Monday, November 17, 2008
The Portrait Equation
Five steps for better portraits
1. Find The Location
The first step of the portrait equation is photographing your subject in the right location against the right background. Locations can add mood and meaning to an image. Imagine a hurricane survivor after the storm. What makes a stronger image: photographing the survivor against a plain brick wall or photographing him in a pile of debris and broken appliances where his house once stood?
Sometimes your goal may be to photograph your subject in a studio against a simple background, such as seamless paper. This background won’t add any distracting elements and can create a strong mood, depending on the color of the seamless paper. Remember, don’t let the location and background be a random choice. Choosing the right location is a critical step in creating a strong portrait.
Other times, the location will inspire a portrait. I once drove past a skatepark with interesting concrete shapes and loaded with skaters, a fabulous spot for an environmental portrait. I returned later and photographed a skater in the bottom of one of the pools.
2. Get The Light Right
Photography is all about the light, and lighting is what makes or breaks an image. If you photograph an incredible subject in boring light, the shot will be mediocre. If you photograph the same subject in incredible light, the image will be eye-catching. Choosing the right light doesn’t mean using elaborate strobes and lighting ratios; rather, it means choosing the best light for the overall effect you’re trying to create.
Imagine the hurricane survivor previously mentioned. You want to choose moody lighting that will convey the loss and sorrow of the subject. If you’re photographing children playing in a park, you want your lighting to reflect hope and joy.
What type of light conveys what mood? Lighting has certain characteristics, including color, quality and direction. Color is your first choice. Warm, rosy light conveys hope and love versus cool blue light that symbolizes cold and bleak emotions.
Light quality can be divided into two types, soft-diffused and hard-edgy. Soft light occurs when skies are overcast or by using a strobe through softboxes. It’s very forgiving and often flattering in portraits; faces have less shadows. This is a good choice for upbeat, positive images, especially with warm colors. Hard-edgy light occurs in direct sunlight or when using non-diffused flash. This type of light casts strong shadows and creates stark, moody portraits.
Finally, direction also affects the mood of a portrait. Classic portrait lighting high and to the side of your subject creates a pleasing, “safe” look. But imagine what effect using a flash directly below a subject’s chin would create—a very striking, almost scary headshot!
Experimenting with light characteristics will improve your portraits. You’ll learn new tools to use in creating a portrait. Your technical skills will help you achieve your artistic vision.
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