Saturday, 20 January 2007

Portrait Photography (Part 1)

Maria in repose - Image © David Toyne A friend of mine told me when I started out on my photographic journey that portraits are the greatest challenge in photography. I was puzzled by this statement at the time. As at the time I thinking in purely technical terms about photography. I was struggling with all photography not just portraits.

When I asked for clarification and she said something to me that I have never forgoten since. She said 'unless you can connect with the person and draw out who they are. Unless they trust and like you. Then your picture will be of a reflection of their discomfort at the situation and their distrust of you'. The obvious thought at this statement is that you do not want the picture that this situation would create!

When I asked what I should do to avoid this situation she said at the time what seemed the strangest thing. My friend answered 'you must take a slow portrait...'. At the time I was quite baffled by this most enigmatic of statements. However with the benefit of a few years hindsight I shall attempt to elaborate what I believe was meant.

There are technical aspects of portrait photography it would be foolish to pass over. Light is critical. The way it interacts with your subject should be ignored only at your peril. Lit from below your subject will look like Frankenstein. Lit harshly from above unflattering shadows will dominate the shot. Hair is naturally dull on camera unless you can get some soft light into play on it then it will take on a whole new dimension. A lens of 85mm is a great focal length for a flattering shot it will not distort the subject. Take care of plants growing out peoples heads, pay attention to your background. Don't be afraid to fill the frame.

All this is useful to learn and all these rules can also overwhelm you when starting out. It can easily be learned by rote from any photography textbook. Though that will not guarantee a good result. It also does not answer what was meant by a slow portrait? How do you take a slow portrait and what will be the resulting benefit?

I will attempt to explain by relating a true story. I was at the wedding of a photographer friend of mine in the happy capacity of his best man. It was during this time I finally realised what a slow portrait was. It was also then that I took my very first slow portrait of note. This was the picture of the wonderful lady pictured here. He name is Maria and she was the grandmother of the groom. She is without a doubt an awkward subject who dislikes her picture taken so much that she cuts herself out of family photographs. To be fair we all know people who dislike thair picture being taken so she is not unusual in that respect. That said Maria is a challenge to photograph even going by this standard.

I asked to take her picture during dinner and was politely declined without hesitation. My status as best man carried less weight than that of the official weding photographer who also received the cold shoulder. However I was by then determined to photograph this distinguished lady. When I had the chance I spent 45 minutes talking with her. During this time she relaxed, warmed to me and finally she began to speak about seeing her grandson married. This made her think about meeting and falling in love with her husband. This was the start of a wonderful and heart warming moment that I still smile when I recall. I took the picture shown at the moment she related to me first laying eyes on the man who became her husband when she was still a teenager. Her expression became wistful and she gestured with her hand as she spoke. I insisted that I must take her picture as she recalled her husband as she was radiant in that moment and anyone could not fail to see this. When stated like this she warmed to the idea of a picture and agreed to the photograph being taken. The result is more than a simple photograph in my opinion. It is the portrait of the person as she seemed to me in that moment in time. A time capsule.

I've used a touch of fill flash. The wide aperture of f/2.0 has made the background less distracting. The candles on the table have softened or removed entirely any unflattering shadows. These are all technical and to a certain extent ephemeral things. The main thing is that I spent time getting to know Maria. I gained her trust and her confidence. When I finally took a picture we where on the same wavelength and I had her trust in my intent as a photographer. This is all reflected in the resultant image. It shows the wonderful person I saw. It is not simply a snapshot or recorder shot of a stranger that will mean nothing to anyone else. It is an image with more intrinsic value than that. I'd also say that at 45 minutes it was indeed a very slow portrait. This is what is meant by a slow portrait. One that takes the time to connect with the subject and draw out the best in them because they trust you to do that.

So when taking a portrait remember the technical rules by all means. Remember though you forget the person and your bond with them at the cost of a worthwhile portrait. When given a great opportunity like Maria gave me don't be so obsessed with appertures and shutter speeds that you don't see the golden opportunity in front of your face. Be engaged with the person and the personality you want to photograph. Remember this and you will not fail. Your portraits will always be greater than the sum of their parts

(Warmest thanks to Magda Indigo for all her advice and wonderful exampleson of portraits over the last few years.)


Johnny said...

What a great tip. You must have the "ability to" Slow it down to beging with, & looks like you have it. it is a GREAT Port.

Paul Indigo said...

Good article. The art of the portrait photographer is choosing the right moment during the interaction with his/her subject to press the shutter. The moment when the subject reveals themself.

James said...

To this day, it's the only picture that I can ever recall of my Gran that she's ever liked. It's on the wall of most members of my family!

You did a great job, both as a best man, and as an unofficial photographer. A bloke couldn't ask for more... ;o)

gypsygurl said...

It is a great article. I am not a photographer, but I am a camera shy person. The person who is being photographed definitely feel comfortable and trust the person who is taking one's pic or else the result is a DISASTER!
Personally, only when one of my friend takes my pics, my pics turn out great or else they look so awfully weird cause I am so conscious and not comfortable.

David Toyne said...

A very valid point GG. Like you I'm not fond of being in front of the camera. In fact I think most photographers aren't!

Genevieve, the person who took my picture in this blog has my confidence. I know that they'll do a great job of me. In part this is why the results please me. Its a key issue. The subjects confidence in the photographer cannot be forgotten. I'm glad you brought it up.