Tips & Techniques » How to Create a Great Portrait
Helping your subject strike a pose is a necessary skill for achieving dynamic portrait photos. After considering lighting, location, and whether you will be shooting tight head-shots or full-body environmental shots, how your subject is posed goes a long way toward portraying the person you are shooting.
Studying the history of art will reveal that early pictures of the human form were characterized by full frontal depictions – usually with both feet on the ground, arms at sides, standing straight. Although this early art told stories and certainly served a purpose, it was less effective at capturing the subject's character.
Along came the Renaissance and a revolutionary change in portraiture and in sculpture – the concept of weight shift, in which painters and sculptors begin showing their subjects with more weight on one foot, giving the body motion. It seems like an inconsequential little idea, but it opened up worlds of new posing opportunities for artists, and led to dynamic depictions of the human form and an expanded language with which to convey the character of the subject.
It's time for your own personal photographic Renaissance.
|Smiling yes, but otherwise a boring, unflattering frontal shot with hands hanging limply at sides.|
Worst Portrait Ever
Quick. Name the worst picture ever taken of you. Did you say “Passport photo?” Or was it “Driver's License?” I sure hope it wasn't “Police mug shot.” But I wouldn't be surprised if it was any of these, as all three suffer from the soul-killing viewpoint of being taken straight-on while you stood straight and either slouched in despair or raised your head unnaturally high, neck stiffened. As photographers interested in portraying our subjects with some depth and interest, please don't allow your subjects to stand dead-on straight, slouchy or stiff to the camera.
|Seated in a chair, facing the camera - again, a boring, straight-line composition that does little to accentuate the subject's character.|
While some folks are naturals in front of the camera, funny things happen to many people when they are on the lens side of photo sessions. A smile becomes their contorted concept of what a smile should look like, rather than the pleasing expression that comes about naturally in conversation. Similarly, many people will immediately consider their hunched posture and stand straight as a board with head held high when the sensor is pointed at them. No one really stands like that, except in bad, starchy portraits.
|A more flattering shot, in which the body is shifted, feet are turned, one shoulder is closer to the camera and the hands are doing something natural.|
Relax and Move
The key to a great shot is getting your subject to relax. You can set the tone for the photo session--the more relaxed and confident you appear in your role as photographer and director, the easier time you'll have in coaxing great, natural poses out of your subject.
I always like to start out by getting my subject to take a few deep breaths, shake out their arms, roll their head, sway their shoulders – just a very brief warm-up to get things loose. Make sure your subject is comfortable and that there's no pressure or rush to get the job done. Plan on shooting many frames from different angles and with different poses. You'll start to see better images appearing as you get past the initial shots where you and your subject are just beginning to feel things out.
|More dynamic composition - follow the line from the head through the body to the feet, and notice the pleasing curves that draw your eye around the portrait.|
Start at the Bottom
Although the focus of most portraiture is on the face and its expression, considering your subject's foundation is the first step in posing. Whether it's feet on the ground or seated in a chair, encourage your subject to adopt a stance that is at a slight angle from the camera. That may include having them step back on one foot, perhaps turning that foot at an angle to the other. Changing stances may encourage the dropping of a hip or the lean of the body that begins to give your subject a more dynamic line. If seated, it may mean having your subject swing their legs around so you are looking at them broad-side rather than a knees-on view. Crossing legs or crossing ankles also can add more compelling lines to the photo.
Move On Up
Once you've got some movement and angle in the foundation, consider next how your subject's torso is positioned. Encouraging a slight twist or bend at the waist continues the feeling of movement and line. Depending on props (chairs, lamps, desks) and the environment (fences, walls, trees), you might try to get your subject to work through some more lively poses where they can lean and support themselves on these elements.
A Show of Hands
Of course, talking about the torso we get to talking about arms and those pesky appendages called hands. Hands can add a lot of animation to a portrait, but they can also just plain get in the way and be unnatural and distracting. If your subject is comfortable exploring different positions with their hands – great! As long as it looks natural, not uncomfortable or forced.
However, if hands become a problem, simply make them go away. They can be tucked into front or back pockets - I usually suggest either just the thumbs in a pocket or just the thumbs sticking out of a pocket. Avoid the appearance of cutting hands off of arms caused by shoving them fully in a pocket or severing them at the edge of your frame. Props can also be used to give your subject something useful and comfortable to do with their hands.
Head and Shoulders
In working with movement in the foundation and torso, hopefully we have achieved some movement in the shoulders. Perhaps they are angled toward the camera, perhaps one is riding higher than the other. Again, the key is movement of line within the body. If shoulders are still straight or stiff, now is the time to make adjustments.
|Especially for active kids, the use of a prop can go a long way toward helping strike a comfortable and natural stance. Look how relaxed the subject appears.|
The head and face are very important features to consider. Left, right, up, down, side-to-side--there's a lot of movement possible in positioning the head. A relaxed head will typically lean slightly to one side or another and slightly up or down. If your subject is stiff, encourage them to do some rolling of their head in slow circles to loosen them up. Playing with the position of the head can really bring out a lot of the personality of your subject, and it is great to explore many possibilities. Is it turned up in an air of confidence or turned down with a feeling of directness and intimacy? Perhaps it is turned to the side in a pose of relaxed nonchalance.
As the head moves about, pay close attention to how different positions render facial features. Certain positions may make you subject’s nose appear bigger , while other positions can bring about the dreaded double or even quadruple chin. Likewise, hairlines (receding or otherwise) and cheekbones can be optimized by changing head positions.
|In a tight head shot, the tilt of the head helps to define the character of the subject.|
Once all of the body parts are in motion and working well, you can begin to consier the facial expression. From working with a lot of kids, I have found that it works well to distract them and then refocus, change and refocus, repeat... Get your subject to turn their head, look away from the camera, relax their face and eyes, and then look back. The last thing you want to do is to let your subject freeze and keep a smile glued on their face, as this quickly leads to a plastic expression. It may be called still photography, but taking great shots is all about movement.
Keep Your Eyes Open
Your job as portrait photographer requires you to consider how varied ingredients mix together and realize that they are all very interactive. Lighting and shadows change dynamically with body position. Facial features can change radically depending on the attitude of the head, where light is falling and how close your lens is to your subject.
Keeping your eyes open as you compose and helping your subject pose will go a long way toward achieving the portrait you and your subject are after. Watching for overall composition, dynamic lines and lighting, all the while trying to capture a perfectly-formed facial expression, is very challenging.
Here are the key points to remember:
With practice, you will be able to work from the ground up, build on your subject's foundation and keep a good peripheral view of the entire frame in your viewfinder, while you coax a truly soul-capturing image from your subject .