It is the common wonder of all men, how among so many million faces, there should be none alike. Thomas Browne
The desire to create a record of someone’s face is as old as time.
For centuries, people have used death masks to memorialize a person. In ancient Eygpt, a sculpted mask was placed on the face after the mummification process but before the sarcophagus was closed.
In the Middle Ages, such masks were made from wax or plaster and morphed into a true replica of the face as opposed to a sculpted mask. These masks were no longer buried with the dead but placed in museums or libraries.
As science and forensics advanced, but before the advent of photography, death masks were used to preserve the facial features of unidentified bodies to allow for future identification.
With the invention of photography, a new form of memorialization emerged with death photography in Victorian England. Wow.
The fascinating thread to such traditions is the urge/need/desire to immortalize a face. Thank heavens photography offers a way to preserve someone’s face – many times, in a myriad of situations – before their death!
Portraiture or portrait photography is defined as “photography of a person or group of people that captures the personality of a subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses” [Kathleen Francis, 2007]
Taking portraits is a field where many professional photographers spend their entire careers and develop significant expertise. There seems an endless demand for portraits – weddings, graduations, announcements, corporate headshots, social media profiles – the list goes on. It is an art form to be learned, practised and perfected.
Here are some tips I have collected in my (limited) experience and training with taking portraits of people.
- Build a connection with your subject – the more comfortable you are with them and they are with you – the easier and more natural the pose will be
- Be on the same level as your subject – don’t bend over a child or look up to tall person
- Caveat to #2: unless that’s the effect you are going for – alternate angles add interest to your photos
- Use a high aperture/f-stop to blur the background and focus in on the subject – remember, high aperture means a lower number – a prime lens is often your best friend for portraits
- Watch your lighting – full-on sun means someone will be squinting, over-expose for someone in the shade on a bright day, natural brightness means pupils will be dilated so you see more of the eye colour … choose wisely
- Never use your camera’s built-in flash – glare and reflection, enough said. Diffuse the light.
- The subject doesn’t need to be looking at you – look off to the side, look at a prop (flower, book, etc),
- Nor do they need to be centered – think rule of thirds
- You don’t need the entire body in your shot, but make sure to “cut” the person at an appropriate spot, for example, add shoulders so it’s not a floating head
- A portrait doesn’t need to include the face. Hands, feet, shoulders, back of the head can be just as striking.
What tips do you have for taking portraits?