Creating a dynamic portrait requires far more than technical prowess. If we want to penetrate the façade of a person’s visage, we need to have our subjects reach a point where they can connect to us through the lens and, in turn, to the viewer of the resulting image.
That said, certain traditional techniques in terms of posing, lighting and lens choices increase the odds of creating portraits that highlight the strongest elements of a person’s bone structure and personality. My series of portraits of a cross-section of the greatest photographers of the last 100 years hopefully exposes some unique aspects of these lensmen and lenswomen and can serve here as examples.
With the legendary Alfred Eisenstaedt in front of my lens and Maryann Kornely, former director of the LIFE Gallery, to my right, who I had “volunteered” to hold a large silver reflector, my finger was about to depress the shutter. Eisie interrupted, “Did you check my tie? Make sure to always check a gentleman’s tie before you take his picture.” I had remembered to check, but how fortunate I’ve been to have had so many of these masters as my teachers. In the beginning, my Q&As with the who’s who of photography started with quick snaps to document the meeting but soon became more formal portrait sessions as I saw the potential for a meaningful series, which evolved into my first book, Faces of the Twentieth Century: Master Photographers and Their Work.
While Eisie’s most famous photograph is of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square to celebrating the end of World War II, I consider his environmental portrait—a portrait of a person in an environment that relates to them—of Hiroshima survivors, taken a few months after the bomb was dropped, to be his most powerful image. He used a burnt tree to frame a mother and her son sitting on a pile of rubble with the destroyed city in soft focus behind them. He depressed the shutter just as the woman’s hair blew across her face. You can still feel the cold wind of that day more than 70 years later.
Arnold Newman is considered one of the great masters of the environmental portrait. His 1946 portrait of Igor Stravinsky at his piano serves as another classic example.
When creating an environmental portrait, my go-to lens is a NIKKOR 24-70mm F2.8 often in the f/4.5 to f/5.6 ½ range to get a feel for the background, but not so much that it becomes a distraction and pulls the viewer’s focus away from the subject. My focal length usually falls between 28mm and 45mm for this type of portrait. For those working with an APS-C camera system, shooting between 18mm and 32mm might be a good working range. In terms of how much of the person to include in the frame, a ¾, or “cowboy,” as it’s known in the movie industry (cropping below the guns), is often a good percentage of the person to include in an environmental portrait. When doing this type of photograph, I direct the person to achieve the best angle (e.g., move left, right, backward, forward) as well as adjusting my position to make sure that the elements of their environment I want to include aren’t being blocked, coming out of their head or are too out of focus to not be recognizable.
During any type of portrait session, I’ll talk to the person as a dentist talks to their patients; in other words, saying things that can be acknowledged without the need to verbally respond with more than a simple grunt. Engaging in an active conversation should be done before or after a photo shoot, not during it, unless you want the person to be caught in all sorts of awkward mouth positions. It’s better to share a quiet moment one-on-one and let the camera peer into the window of their soul.
Classic Cropping Points
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in what the subject’s face is doing we don’t pay enough attention to our overall canvas. In my workshops, the most common mistake I see are students planting the person’s face in the middle of the frame, leaving too much dead space at the top. This could be in part due to using the center position for autofocus rather than shifting it to the upper third of the frame. There are times for that in a portrait, but they’re fairly rare. A good rule of thumb on a vertical is to have the person’s head in the top third of the frame. When I turn my camera vertically, I almost always put my focus point on the top third of the frame by using my thumb to adjust the toggle button on the back of my camera.
Whether I’m doing an “eyes are the window to the soul” or environmental type portrait, I’m always aware of where I’m cropping the subject and how limbs are exiting the frame, making sure that they’re not dragging the viewer’s attention out of it. Visual tension can be created by having limbs cut off at joints, but make this a conscious choice for a logical reason, if that’s what you want to achieve. If someone is wearing all black or all white, I often bring in the arms and hands to break up the flatness of a stark monotone area of the image.
My environmental portraits tend to be a ¾, cropping between the hips and the knees. This is followed by a crop between the knees and the ankles and finally a full-body shot, as I did in the case of Alfred Eisenstaedt. Keep in mind full-frame thinking, using your camera sensor or film frame as a canvas, and fill the space effectively.
Eyes Are The Window To The Soul
Let’s zoom in to discuss the very dramatic “eyes are the window to the soul” type photograph in more detail. A longer lens with a shallower depth of field can be very effective for these types of head-and-shoulder shots. There’s a reason why a 105mm is considered a portrait lens in the full frame 35mm world. The compression from the longer focal length tends to work well with most people’s bone structures. I’ve also found an 85mm lens to be a great focal length for these types of portraits as well. That said, a number of photographers, such as Platon, are doing amazing up close and personal portraits with much wider lenses. If you do go this direction, keep in mind that wider lenses can distort facial features, so tread lightly if you want your subjects on the other side of the lens to be happy with the results.
Using a shallow depth of field helps the viewer focus on the eyes as the window to the soul by letting the background dissolve into a beautiful bokeh. I find working around f/4 or f/4.5 with the 105mm, and focusing on the front eye if the person is turned slightly to the side, gives excellent results. Going shallower can be dramatic and has its applications, but the technique might overshadow the subject.
For many of my portraits, such as those of Albert Watson, Gordon Parks, Nobuyoshi Araki, Dan Winters and Sebastiao Salgado, I took advantage of open shade, the area where the direct sun ends and shade or indirect sunlight takes over. This type of diffused ambient light is both flattering and can be found any time during the daylight hours, as long as there’s a structure—natural or man-made—to intervene with the direct sun. Henri Cartier-Bresson reminded me that only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” referencing the famous Noel Coward song in our conversation about life and photography. Not a bad idea to keep in mind, unless you’re carrying around a handheld silk.
When using strobes, light modifying and shaping tools are extremely effective in the goal of achieving a powerful portrait. A question to ask before setting up lights: “Will the subject benefit from flatter, more even light that reduces the appearance of wrinkles by the lack of shadows, or do we want to pull out more character?” A softbox or a beauty dish above the camera position with a white reflector just out of frame underneath the subject is a common first approach, while an angled softbox or a light with a grid is a good starting point for a dramatic image. What’s the right approach? The one that best works to illustrate the story or convey the essence of the person before your lens. If they’re an actor looking for commercial work, flatter lighting and smiles tend to be what casting directors are looking for, while theatrical headshots tend to be best served with dramatic lighting.
Just like fingerprints, everyone has their own unique face. If we can capture and record it with the appropriate light and composition, and somehow tap into something that tells us about the sentient being behind our subject’s eyes, we have achieved our photographic goal.
The photographic greats I’ve had the honor to stand and sit before my lens all have at least one thing in common: a clear understanding of how to create powerful portraits that can stand the test of time.