I learned an important lesson in portrait photography last weekend: that of how ready the subject is to see themselves in an honest and detailed image, when they may be seeing themselves this way for the first time.
As you may have seen from the most recent photos in my Flickr photo stream, I spent the afternoon on Saturday taking a series of portraits with friends from the Swiss Strobist group, at a college campus in Interlaken. I wanted to give people the chance to get together and take some pictures without having to wait for the spring: having given them plenty of warning in advance to wrap up warm, as the temperature in our neck of the woods is still well below zero most days.
I rallied some volunteers and managed to talk a couple of friends into coming to be photographed, one of whom was fairly nervous about the idea, yet excited at the same time. The day went well – I’ll be showing a gallery here of the portraits I shot, once they’re all edited – and I duly delivered the first set of portraits. I was very pleased with the results; a simple, single, large and very diffused light from above on the suggestion of Beat Eisele, who was kind enough to comment and give suggestion after I posted my recent studio shots of Jo to Facebook. I’ll go into detail about the photographic technique in an upcoming article but I wanted to quickly write about an aspect of portrait photography which came up but which I hadn’t planned.
I spend much of my life doing things connected with photography and design, whether at the day job or in my spare time. Portrait photography and honest pictures of how people look aren’t anything unusual for me; I see them every day and much of my own drive is inspired by portrait photographers such as Richard Avedon, Patrick Demarchelier, Jeanloup Sieff and the like. When someone volunteers to be photographed, I usually approach the session with my own goals in mind, which are twofold.
Firstly, and foremostly, I strive to achieve a portrait or series of images which show the person as I see them. Direct, often un-retouched, and very honest. The honesty in the images doesn’t necessarily mean that the images are harsh and unkind, just that in many cases, I prefer to capture the honesty of how someone appears. Take the self-portrait on the right, which I shot one evening last week. Oily skin, unshaven, and slightly heavier than I’d like to be, the portrait can hardly be said to be flattering. But it is honest; it captures what I see when I look at myself every day. As I say to myself from time to time when taking photos: one day, this photo will be ten years ago. One day, I will have lost my hair, or gained a chin or two, or lost a load of weight. One day, this photo may well mean more to me than it does now, and I can look back on the detailed version and see exactly what I looked like on 2nd February 2010.
This is what I try to achieve when I take portraits of other people; particularly people I know. I try to capture them as they are, see through the veneer or public appearance and press the shutter release right at the moment when their guard is down: when they’re posing for a photo, but not putting on a fake smile for the camera and sucking in their stomach. I was credited with having “captured the soul” of one recent sitter and this compliment is an affirmation that not only did I achieve my own goal, but also managed to capture the sitter as they see themselves.
While this is my main goal, I am keen to give people who volunteer something to take away and treasure. I hope to give them a softer, more kind version of the portraits I’ve taken and do my best to subtly edit the final photographs I deliver: cleaning up the odd spot here and there, softening the skin tones using tried and tested post-production techniques, yet retaining the essence of the original shot. I make a special point of not over-doing the editing. If I can see where I’ve edited the photo when viewing the final result, then it’s too severe. I don’t want to create a plastic look, no matter how much my subject might want to lose the folds and creases on their brow. My goal is to deliver a final portrait in which the subject looks good, but can’t precisely see where minor adjustments have been made. Erasing a noticeable skin blemish can, in some instances, be more upsetting to a sitter than leaving it untouched; a scar or a wrinkle, easily re-touched away, can form a key part of their self-image. Removing it could give the sitter the impression that it’s something to be ashamed of, rather than a unique part of who they are.
Despite having had these goals for many years when photographing other people, I still get caught out, though. Sometimes, the honesty of the shot is a little too much for the sitter. The portrait has been lit in a flattering way, the good outfit has been worn, lines have been subtly smoothed and the image is a true – if flattering – presentation of how the person looks. I am as pleased with the shot as I can be, yet the unexpected occurs: the sitter really doesn’t like the shot at all.
This happened after Saturday’s shoot and the reason was one which I had overlooked, despite the experience and effort I’d put into the session. The simple fact is that as a photographer, you have to remember that not everyone’s life contains photography. I have friends who don’t have any photos of themselves or their lives except for the little thumbnail profile photo on a social networking site. Their focus is a lot different to that of someone like me, for whom photography – even casual holiday snapshots – form an important part of life and memory.
As in the case which inspired this article, this could be your sitter’s first ever portrait session; they may have never experienced what it feels like to be photographed in such detail. Moreover – an easy point to forget – they may have never been photographed with “a proper camera” and never seen a good, “proper” portrait of themselves. The company portrait on a website is one thing, an honest and appraising portrait such as the ones I strive for is something altogether different. I remember my first portrait session with Jo very well, which was completely at odds with the many photo shoots since: her acceptance of being under the scrutiny of a lens only followed much later, when she’d become more accustomed to being photographed and when the initial impact of really seeing herself through the eyes – and lens – of a photographer had become more commonplace.
When you’re going to take a portrait of someone, think it through from start to finish. Find out if they have been photographed before. Try to recognize how they feel about being photographed and what they think of their appearance. Try and get a basic idea of what part is played by photos in their life: this can be through chatting to them, paying attention to what photos they share through social networking sites, or looking around their living space if you know them well. Treat the portrait session and the presentation of the final images with these aspects in mind, instead of concentrating only on the sharpness and lighting.
Portraiture is a collaboration between photographer and subject and it doesn’t begin and end with the shutter button: how the photograph is interpreted, edited, presented and received by the subject and those who know them also plays a big role in how successful the portrait will be.