One of the greatest photographic pleasures in the world is to take a good portrait, because you know that you are the only one who has been able to do it at that moment. And it is not easy to achieve it, because there are many things that you have to be aware of. The light, the empathy between the two involved, the technique, the moment, the chosen objective, the development, the background… Here we are going to see how to get a good job when they say ‘Take a picture of me’.
The science of photographic portraiture
A portrait is the representation of a person. No more no less. And it is the result of the work of at least two people, unless you are a photographer from a large studio and have dozens of assistants to get the shot.
And best of all, many times you don’t need to see his face. One of the best portraits I have ever seen of Pelé, the legendary soccer player, only showed us his feet, his main work tool. It is the work of Annie Leibovitz.
It is a perfect communion, a theft of time, and if it is well done, you can discover what the person who appears is like, and if you push me, what the photographer who takes it is like. Y no matter what camera or flashes you use. One of Richard Avedon’s cameras was the Rolleiflex, and nobody, with it in their hands, does it like him.
If the portrait is good, we will see the personality of the portrayedas we have already seen with Velázquez and his [retrato del papa Inocencio X](https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/InnocentX(Vel%C3%A1zquez)#/media/File:PortraitofinnocentXbyDiegoVel%C3%A1zquezinGalleryDoriaPamphilj_(Rome) or with Goya and any of his masterpieces. It’s not mandatory. In fact, we rarely find the personality of the model in art. Only from the 19th century, when photography was introduced, did the psychology of the character begin to matter beyond the stereotype.
Teachers work in many ways. Some improvise on the spot, like Cartier Bresson; others exhaust the model to unsuspected limits, such as Richard Avedon; and some just wanted to complicate life as little as possible, like Irving Penn.
I will not cheat there is no secret trick and miraculous to get the best portrait, nor the ideal camera or mobile to achieve it. It depends on many things that we are going to see now. Like you, none of them are useful to you, or you take advantage of all the ones that exist. So we invite you to read everything that follows very carefully and try it out until you find your “magic combination”.
We must not believe everything they tell us when we make a portrait
So you have to be wary of those articles where they claim to know the secrets of portraiture, the steps to achieve the best possible result. It depends, first of all, on ourselves, and on so many things that it is impossible to know the keys.
The best thing is to summarize everything that the teachers have taught us to choose the path we want to follow. In the end, being good or not in this specialty depends, above all, on each one of us. You may not have any idea of taking photos, that you do everything with the automatisms of the mobile. But you have something in your look that makes you promising.
Photographers approach their model in different ways. And we have to know how to choose which one we can best interpret. You cannot be impetuous with the camera if you ask permission for everything, for example.
It makes no sense to say that you have to light the scene with three lights if you have never used a flash in your life. Not to say that if you don’t work in the studio with a bank camera you won’t get anywhere. Or that it is essential to talk to the model when, because of the way you are, you don’t need it or it doesn’t come from within you.
Making a good portrait does not depend on the technique, but on how you are. This is the truth that is often hidden from us under data and more technical data, and especially in portrait photography.
Making a good portrait does not depend on the technique, but on how you are. This is the truth that is often hidden from us under data and more technical data, and especially in portrait photography. In any case, it is always good to know a few technical tips to get startedjust to make your first steps.
That’s what they are for, to begin with. If you limit yourself to always doing the same thing in the portrait you can pigeonhole yourself… In the first tests it is convenient to risk little, but right away you have to do what you need, not what they tell you:
Technical tips for taking portraits
You can’t think of doing haute cuisine if you don’t know how to fry an egg or make a good grilled steak. It is essential to know the technique to be able to think without ties about new things:
- always shoot with the lowest ISO you can depending on the light you have at your disposal.
- It is important to freeze motion and achieve as much sharpness as possible. Try to make him shutter time as fast as possible.
- If you can’t get the motion to freeze, have the support of a tripod to make it. It subtracts dynamism but helps you to compose.
- Forget about the proper lens for the portrait. Does not exist. The important thing is the distance between model and camera. With an angular you can make your model integrated with the environment. Of course, do not get close if you do not want to suffer the effects of the optics. A telephoto lens allows you to close the frame on the face.
- When it comes to composing, forget about the rules. you have to get that the subject is the most important. And that everything around him does not distract the viewer.
Concept tips for a good portrait
I can give you the advice that works for me, but from what I have just told you, taking a good portrait depends on other things that cannot be taught and that I try to summarize below:
- The communication with the model is essential. Some prefer to give all the information, others are more distant and do not speak at all or little with him. In my particular case, I need to know the person. I like to talk to her before shooting, see what he has done or just have a coffee to have empathy, or not, and shoot accordingly.
- I never open a camera when I photograph someone. I have to know her perfectly to forget about her during the session. And depending on what I want to do, I shoot with one lens or another. The important thing is to always respect the distance depending on the focal length. Unless I want to distort the subject, I will never get close to it with a 35mm. And if I want a close-up I always use a 90mm, specifically a Tamrom.
- Regarding lighting, I always run away from technical complications. Posing is very difficult for most people and if you have to be surrounded by dozens of lights you can get lost. For this reason I always work with natural light or at most with a flash. And the key, the more powerful, the simpler the lighting scheme will be. Everything is better with a 500w, really.
- It is very difficult to direct the pose to a person who does not know. For me the secret is create good atmosphere to relax and correct the position minimally. For this reason it is important to know well who you are going to portray, so you will know what you have to say. Or if it is good to show him the photos during the session.
- And above all, not arriving at the session without anything planned. It’s the worst thing you can do. It may not work when you start, but at least you start with something that gives confidence to the model. You have to give security, it is something fundamental.
Anecdotes of a painter
I always tell an anecdote about a portrait session. The magazine she worked for got an interview with Argentine actor Federico Luppi. Since she admired him a lot, she wanted to do something original with him. Neither short nor lazy I took a mirror to pose with it in the middle of the Gran Vía in Madrid. An actor is always the reflection of the one he represents.
So when the interview began, I realized that the myth was not going to drop and that I was dealing with a unique person. At the end of the questions it was my turn. And I told him my idea of the session. Best of all, he told me yes, but he was afraid that people would think he was a showoff for looking in the mirror.
I explained that I just wanted to see how he unfolded into another through the mirror, as if he were a character in a Carroll novel. And with all the enthusiasm in the world, she posed with him on the Gran Vía. That photograph was on the cover of the magazine. And I didn’t have to bring lighting or anything. Open diaphragm, long focal length and all the time in the world with a great actor who finally thanked me. The original was lost, yes.
The history of Iker Casillas photography it is different. She had never photographed a sports star. And suddenly they tell me that I have to go to Real Madrid training to photograph one of their ‘galacticos’.
In this case we had enough budget and time. But everything went wrong upon arrival. The session would be done after the training and the interview first. I don’t remember how long we waited, but it gave me time to get nervous.
Suddenly the players of that time began to come out of a door: Ronaldo, Figo, the great Zinedine Zidane, etc. I felt like in Barcelona in 1992 when I saw the Dream Team pass by me. Small, very small. And suddenly Casillas appeared.
The camera acted as a shield. It is the best tool to not get nervous. And as he said, he was a neighborhood boy who met his friends to drink pipes on the park bench. So I proposed something to him that he loved. I told him about the photo of Pele. And that he wanted to do the same with his goalkeeping hands. He was exhausted but I think he appreciated it quite a bit.
A 500w flash on the left with a large translucent umbrella and voila. Show me your hands and look at me. Click.
I always go light on equipment. I don’t need a helper to move minimal equipment that allows me to change anything in an instant. I assure you that it is something that everyone appreciates. Speed and efficiency always come in handy. So the next time you’re faced with a portrait, don’t hide behind the team, and never forget everything you’ve learned from each other over the years.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism