Today I want to talk a little about style. Periodically I poke around the web and have a look at what other people (both pros and amateurs) are doing in regards to portraits and I’ve been seeing something that has me feeling a little disappointed. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m seeing a lot of technically fantastic portraits that don’t seem to have any soul to them. I’m not going to point to any examples, but those of us in the business who look at a lot of images all the time, sometimes the images that are lacking can stick out in a way that is more glaring than it might be to the (for lack of a better word) uneducated.
Style. I’m not talking about clothes, or fashion, or what’s popular. I’m talking about finding the essence of the subject which many of the images I’m seeing lately are lacking. You can have perfect focus on the upper eyelid, perfect light metering, and incredible depth of field and still have a portrait fall flat. It doesn’t embody a certain mood. It doesn’t evoke a feeling, possibly from a personal experience. It doesn’t have that special sauce.
If you don’t bring that special sauce to your portraiture, then you’ve failed, and no amount of “likes” or Facebook praise will fix it.
How do you add style, you ask? That’s entirely up to the photographer. Everyone is a little different from the next. Every photographer has his or her story as an individual, and the way I look at portraiture – the image is as much about the subject of the portrait as it is about one who is making it. That is why photography is an art, and not merely a recipe. Take a dozen experienced shooters and one model, you will undoubtedly get a dozen very different final images. On the technical side, it all starts with equipment choice (i.e.. camera type, lens choice, maybe filters, etc), followed by choice of aperture, focus and exposure, and finally – editing.
All too often I’m seeing this as the whole process, but it’s really only a part of it. The other half is supremely important: get the personality. This means talking, joking, telling a story or asking questions to get the subject to relax, open up, and become expressive. This is where the personality will come out of your subject – when a connection is made and it becomes personal to you – the photographer. You aren’t trying to make a 2D image of Homo sapiens, you are trying to portray who that person is as an individual, unique in the world. If done right, there should be a twinkle in the eye, and completely open expression (if desired), and an honesty that radiates from the image itself.
We aren’t done – yet.
The final part on the one-two punch is editing. This too is vastly different from shooter to shooter, and is an extension of actually taking the photo. These days we are the creator and developer – not just the camera operator, and in my opinion it is the very best thing about the digital age. It enables us to go to places never dreamed possible in the days of shooting film. A good editor can take the mood and feeling of the portrait and enhance it in any way he or she wants. A great editor can make a fantastic portrait even better. Again, the editing can be technically brilliant in regards to level, curves, histogram reading, etc. – but if it doesn’t further improve the image’s impact, then it lessens its worth and detracts from the original endeavor to make a great portrait.Rich Leighton April 6, 2012