What constitutes a portrait photo? How do you go about capturing a good portrait of a person? And do you need permission? These are some of the questions readers have asked me via email in relation to our August Grantourismo contest.
What is a portrait?
A portrait is a posed photo of a person (more than one person in the photo and you have a group portrait — like a pop band portrait) where, generally, the focus — both metaphorically and literally — is on the face, predominantly the eyes. By ‘posed’ I just mean that they are engaged with the camera and the act of a photograph being taken— but not necessarily looking into the camera.
While the whole body can be in shot, particularly if it’s an environmental portrait where you want to show the person in their surroundings, a portrait is all about a connection with the camera, and therefore an engagement with the photographer and ultimately the viewer of the portrait.
A portrait is not a ‘street candid’ where the person is unaware of the photo being taken of them. While street candid shots can be wonderful (setting aside the tricky issue of photography permissions), they are not a portrait. For a portrait the subject has to be a willing and engaged subject.
How to get permission to take a portrait
So how do you go about getting permission when you’re out on the street? Simple. Just walk up and ask, and be prepared for rejection!
Often on the road I’m just as interested in the person’s story or what they’re doing if they’re involved in some activity that intrigues me. Asking questions about what they’re doing and listening is important as it creates a connection with the subject. But while doing so, watch the (potential) subject’s face. Wait until they’re relaxed, find their best side (and yes, we all have a best side), and think about how you might frame the shot if the opportunity arises. Look at where the light is falling and if it’s not good where you are, look around nearby for potential places where you could move that would be better suited to making a fine portrait.
If you do ask your potential subject and they say no, simply thank them and move on. I’m never offended. If the potential subject is not sure, I always show them a couple of my portraits from the gallery that I keep on my iPod Touch, just to let them know what kind of photos that I like to take. Then if they still say no, I always thank them and move on. I’m never offended. And neither will they be — indeed far less offended than if you took a photo without asking.
If the subject says yes, talk them through what you’re doing. Always show them how much of their body you’re shooting. Always tell them when you’re just getting the camera set up and doing test shots. Sometimes these are great.
How do you shoot a good portrait?
I don’t want to get too much into the technical side of things but a focal length of around 35mm is standard for a full-body shot, 50mm for a mid-shot and 85mm-105mm is good for a close-up. If you have a zoom lens such as an 18-200mm and want to do portraits, I’d suggest investing in an inexpensive 50mm lens as well such as a Nikon or Canon 50mm 1.8, which are better suited to the task. In my first semester of photography at university I wasn’t allowed to use anything else! These lenses will also be sharper than all but the most expensive zoom lenses.
I always carry a reflector (see the photo below) so that you can get some light into the subject’s eyes and create a little lighting ratio (in simple terms, making one side of the face brighter that the other). They are lightweight and fold up quite small, so great for travelling. I don’t always carry lights because, firstly, I prefer natural light, and, secondly, I don’t want to carry around a couple of flashes and light modifiers all day unless it’s a commissioned shoot for a client.
Once you have a subject posed and your exposure is right and you have taken a couple of test shots, work on the pose and the facial expressions. If someone falls naturally into a good pose, don’t tell them to ‘freeze’, just say that this looks good and is natural and to keep that position. On the other hand, if someone is posing too much or being cheesy, tell them that you’re going for a natural look. If it’s not working, don’t panic and don’t be afraid to ask the person to pull their chin up or look off camera more. If they don’t get it, go over and show them how you’d like them to stand or sit — remember it’s in everyone’s best interests to make a great photograph.
If you’re not confident doing this, practice with a friend and give them a nice print of your best shot of them afterwards. Build your confidence and remember that being in control of the shoot gives your subject confidence in what you’re doing even if you’re panicking inside you never ever show it as you’ll make your subject nervous that you’re not making a flattering photograph.
Some of my best acting performances have been with famous chefs. On one occasion, doing a formal portrait with a five-minute time limit with a multi-starred Michelin chef, none of my flashes were firing one minute before he arrived. I had to quickly figure out why and adjust my lighting to suit, managing to get one flash to work in a dark restaurant. Later, I asked his manager whether the chef was fine with what I shot, and he said he thought it was very smooth and professional. You can fool some of the people… the shot ended up a full-page magazine portrait.
Lara always says my best portraits are the last ones I take. There is a reason for that. I always get a nice crisply focussed shot (always zoom in on the eyes to check!) and then I try and get the subject more relaxed. Then, when I get the shot that I think really reflects the person’s personality, then I put the camera down, hand over a business card, and thank the person for trusting me enough to make their image. I still find it a privilege every time someone allows me to make their photograph.
Once you’re done go home or back to the hotel or holiday home and make the best representation of that shot that you can. After all you owe to the person who gave you the opportunity.
10 street portrait photography tips
And if you’ve made it this far, here are a few tips on making good portraits when you’re out on the street:
- Always carry a camera. Always. And know how to use it in any lighting conditions. Learn its weak spots and its sweet spots — all cameras have them, as do lenses.
- Learn ‘may I make your picture’ in the local language — right after ‘hello’, ‘thanks’ and ‘goodbye’.
- Always be on the lookout for something interesting happening. And always look for character in people’s faces. If the face tells a story — it’s your challenge to try to capture it.
- Know when to look like a ‘photographer’ and when to look like you’re not carrying a camera. People are sometimes more receptive if you’re not carrying what looks like a soul-stealing bazooka.
- If you approach someone to make their photograph, be honest about what you’re doing.
- Talk to the potential subject first. Listen to them, but be looking for the most flattering angle and facial expression.
- Understand local customs. In some cultures you will not be able to ‘shoot at will’. Or shoot at all in public without problems.
- Think laterally. If you can’t shoot a portrait of someone for social/religious reasons, why not shoot a silhouette? Or a pair of hands?
- The only way to get better at portraits is to keep doing them! Offer to take friend’s portraits. Offer to take portraits of family members. Practice shooting fast. Then when an opportunity arises on the streets you can fall back on what you know and make the most of every opportunity.
- The way to understand whether you’re getting better is to study great portraits that you like. Why are they better than yours? Why do they capture a mood or personality better? I have many of my favourite photographers’ galleries bookmarked — but you should find photographers who are working in a style that suits the direction that you want to go. Deconstruct them. Where is the light coming from? What length lens do you think that it is? What is the f-stop? Soak it up. Then add your own personality.