“You see how I used the Rule of Thirds in this portrait?” I say to the Trainee as I point out how the Subject’s face is under the upper left intersection of where the four grid lines on the monitor cross.
“Yeah.” He says doubtfully. “And that’s good? Shouldn’t it be centered?”
“If we were working for the the DMV I’d say ‘Yes.’” I click to another image of a woman with her right leg extended back, her right hand on her hip, her right shoulder slightly lowered, and her head tilted to the right as well. I make a sweeping motion that follows the line from her foot to her head. “See how this forms a C curve? She how the image flows and has an added fluidity and movement?”
“Not really.” He says, clearly giving the image his attention. “She is pretty though.”
I never got to deliver my Last Lecture to my little group of Assembly Line Portrait Photographers, which is just as well. I found a better job and left the small pond where I had been a big fish without looking back. If I were doing it now, I would probably feel compelled to mention the benefits of suntan lotion.
Order. Design. Composition. Tone. Form. Symmetry. Balance. ~George Seurat as portrayed in Sunday in The Park With George
A portrait is a moment captured in time, but it is not just any random moment. It a moment created specifically by a Portrait Photographer to be captured. It’s a moment that only exists because we caused it to existed. A snapshot is not a portrait. A picture form a Photo Booth is not a portrait. Those old street photos of people walking around downtown are not Portraits. A Portrait is created intentionally through careful control of things like Order. Design. Composition. Tone. Form. Symmetry. Balance.
All Subjects are beautiful. Most of them don’t believe this, often even the really lovely one. Curiously, many of those who are not so beautiful tend to think of themselves as being the most beautiful. I was perfect the way I was, as a woman in an insurance ad says. And they are right. Beauty is sculpted with light, enhanced by the background, or lack there of. A tilt of the head, a body angle, the slump of a shoulder, a smile that is not too big or too small. A Great Photographer can bring out the Beauty in any subject. We can make large noses smaller, small imperfections vanish, overweight subjects can appear slimmer, painfully thin subjects can be given just a bit more presence. We are not trying to be Glamor Shots where they are Photoshopped into something they are not, we still want the Subject to look like themselves, but we want them to look like their Best selves.
There is an Order to posing. And the best and easiest posing moves easily from one pose to the next. Moving a Subject a little bit to the left or right, adjusting the position of an arm or a shoulder, having the head tilt a little one way or the other. The Subject dictates the posing Sequence. There are different shots for a Single, a Couple, a Family, or a Group. In all cases you start with Everyone in and move one person or two people to change the pose while leaving the rest in place. A simple and effective posing sequence creates several different looks with minimum movement and rearranging of people. This Order also means less work for the Photographer and fewer wasted steps. Something to keep in mind when your shooting fifty or more sitting in a day.
Design goes to intention. Anyone can stand someone in front of a camera and tell them to smile. A portrait created by design is one posed and lite to achieve a certain look or invoke a certain feeling. Portraits of large men hold tiny babies show the soft side of an otherwise intimidating fellow. Portraits shot with Hollywood lighting bring out a glamour look and highlight a certain sense of style and class. Even images which appear to be random and spontaneous can be created with careful posing. While a skilled photographer will get the occasional Grab Shot that is good, the bulk of our work is done by design.
Composition is the science of creating an image that is both pleasing to look at and easy to repeatedly create. Composition is knowing the rules and deciding to either follow them or ignore them depending on what you want to say. The general rules here are The Rule of Thirds and The Golden Mean and The Magic Ratio. The Old Masters were particularly fond of all kinds of Regular Divisions of the Plane and Leading Lines then adding the elements of their art on top of it. S Curves and C Curves help the eye find an underlying composition as well. All the rules tell us that an image will appear more desirable if the most important part of the image is off center and a bit higher or lower in the frame. Many of the Subjects I see are not interested in this kind of Composition and want straight on shots perfectly centered in the frame.
Tone in portrait photography often means Sepia Tone, or perhaps some other subtle bit of colorization. But tone can also be effected by such things as over exposure or under exposure. I tend to prefer slightly darker images and dark colored background which help to bring the focus onto the Subjects. Adjusting the lighting and the background you can create a wide range of tones from very light to very dark. It’s also easy to create B&W and Sepia Tones, though I have not had a lot of success selling these.
Form is what the finished portrait will look like and it needs to be taken into consideration when you are creating a portrait. Landscape or Portrait, standard 8×10 or panoramic 4×10, classic 8×8 or whatever shape you can twist out of a canvas frame and print and image on. The digital world has made virtually any shape and dimension possible-the easiest thing to do is create whatever shape you want and then put that shape inside a standard sized digital mat. Another aspect of form that is easy to do requires nothing more than tilting the camera. And angled images can have a bit of interest and add some drama, but I have never had much luck selling them.
Perfect balance is called Symmetry. Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley had wonderfully symmetrical faces. Cathedrals often have a well defined symmetry among their columns and pews and windows. Symmetry can be achieved in a portrait by turning a face so that the features achieve that perfect balance. Turn a body until the lines are straight-move away from the standard 45 degree angle and into something a little bit different. Pose groups so that one side mirrors the other. Diamonds are a particular favorite when shooting groups of four.
Balance is a little less rigid than Symmetry. Balance is also often at odds with The Golden Mean, as the negative space can often appear out of balance. The untrained eye will look at a portrait shot using the Rule of Thirds and declare that it is off center, and therefore wrong. It is also important that the negative space be in front of the Subject, not behind them. We are used to people moving forward and an empty space in front of a person can appear thoughtful or imply movement. Balance also means that the relative shades in the image work together. The Background and Lighting all adjusted to make the Subject look their best and not distract from them as the center of attention.
My take on the Rules of Art from George Seurat. As Morpheus said-What you must learn is that these rules are no different than the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken. Understand?
I charge a base honorarium of $5000 plus travel expenses for presentations 30-90 minutes in length, if you have a group of Assembly Line Portrait Photographers in need of a bit of demoralizing.