Before I truly studied portraiture, I was struggling to master the art of portrait photography. In this article I will share the most important tips for narrating your portraits.
What is Portrait Photography?
A portrait photographer depicts their subject(s) in an interesting manner that in best images, also narrates their personality. What elements to include in the images and how to visualize a feeling. Portrait photography has a social aspect to it; it is on you to make your subject(s) comfortable and direct them effortlessly.
There are multiple ways of photographing people, but I will share the portrait ideas I most commonly use and explain what they express. As in most creative professions, you don’t ahave to have the best equipment in order to practice your skills. Portrait photography requires composition and an eye for detail. You can improve with the most basic equipment. Shooting indoors will give you more control over the photo shoot. Plan your portrait lighting arrangements in advance to finalize the mood of the shoot and their personality.
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This is a much-used portraiture method. While there are a handful of different definitions, the most popular is that a deadpan photograph is devoid of emotion. When placing your camera in front of your subject you can wait until they’re relaxed. In everyday life cameras are all around us, and people are usually very aware of the photographer. Finding an intimate moment in between the poses could be impossible. Shooting your portraiture as deadpan eases up the atmosphere and lets you capture the in-between moment. This way you will also be able to depict the environment around your subject and add a more complex narrative. Photographers such as Alec Soth and Rineke Dijkstra are known for this kind of portraiture.
Pro tip: Place your camera on a tripod 2-3 meters from your subject so that their whole body is in the frame. Your camera should be at your waist level, pointing straight to your subject.
Snapshot / Intimate LifePhotography
Through family albums, diaries, or even self-portraits it is that photographers document their personal experiences and deliver their emotions. To photograph one’s intimate space is a singular task that may be considered more approachable than documenting any other subject. However, this would be ignoring the fact that in the practice of documenting one’s immediate surroundings, the photographer loses the distance they would otherwise maintain and often confronts extreme emotions.
Here lies the challenge: knowing how to gauge our own or our loved ones’ involvement, evaluating what we can or cannot show, and what others will find moving or shocking. This type of photography has a melancholy, even romantic, dimension and inevitably draws on one of the primary qualities of this medium: memory.
The narratives of domestic and intimate life have been present in art photography ever since Nan Goldin released her work. Interestingly, the candid and explicit style of snapshot photography inspired the 1990’s trend in fashion photography for ‘grunge’. This autobiographical nature of intimate documentation links the photographer with the photograph and adds a layer of authenticity. When you photograph the subject in their natural environment, you present the viewer with exceptional intimacy.
You as a photographer, are a witness to the ongoing lifes of others and have the ability to translate it into imagery.
Pro Tip: Start photographing people you know – learn to direct people and to read them while photographing them. This way you can get used to being around people and observe them.
Tableau-Vivant / Staged Photography
With or without models, staged photography can be broken down into several categories; ranging from fantastical scenes impossible to contemplate in reality, to trompe l’oeil exercises in technical virtuosity often set up in a studio, to full movie production tableaux vivants.
This area of photographic practice is often described as tableau or tableau-vivant photography as the story is concentrated into a single, stand-alone image.With inspiration from cinema and the history of painting this style represents a staged scenery. Constructing the image and portraying your subject by adding specific clothing to elevate photography to the status of a painting. By consciously placing elements and arranging compositions, they create the events, environments or emotions.
Indeed, this style has a particular appeal for me as I have become to realize that I enjoy looking at photographs that invite the viewer to imagine a story about what may have occurred or be about to occur.
Pro Tip: Start with a familiar surrounding and construct the image from simple props. Decide whether you want to build a story-like setting or a scene that cannot be distinguished from the real life.
One of the most influential photographers Jeff Wall captures people engaged in everyday life, but his images are in fact largely staged.
These photography methodologies are well explained in the book The Photograph as Contemporary Art.
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