WHAT MAKE A good PORTRAIT SHOT great?

Discussion in 'Casual Photo Conversations' started by crob2go, Jan 22, 2011.

  1. I have taken many portraits shoots and not many been considered really good by Photonet members. So my question is what make a good portrait shot great. Does it start with the subject and what they are wearing (color of clothes, unique style). Is it how good the subject can pose? How much do subject composition in photo play in it? How much post editing plays in final production? My question is simply what make a great portrait shot. Thanks C-Rob
     
  2. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    I recommend getting this book and carefully reading it. It's about someone who is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest of all portraitists and shows how he went about doing what is his most well-known work. While it's unlikely that most people have the resources to do what he did, a lot can still be learned.
     
  3. to make a great Portrait it starts with YOU as to how much time you wish to put into it to get what results you want to get . do all the reading you need to but at the same start practicing with one light or natural light early light, mid lite and evening lite , southern light , northern light also go to different forums and look at their portrait section or lighting section:
    I like this one a lot : http://photocamel.com/forum/lighting-technique/
     
  4. Also a good site about one of the masters. http://www.karsh.org/
    Lots of samples for inspiration and analysis.
    Enjoy.
     
  5. @Bob - thanks for sharing the site on Yousuf Karsh. He is truly as master and very inspiring. Being fairly new to photography, I never heard of him before.
     
  6. Thanks to Jeff, Bob and Lauren for your time and interest.....C-Rob
     
  7. I just did a google image search using "Avedon portraits" as the search term and I know I'm going to get a thrashing from this opinion but I have to say I don't get it. I really don't see the appeal of portraits of folks with blank stares in their faces which there seems to be quite a few in that Avedon image search. And it's exactly what I see in Craig's portraits in his PN gallery. Please don't take offense, Craig.
    And, Jeff, I'm not questioning your taste in photographers. In fact I see more striking imagery from your gallery than what I saw in the Avedon search. Just my personal tastes, I guess.
    IMO I think that kind of portraiture works great shooting celebrities and other "interesting/striking" looking people, but I would think what makes an interesting portrait of regular folk should look as if you're talking to them over a friendly cup of coffee. You want them to look approachable as if they'ld make an interesting friend.
    It shouldn't look as if they're posing or intentionally adjusting their facial expression. Avedon's portraits come across as if the subject is saying "I don't care if you're looking at me, I'm already interesting in a photojournalist sort of way". Craig is sort of doing that but without the gritty photojournalist street vibe.
    I think Craig's execution and technical prowess in the studio is very good, but I see a lot of non engaged people staring blankly into the lens with very few of them smiling, not that that would make a difference.
    Craig, have you ever tried doing portraits of your subjects sitting in a comfortable place like a kitchen table setting with diffused window light from both sides and just have them tell you a story while you rattle off a bunch of shots? Tell them to not pay attention to the camera and not stop talking about their favorite thing. Keep asking questions about their favorite story or subject to keep them engaged.
    Don't wait for that perfect shot, move the camera around, recomposing just tripping that shutter one after another. It's spray and pray but it captures facial expressions accidentally you don't see fast enough through the viewfinder. And later on the computer present themselves in amazing ways you wouldn't expect.
    I'm not a portrait photographer. I just started noticing how this technique really changes my perception of the image of the person when I shot in this way of an elderly retired school teacher I ran into in my neighborhood. I asked her if I could take pictures of her while she told me her life's story of her being the oldest school teacher in our small town. I first took a posed shot that she adjusted herself for and then I started randomly shooting when she started telling me her story.
    When I viewed the images on the computer I gravitated toward the images of her telling a story over her posed shot.
     
  8. I guess I could've said it shorter like this...
    Photograph extraordinary looking people in ordinary settings and ways.
    Photograph ordinary looking people in extraordinary settings and ways.
    Please excuse my long winded version.
     
  9. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    You want them to look approachable as if they'ld make an interesting friend.​
    I don't really understand why this is a requirement, or even a goal. I don't usually do this in my photos, I think if I wanted to be friends, I would just chat with them. And I take photos of people I don't always think are approachable. I take portraits because I think they say something about the person in the photo as either themselves or a representation of something beyond themselves, or because I have something to say about how I view the world. A lot of great portrait photographers do nothing like make people approachable or as friend targets. Look at Disfarmer as an alternative to looking at Avedon.
    This is a recent favorite portrait of mine, it says exactly what I want it to say. I'm not sure "approachable" or "friend" is part of it. He had just finished smashing a grate with a crowbar when I photographed him.
    [​IMG]
    Mike
     
  10. Sorry, Jeff. Friend and approachable was the wrong word I wanted to put across.
    You pointed to a more photojournalistic style of portraiture for Craig to follow and get tips from while I saw Craig's portraits in his gallery as more of a family "Olan Mills" type of approach. And I was offering something so he doesn't go the way of the horrid look of "Olan Mills" portraiture.
    I actually had one of those done of my family and I tossed the picture in the back of the sock drawer never to look at it again. I actually believed it may have contributed to my getting a divorce.
    I guess it's just a difference in aesthetic approach. That is a remarkable portrait, Jeff, where the subject seems to be saying "Whata' you lookin' at?" and I get a vibe from it that it would look even cooler in Rolling Stone or Spin magazine.
    Not sure if Craig wants to go that direction. That's all.
     
  11. I can't top yours, Jeff, but I thought I'ld post the school teacher "posed" and "not posed" differences.
    It was my second portrait shot of everyday people outdoors in natural settings, but it was the first where I noticed the nuances in facial expressions I got by taking a series one after another described above. It just fascinated me to discover this as a part of image language.
    00Y4vq-323943584.jpg
     
  12. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Good point about Craig's posted photos, Tim, something I overlooked. Looking at Craig's photos, I see an interesting variety that does include one or two that might be going where I usually go. However, I do see a variety of issues that I think he is aware of based on the group of questions asked in the original post. I think there could be improvements in posing, composition and lighting, but more than that, there is a need for some sort of goal for the portraits. It isn't really clear from them what that is.

    This is why, to me, Avedon is such a valuable lesson. Regardless of what one thinks about his photos, he had a strong direction for everything he did. Sure he had all the lighting and post-shooting stuff down, but so do a lot of people whose portraits don't have any impact.
    What I would recommend to Craig is finding a local mentor if possible, an online mentor if not possible, a few books of great portraits to study, and some time talking with the subjects about how they view the photos. Not that the subject's view is always that useful unless one is trying to flatter the subject, a lot of mine anti-flatter and I know that people don't always like how they look, but it might result in some useful feedback also.
     
  13. There are many approaches to making portraits. I start by caring about my subjects. Connecting with them. Engaging them. I also try to have fun and develop at least a photographic relationship. A lot of ideas come to me about how to photograph someone once I pay close attention to what might be something unique about them that I can pick up on. If I try to put myself into the portrait at least on some level, great or small, I find I can empathize with my subjects and that the photographs can often show that care. A photograph with good lighting and a nice smile and not a whole lot of care usually looks tone deaf, to mix a metaphor badly. I can reach out with my camera or I can stand there and take a picture. My choice.
     
  14. In a word: character.
    A good portrait shows what the sitter looks like, a great one shows what he or she is.
     
  15. "So my question is what make a good portrait shot great."
    I don't know, you mean like The Mona Lisa ? Maybe it's a combination of lighting, technique, emotional impact and mood.
     
  16. I find it easiest to make good portraits of people I know well. I think it's because I know their body language, when they're at ease, when their face & hands are doing something that is natural for them. And I think they're more at ease with me, as well.
     
  17. It might not be politically correct to say this, but it's probably much easier to make a great portrait of good looking or famous people than of those who are neither, unless the individual otherwise has that je ne sais quoi.
     
  18. Charles nailed it. Uncle Harry gives you a recognizable image. A great portrait reveals the sitter. How it does it should fit what is being revealed. I dont think Jeff's shot would have had nearly the impact taken with a big, diffused source, soft shadow/highlight transitions and a low contrast ratio. No skin softening going on here. Most folks dont realize Avedon's job in the Coast Guard was photoing ID's. Against a white bg, Square to camera, looking directly into it, non descript, probably white clothing . Nothing to distract from the soul of the sitter. Jeff narrows it even further, with the brighter area between lip and hairline keeping the viewers eye right where it belongs, in the area of the face that produces expression, lips, nasolabial folds, eyes, eye brows and forehead. No missing the sitters mood here. I just hope he wasnt holding the crowbar as the shot was taken.
     
  19. The right subjects and knowing what to do with them when you get them.
    I consider all the spiritual emotional connection real people rhetoric to be so much mumbo jumbo.
    As heartbreakingly beautiful as possible. Scripted, calculated, rehearsed. Shot in 10 minutes. On to the next set up.
    Still photography is no different than shooting a film one frame at a time. The happy scene, the serious scene, the sad introspective scene, the silly sexy scene. Acting. An alternate viewpoint.
    00Y51w-324047584.jpg
     
  20. Michael, for me what you say is not only politically incorrect (about which I don't care), it just plain misses the mark. It's actually harder to photograph "beautiful" people. Most often the shots rely on some superficial and trite notion of Abercrombie and Fitch beauty and do absolute nothing except for the American Idol type of viewer. And it might get good ratings on PN! To go beyond "good looks" requires some skill on the part of the photographer. Many don't bother. They just shoot . . . and move on.
    _____________________________
    Beware especially claims of heartbreaking beauty. In most cases it fades quickly.
     
  21. Charles, I'm an amateur but I think portraits are becoming my strong point in photography. I've had some great feedback from people I've photographed, many who say that they never get a good photo but like mine. I'm finding that it's mostly about people being themselves, and the photographer's ability to bring that out. I don't really pose people very much but I do direct them and encourage them so they relax. I try to create an atmosphere where they don't feel stupid about being themselves.
    By directing them I mean I'll say "Wow your eyes are beautiful, tilt your head just a bit to the left so I can see them better. Give me a quarter turn to the right. Oh, I love the way your hair looks...we're getting some great shots. you are such a natural..." And I talk to them and find something great and positive and funny to say about everyone until they respond and relax. I make sure their back is straight and their shoulders aren't tense by making them smile through my directions. I almost always have them make a funny face for a few shots because it really loosens them up and they love to see it after.
    Also, I find that some people are just natural models and some people are naturally very stiff. The natural models...I just let them go at it. The stiff ones need more talking and laughing and direction. And some people will just never relax, so you do the best you can. But it's about capturing whoever they are.
     
  22. http://www.photo.net/photo/4050150 I love this one by Peter Meade. Karsh was in my father's era, awesome but I prefer Dave Hill for modern portraiture.
     
  23. I shoot portraits of strangers on the street. Getting good results starts with good subject engagement, making people feel comfortable, all the while being able to direct subjects to get what you want.
    The book Jeff Spirer recommended up above is probably my most valued of all my photo books. Even more so than the book it was chronicling, Avedon's In the American West.
    Guarantee you'll learn something about the process of engagement reading the stories and viewing the photos of the master at work.
     
  24. just for interest sake http://www.davehillphoto.com/gallery/portraits
     
  25. Catherine, do you feel connected to the portraits in the last link you provided? Do you feel a connection between photographer and subject? I don't feel either of those things. I feel that those subjects are being looked at, in some cases glamorized, and in most cases filtered through a lens of atmospherics. Are you breaking through? I'm not.
     
  26. I know what you mean Fred. I think Karsh was a master of capturing a moment or a personal connection. I like Dave Hill because of his environments and what he draws from that, not necessarily an emotional connection as much as an environmental one I guess. I think the portrait of the young black boy on the swing would be closest to an emotional or connective capture in that lot. Of course to capture a connection, you need some kind of intimacy with the person, a candid moment. I think the photograper and how at ease he can make his subject will most likely get the best emotional connection. As society on a whole we don't spend enough time developping emotional connections in general and maybe it reflects in modern photography? Its kind of deep, but yes I see what you mean Fred, but I still think Dave Hill rocks his portraiture. :)
     
  27. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    I think the photograper and how at ease he can make his subject will most likely get the best emotional connection.​
    It depends on the objective of the portrait. Making someone at ease gives one type of result. Making people ill at ease gives another type of result, and can be the result of an emotional connection and create a specific kind of emotional connection.
    The best examples of this I can think of immediately is Disfarmer's portraits of people in his small Arkansas town. It's pretty obvious that Disfarmer was a misanthrope, and local accounts certainly make him out to be someone who wasn't comfortable with people, yet he spent his life photographing them in his studio. A good example is this:
    http://www.disfarmer.com/images/large/1001.jpg
    A great portrait of two children yet no level of comfort of any sort. And a family portrait:
    http://www.disfarmer.com/images/large/1018.jpg
    Just one photographer, there are others. And from my own work, this one is a favorite, she agreed to a portrait, but I don't think either of us really was "at ease" with the other:
    [​IMG]
    Women Love Me, Copyright 2009 Jeff Spirer
     
  28. Wow! absolutely Jeff.. I love that kind of stuff too It works in a different perspective altogether.. I love that famous shot of Johhnny Cash giving the finger in the prison concert. And here my opposite of the above. I knew these guys for about 2 hours before I got them relaxed enough for this one. http://www.flickr.com/photos/marie_montreal/4259756924/in/set-72157623037331986/ And I don't claim that's its any good..lol :)
     
  29. http://johnnycash-info.com/fullsizepicture.htm here's a connection
     
  30. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Heh, nice...Cash and your shot.
     
  31. Jeff makes an important point. And it's not just making someone ill at ease. People often are ill at ease to begin with. The portrait photographer who insists on making someone who's uncomfortable more at ease may lose a great opportunity: the opportunity to capture/create something authentic.
     
  32. Christine, you explained perfectly what I was getting at on how to get the subject engaged in a photo session. Thanks for putting it better than I could.
    This ol' coot's work I've always admired if you like the "blank gaze into the lens" look...
    http://www.sokolsky.com/#/beauty/portraits/hal
    His fashion stuff ain't too shabby either.
     
  33. I think I can appreciate the two polar opposite types of work. The black and white, not at all glamorous, harsh, and not at all post processed,not flattering in the face look as in Nigel Parry's book "Sharp."
    http://www.amazon.com/Sharp-Nigel-Parry/dp/B0002Y0SJW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1295821599&sr=1-1
    As well as a real opposite extreme, the manicured, exquisitely lighted-and pretty- work, with staged gorgeous life of subject background, such as in this old book in my home library," Location Portraiture," by William McIntosh.
    http://www.amazon.com/Location-Portraiture-Story-Behind-Art/dp/1883403375/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1295821433&sr=1-1
    If I can relate positively in some way to both, than it tells me for sure there is a hard job to answer for myself anyway what really 'kicks it out of the ball park.' What are the common elements of a fine portrait is one part. What images of people have powerful appeal across time and different generations is another.
    Karsh, the great Canadian, has lasted in the public esteem, that is for sure. Smart skilled guy. Commercial as all heck, but still great. Hurrell, as for Marlene Dietrich, was the best, he filled a personal taste that seems to be coming back. He knew how to enhance and illuminate in a way that was Hollywood glamour way.
    We have some wonderful portrait examples in PN. Inspirational stuff.
    A topic that-shucks- could span all of a year's course work, C-Rob. At least.
     
  34. Gerry, very true and nice observation. I agree there's room for both and have tried my hand at each, even mixing the two. The thing I notice about Hurrell and others who could very loosely be considered glamour photographers but were really a breed all to themselves, every bit artists, is that they penetrate as well, if even they are penetrating and helping to create her persona. These photographers bring Dietrich to us, the viewers. They add to her presence. They are aware of her. Many who try to copy the style don't quite access the substance and the depth. That can become a problem when it comes to portraits: when it's all makeup and no flesh, all beauty and no one behind the beauty.
    Marlene Dietrich
     
  35. Craig:
    i think that photographers are the least likely to compliment another photographers images.
    Purely conjecture on my part, but it seems to me that photographers are most often far more interested
    in showing their work than taking the time to actually enjoy those of others.
    in short, they typically want to speak, but are rarely interested in listening.
    nothing in photography is more satisfying to me than getting oos and ahs from non-photographic artists.
    strangely, as a painter, i have found the situation to be reversed: painters, illustrators, and people who
    simply like to draw seem far more amenable to praising the work of others.
     
  36. F Ph, Unfortunately your theory seems proven wrong by this very thread. This thread has almost been a model of listening, dialogue, and compliments back and forth to members work. There are several people who've contributed to this thread that have been more than generous in looking and commenting constructively and favorably on others' work. If it's a love fest you're interested in, check out flicker. I think photographers can heap shallow praise on each other, they can provide more substantial insights, and they often put their own work up for critique, though many don't have such thick skins. I can't imagine that photographers are any different on this matter, on the whole, than painters or sculptors. Your experience is surely your experience and I believe you. But I don't know why you'd extrapolate that to a larger universe.
     
  37. I couldn't have put it better, Fred.
    When I was attending college art classes 33 years ago I never really associated learning with self esteem building, though there's been a recent study of college students that determined improving self esteem was their main reason for surfing the internet.
    What are they teaching these college kids today?
     
  38. clearly my experience has differed from yours.
    i stand by my position.
    what i alluded to, in my experience, has been the rule.
    i know i am not the only person who has noticed that photography, more
    than many other creative indulgences, attracts a very different set of personality
    types than does painting and illustration.
    but... i only have about 35 years of experience as a fine artist; about 10 as a photographer,
    from which to extrapolate.
     
  39. Oy vey! It's the 35-years-of-experience card. A good conversation ender.
     
  40. I think Jeff's crowbar picture works for its honesty and strength. Typical posed portraits that flood the 24hour top rated photos here, tend to be ho- humm to me. I like the edgie type of photo and I also appreciate a good straight up well taken photo of a beautiful person, but I agree they are all too common, and a photo of an average looking person demonstrating some emotion or interaction with the photographer will always score higher for me. It has been a great learning thread.
     
  41. I suggest you browse online photography blogs and compare your work with online photos. That's how I do mine. I'm not saying mine is a great one but I learn a lot from the works of photographers online. Start browsing here at Photo.net.
     

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