them questions that will evoke the kind of response I’m looking for. If they have children, I ask about them at this point because which parent’s eyes don’t light up when they think of their offspring? Asking about their hobbies and interests or their dream job or vacation can also bring out nice and soft expressions that are worth freezing for posterity.
Once I have successfully guided my subject to articulate emotions through their eyes and facial expressions, I say something utterly stupid or insane that throws them into a fit of laughter. My camera is up at my eye as this unfolds and I shoot off a few frames to be able to catch that one rare pearl in which you will see their soul shining through!
Result: By mixing the serious with the funny and by being able to capture both sides of a subject’s personality, I almost always get the remark “Oh! That’s so me! You’ve really captured my personality!” That’s what I would call success!
Being a woman photographer, I completely understand the apprehension most women feel at being photographed. We tend to put on at least 10 pounds on camera and we suddenly start finding ourselves looking fat and frumpy. I have a very confident way of quashing this fear in my women clients. I just tell them, “You are yet to be photographed by me! Wait till you see your pictures!” And I can tell you that 100% of the women will be exclaiming or otherwise responding with pleasure when they see themselves on the back of my camera as we proceed with the shoot.
There’s only one reason why that happens – they see shape in their bodies they are unused to seeing. Posing with the weight on the back foot, pushing the hip as far away from the camera as it will go, holding the back straight and having the collar bones at an angle to the camera are the simplest ways to get the female body into shape.
Having the men straight on facing the camera, feet shoulder-width apart, and hands in pockets is a simple beginning of a good pose! But, I’m a big fan of putting my subjects mostly at a slight angle to my camera, thus slimming them down instantly! And once my subject is comfortable, I start getting him into different poses.
Another important thing to remember is to always give the hands something to do, for example, the men could put their hands in their pockets and the women could have their hands resting lightly at the hip or on the thigh. This really starts to bring a pose together and makes it look more finessed.
Result: You have just added great shape to the subject’s body by slimming them in camera (which you clients will love instantly) and also finessed the pose by not having their arms dangling by their sides.
I’m love introducing props into my shoots! I always listen to my clients when they talk about their interests, or how they wish to be photographed. You are sure to hear them drop hints that could translate into rich opportunities for adding props to enhance the mood and the creativity of your set. My favourite props by far for women are flowers, although I will introduce shoes, fabrics, hats, etc. depending on my client’s stories and personality.
The men will often bring in their favourite fashion accessory like a hat, sunglasses, cigars, etc. without any prompting. Incorporate those into your shots – the guys will love it!
Result: If you listen hard and long to what your clients are trying to convey and not just what they verbalize, you can add immense creative elements to your set, thus making every shoot interesting and animated.
Lenses are a very important part of any shoot. The choice of lenses could make or break your portrait completely.
My favourite go-to lens is my Canon 50mm f/1.8. Since I use a Canon 7D, which is a cropped-sensor camera with a 1.6x crop factor, the 50 mm focal length effectively becomes 80 mm. This is an excellent focal length for portraiture! The other one of my favorite lenses is the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 macro lens, which I mostly use to photograph head-shots, and details of a newborn’s tiny hands, feet, eyes, etc. Macro lenses are excellent portrait lenses and I wouldn’t trade this for any other lens in the world.
Shot with Canon 50 mm at f/2.8
Shot with the Tamron 90 mm macro
I have also shot using a 70-200 mm f/2.8 lens. The longer focal length compress the background beautifully, and shooting wide open throws the background nicely out of focus. However, I have found this great only when I’m shooting outdoors. There’s not enough room inside my small studio space for using the lens at 200mm and therefore, I just stay with my “nifty-fifty” and my 90 mm lenses for the most part!
Result: Shooting with a focal length of 85mm and over is the best choice for portraits as it does not create any distortion due to lens perspective. I know many photographers shoot portraits with a wider focal length, but a good thing to remember when doing this is to put the subject in the centre and make it an environmental portrait. Putting the subject on the side will distort them in a very unflattering way, unless you are creating a fun image and exaggerating one of their features, kind of like a caricature.
I had to save the best for the last! What is portraiture without the right kind of lighting? After all, photography is all about light! You have to ensure that the light enhances the subject’s features and flatters the bodies.
I work out of my home-studio and have very little space for big studio lights. When I’m not using the beautiful natural light that comes streaming in through the windows, my favorite light setup is with two flashes. I use these with a white v-flat that I put together with four pieces of foam core board taped together.
My main light is bounced into the v-flat, which is usually placed at about 90 degrees (beauty light) to the subject or at 45 degrees depending on whether my subject is male or female. I prefer the beauty light setup if I’m photographing women, fashion as well as for shooting couples as I get more diffused light on both my subjects. The light set up at 45 degrees is really flattering for men as it creates a beautiful, smooth and diffused light with just a hint of a shadow side to sculpt their faces.
I then add a second flash which is powered down to a two-thirds ratio to my main light and shoot this through an umbrella. This is used as a hair and rim light from a 45 degrees angle from behind the subject.
With men, I mostly use a shoot-through umbrella to create a smaller light source in comparison to the v-flat, and thereby, more shadows on their faces to create a sculpted and masculine look. I find it works really well to set off their rugged looks, especially when you short light them (shoot from the shadow side of the face). My set up for the hair light is exactly the same as how I do it for my female clients.
Keep in mind that the hair light is especially important if you are photographing a dark-haired client on a black or other dark background to create a separation as well as a beautiful rim light on the shoulders (see example below of the subject without hair light on the left as opposed to with a hair light on the right).
Result: With a very simple light setup as I use, it is easy to flatter your subject’s features and body-type. Your client will love you for this!
Over the past years, I have invested more and more time on studying body types and how to flatter them through posing, camera angles and lenses. I have come to a happy point where I am confident about first getting my clients comfortable in their own skin through posing and then accomplishing the rest through my photography techniques that include lenses, lighting, and camera angles.
I’m not so much a technical photographer, as I am a visual one. I no longer chimp the back of my camera, but will occasionally check my histogram and just the general look and feel of an image after every few shots. I learned the hard way that sometimes not checking your images often enough can be disastrous if a sudden technical snag develops.
I believe in one thing – my client is paying me with time, trust, money and patience and I don’t want to fail them because something didn’t quite turn out right due to faulty equipment and my inability at rectification. I work without an assistant and therefore, need to keep an eye on every tiny detail. In the end, I want a stress-free post-production experience and a happy client who sighs over the digital reproductions of their beautiful selves!
Toni Chowdhury is a technical writer by profession but has been doing professional photography in the evenings and weekends. She’s passionate about her art and strives to capture beauty through her lens while creating a wonderful experience for her clients.