Samuel Webster

September 10, 2012 Photography: Anatomy of a Portrait Posted In: Photography

Often I’ll be asked for some advice on portraiture. Usually it comes more specific than general: about the lighting, about the technical settings, about organising the sitting. So, in light of that, I wanted to go back over one of my recent portrait sets, and discuss the different aspects that brought it together.

Shooting Hamlet

This portrait is of Sydney actor Lindsay Farris. The benefit of using Lindsay as a subject is he’s an extremely talented actor. The bonus was that he was performing the lead role in Hamlet at the time, but we’ll get to that later. Knowing I was shooting Lindsay as Hamlet let me prepare for a few things. I had an idea of the character (and if I didn’t, research isn’t hard to come across), I knew Lindsay’s basic facial structure and I knew the equipment I could easily transport across town to the theatre before an evening show. These will all come into play in different ways. I won’t break down into too many technicalities on how to shoot a portrait in this post, what I want to do is re-examine my own work in detail. It might help you. I know that it will help me.

The lighting

Lindsay’s Hamlet is a vulnerable character. He is young and witty and slightly mad. I wanted to capture all of that in my series of portraits. The images were illustrations for a longer interview with Lindsay, so capturing his personality was key.

So, the two things I wanted to capture were vulnerability and unease. After all, this is a young man mourning his father, but he does eventually murder multiple people. So, just as you would expect, I wanted some darkness in the image. How did I portray vulnerability? Soft light. It’s flattering, it tends to make subjects appear younger and softer than hard light.

The angle of the light is important too – the softbox is to the left, above and behind him – that gives a light which hits only one side, giving us our literal ‘dark side’, illuminates softly but still gives some depth to the eyesockets and shape to the eyebrows. I mimicked the depth the shadow provided with a shallow depth of field, shooting on my 50mm f1.4 (a staple lens for any portrait photographer) at about f2.8 to keep only the most important features sharp.

Obviously I shot all of these images in RAW (I rarely shoot JPG) and the white balance was ‘correct’ when I left the shoot. I liked the way that a cooler balance gave his skin a sort of porcelain look, but what sold it for me was the wild blue in his hair, it just seemed to intensify the whole thing and the blue cast brought the whole image (t-shirt, hair and skintone) together.

Within this, any expression Lindsay gives comes out a certain way. In some ways, we are filtering his facial expressions through the lighting. His rage seems more aggressive because of the shadows, his vulnerability turns the soft light to something more glowing. The way I was able to leave the shoot with a lot of options was by knowing the text. I saw Lindsay play Hamlet before I took photos of him, and I knew the play intimately as well. I was able to point out particular scenes, and get him to try to match facial expressions to his character at different points in the play.

Everything else 

The composition is standard rule of thirds. His fingers and his right eye are (almost) at the point where the thirds of the image intersect. Yes, simple and standard but it works.

The focus is key. It is on his eye, that right eye which really makes the portrait. This means his finger and lip are also in focus, but his eyes, ears and fringe all fall out of focus, not only giving depth but drawing your eye towards his. For me, that’s what makes this portrait really work.

The Sitting

This was an easy one, since I am the editor at Mood of Monk. Shooting for a publication is an easy way to cut your teeth on professional portraiture. As long as you’ve thought the situation through, you’ll be fine. Another way is to contact the press office/public relations/agent of the person you’re keen to shoot. It can be good exposure for them, and if you make it clear that you’re not planning to use their image to sell a new line of Corn Flakes, the situation is mostly beneficial for all.

In Conclusion 

Portraiture doesn’t have to be daunting. The hardest part is getting the subject to relax and let you take the photo you need. Learn to talk to people. I don’t like small talk, so I tend to get carried away with real conversations, but that’s just all the more enlightening for the work you’re doing. Small talk will do, however. The important thing is to disrupt the stillness in the air, that’s where nervousness comes from.
I hope this break down has helped you somewhat. You can think all day on the technical aspects, your f-stops and shutter speeds, but at the end of the day, you’re trying to tell a story.

For more of my work, be sure to follow me on Facebook.


Share your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.