Break The Rules
7 Tips For The Modern Portrait Photographer

To create interesting lighting effects you've got to have an interesting variety of light sources. While the main scene was lit by two large Chimera softboxes, a few silver/white Balcar umbrellas and the exisiting tungsten lighting, I blasted a Speedotron 8" Fresnel through the door to create this heavily backlit shot. Polaroids of the image without the fresnel looked terribly flat.
Photos © 2000, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

The word "portrait" has had a fairly strict definition for ages. From the days of Rembrandt and Carravagio through modern photographic masters like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, the portrait has remained a constant. While techniques and technology have changed, the concept is timeless.

Although new media like the Internet have drastically altered the way many of us view images, the demand for fresh and original image-makers hasn't waned. Today, in the commercial and editorial photography worlds, the term "portrait" is being pushed, pulled, and massaged in an effort to break through the visual clutter of modern life.

While classic portraits like those shot of high-school seniors, babies, and brides have changed little in the past 35 years, those shooting for magazines have found themselves reinventing their portrait techniques at least once a decade.

Today, clients demand innovative and interesting techniques for photographing people. The editorial shooter must combine color, movement, and selective focus techniques while still trying to communicate the essence of their subjects. This is not to say that a conventionally produced portrait is somehow undesirable. But if you want your work to look fresh you need to keep up with the trends.

While I approach each people photography assignment with flight cases full of equipment, a medium format camera, and plenty of Fuji Velvia roll film, you can create dynamic images with practically any equipment. Here are a few tips for capturing people on film using exciting new techniques.

1. Change Your Light Source.
As we all know, photography is all about light. With the advent of the portable softbox in the early 1980s, photographers have gotten used to bringing soft, controllable studio lighting to any location. Photographing people in their work or home setting became easier, yet the preponderance of softboxes has led to a boring sameness in a lot of people photography. In order to break out of the softbox and umbrella mold, a lot of photographers have resorted to a most unglamorous form of lighting--direct light. Instead of just blasting away with an on-camera flash, a lot of shooters are using bare-bulb light heads; flash heads with grids, snoots, and barn doors; and even the funky ringlight.

You want color, well here's some color. While the yellow neon of the scene may not be the most flattering color for architect Cecil Magpuri. The incredible color and complexity of this metal tree got me to force him up there for this shot.

The '70s clich of backlighting a subject with a strong light source, creating that halo of backlit hair, is pretty outdated today. A more contemporary look actually borrows from the classic glamour portraits of the '40s and '50s. I have a couple of old Kliegl 10" Fresnel lights that have been converted from their original 2K tungsten bulbs to modern Balcar flash heads. This allows me to add that focused directional light of the Fresnel but still get the daylight-balanced, action-stopping capabilities of flash lighting. The Fresnel light source has a sharp focused quality of light with soft, luminous edges. It's a gorgeous light that can't be reproduced with barn doors or snoots.

2. Use Color.
While traditional portrait techniques have often called for muted, elegant painted backdrops, today photographers feel compelled to introduce dynamic color. I always travel with a complete pack of Rosco gel filters. In order to really have the color pop in the background you'll need to ensure that you're lighting a dark area. If there's too much ambient light the gelled light head won't be saturated enough. Introducing big pools of color through lighting is a great technique, but you can also find existing backdrops and use them. I'll often perch my subjects in out-of-the-way corners of factories just to take advantage of some bright red machine part or a hot yellow control panel. In some cases an entire room is painted a strong color, and I'll take my chances and shoot my subject totally bathed in the color.

For this portrait of digital imaging pioneer George Blaczynski I employed two different techniques: shifting the focus of the portrait from the subject to the subject's surroundings, and allowing the light coming through the window to gently blur around his head. By hand holding at 1 sec with flash in the foreground I got the sharp portrait and the blurred window in one exposure.

3. Keep It Moving.
The ideal of a sharp, crisp, well-exposed portrait has become a thing of the past for many photographers. Blurry, fuzzy images that would have been rejected by editors 20 years ago are all the rage. Selective focus images, where the head is sharp but the rest of the body is thrown way out of focus, are easy to accomplish by swinging out the back of a 4x5 view camera or using tilt and shift 35mm and medium format lenses. Motion blurring, sometimes of the background only but often of the entire scene, has become common.

In my own work I often like to use a studio flash for foreground lighting and then let the ambient lighting of the background work into the rest of the scene. With a handheld medium format camera I usually shoot at f/16 with a 1 or 2 sec exposure. This gives me the crisp portrait in the foreground and the slightly blurry background. I like this effect a lot. For 35mm users this is called slow synch. Remember, aperture controls flash coverage while shutter speed handles the ambient exposure.

Sometimes I have to capture a shot that looks unposed even though it is really quite static. I like to employ an off-camera source for the subject to talk to. I've tried to have people fake it, but it never works.

4. Use The Golden Rule.
The golden rule is this: Respect your subject and his or her feelings. I've taken lots of amazing images where the people really didn't look great. In many cases magazines have run the photos, which made me look bad. I'm not looking to please the subject only, but I also don't want to terrorize people with my "vision" of how they should look. While a fisheye lens 10" from that CEO's nose may make for a dramatic photo, it will also make for a grotesque distortion of his or her features. I'd rather find a compromise that satisfies my artistic vision and makes the subject look good.

Whether you're shooting portraits for your own amusement, for friends and family, or for a fee, there comes a time when you need to look at things differently. Everyone falls into ruts, and even the best photographers often need a stiff kick in the rump to incorporate some fresh ideas into their work. The key is to keep your eyes open and take some chances.

Even with modest equipment, I've found that you can take a fresh approach to snapshots. Rather than use my Casio QV-3000EX digital camera to take a picture of my son Jeremy in broad daylight, I waited until the sun was going down, then got down on the ground so the camera was within the long shadow cast by the setting sun. Manual exposure is a must for these kind of shots, as is a powerful flash inside the camera.

5. Develop An Artistic Eye.
It's always important to be observant when you're an image creator. I'm not much into taking pictures of scenery these days, but I always remember an interesting locale for eventual use as a location shoot with people.

I've taken advantage of settings for pictures of people that were as mundane as an empty parking lot or as exotic as the gleaming Stuttgart airport. It's all about your eye as an artist. Think your best portrait of a particular individual is up against a white wall? Go for it. Think the best setting is the roof of the tallest building in town? Why not? I'm usually guilty of dragging clients all over to use the one perfect location. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but you'll never infuse your portraits with a sense of life unless you try something new.

6. Shift Focus.
By focus I don't mean camera focus. I mean the focus of the image. In most cases the subject is perfectly centered in the image, with a proportional amount of background. The classic portrait has been a subject staring directly into the camera or slightly off-camera. My son's grade school portrait shot recently looks almost exactly like my own, shot in the '60s.

Sometimes a portrait is more powerful when the subject is moved away from dead center. I like this image for its "space."

Of course I would be horrified if the school photographer had decided to be a cutting-edge editorial photographer and shoot a panoramic image with my son stuck in the corner. Likewise I would be equally disappointed if my son seemed unaware that he was being photographed, captured in an animated conversation with some off-camera observer.

For editorial and advertising photography, many of these things lead to a more effective image. Shifting the focus of the image from the subject to the environment can be really interesting. I often push my subject to one end of the frame and include more of the environment. I figure as long as the image is crisp enough the Art Director or editor can always crop out the extraneous material. Usually what happens is the image looks so "right" that it runs as I intended.

Another great way to shift the focus of a portrait is to have the subject interacting with an off-camera person. I often position an Art Director or assistant off-camera, then have the subject strike up a conversation. This way I get a little bit of spontaneity into what would otherwise be a pretty typical posed portrait.

The client wanted the model to be photographed and then have me add a sky later. I did them a favor and dragged my 3200 ws flash generators out onto the roof of my studio, where I grabbed this image. Combining the perfect lighting quality of a large softbox (in this case a Photek Illuminata) with the natural light of the sun usually results in a strong image.

7. Fill It!
You've got to be a master of "fill flash" to make it today. Punching up a scene by incorporating carefully controlled studio-type lighting outdoors has become something of a visual clich. Although it can be severely overused, the daylight-with-fill-flash technique still can create some powerful images.

In order to do this right you'll need some sort of high-powered flash unit. When I first started out I only had some Vivitar on-camera flash units. While they did the trick when I aimed them directly at the person, they didn't have enough punch to do it into an umbrella or softbox. Using high-speed film won't solve the problem, since your exposure for the ambient (daylight) light source will be too high for flash synch. I've found that with moderate speed film like Fuji Provia (EI 100) you need at least 400 ws of power. I always bring my Balcar P2 battery-powered kit with me, which I use with 1600 ws heads.

Exposure is critical, as is the direction of the ambient light source. If you've got direct sunlight right on your subject's face, no amount of additional flash will help. Putting the sun directly behind your subject is one solution, but then you're stuck with that backlit look. I like to find some naturally occurring shade, like the shadow of a building or a tree, or to simply create my own shadow with a large black card.

If your only flash is an on-camera unit, fear not. I've created some really terrific fill-flash shots by positioning the subject in between the sun and my camera. By shooting from within the shadow cast by the subject I ensure that no direct sunlight hits the lens, and I've created a dramatic backlit portrait. Without a source of light in front of the subject I also have a total silhouette. On-camera flash works great, since the harshness of the direct flash is muted by the overall correct exposure of the rest of the scene. You can accomplish this effect even better with a large collapsible silver reflector, but I like the portability of the on-camera flash.

A good set of barn doors will allow you to put the light where you want it and keep light from falling on your lens. You'll want to tape or clip your gel filters to the front of the barn door's leaves so your gels won't melt.

The Old Made New--Fresnel's Spotlight Comeback!
Any kind of portrait is only as good as the light falling on your subject and his or her surroundings. I like to mix things up and use a combination of ambient light, flash diffused with softboxes and direct light from flash heads or focusing Fresnel spotlights.

While you can do a decent job with inexpensive flood lights from the hardware store, if you really want to create, you need light sources that are easily controllable. Even devices as simple as the age-old barn doors can make a standard light head extremely controllable. I like a mix of barn doors, grid spots, and snoots to control the light output of my flash heads.

A 10" focusing spotlight is a really old-fashioned light that every modern photographer needs. I have two and use them all the time.

A really old-fashioned light source that is making a tremendous comeback is the venerable Fresnel spotlight. You can find old Kliegl, Colortran, Altman, and Mole-Richardson models at most large photography shops. All come stocked with tungsten light sources ranging from 200 to 5000w. In order to make them usable for my type of work I have had my Fresnels converted to accept modern studio flash heads. This gives me action stopping exposure times and true daylight color temperature. All of the major flash manufacturers make a focusing Fresnel light, and Calumet lists a universal Fresnel unit that can accept light heads from a number of different manufacturers.

Since good lighting is also about where not to put light, you'll want to have a few gobos around. Gobo today is a fancy word for black foamcore. I have a bunch of beat up pieces of black foamcore that I take on every shoot. With foamcore, a few light stands, and some black gaffer tape you can tame any wild light source.

GeoffreyWales's picture

This tips is really useful. This can make a good photographic works. - Ellerslie Training