The Philosophy of Portraits

“We’re using light to try and capture something more than a person’s face.” The Old Man who runs the High School Senior Studio says to me. “We’re trying to capture their personality.”

“Is that right?” I say as I take a break from vacuuming the office floors. “And how do we do that?”

“We find out what they are interested in.” He says in amazement at my stupidly. “Then we put then in into a Setting that fits that interest.  If they like sports, we put them in the Locker Room set.  If they like Music we pose them in the Classical Room with their instrument.”

The fact that many of these kids will never play sports or their musical instruments after they leave High School tends to diminish my feeling that this is capturing their personality.

I watched the last season of The Tudors and there was a scene where the old and decrepit Henry VIII had a portrait painted.  He hated it, as it depicted an old and decrepit man.  So the artist repainted it, with Henry looking young and virile and then the King was happy, as the artist had captured his true looks.

One of the long standing options of all Portraits Studios is the Retouch, in which the effort is made to remove all traces of our mundane humanity.  Pimples are removed from teenagers, wrinkles are removed from senior citizens, marks and blemishes and glare on glasses are all banished from existence.  A number of Passers have portraits on their tables which look nothing at all like them.  This helps to sell the Retouch, as a shocking number of people feel much the same way that Henry VIII felt.

Fine Art Portraits like to go to the other extreme.  Portraits of older actors, and most notably Clint Eastwood, have portraits taken in black and white which accentuate the lines and blemishes and harsh effects of being alive for a long time.  In my own work, this kind of Character portrait is not always well received.  Some men like the look, but there are few portraits of female movie stars designed to make them look like fifty miles of bad country road.

So I tend to prefer Soft Light to Hard Light, which is to say, I like umbrellas that are feathered a bit and when I had access to them, very large Softboxes used at very close range.  The closer a light is, the softer it is.  But this requires being able to adjust the light’s power, which is seldom an option in Assembly Line Portraits.  So I have to work what magic I can with light positions and camera settings.  Wrap around light from a bright white background is very soft as well.

I also like using a lot of light to bring out the planes of the face.  This is not the way to shoot a whole setting, but it is nice to use on one or two shoots.  I bought Monte Zucker’s book on Portraits and he has examples of posed from full right profile to full left profile with several stops in between for different facial angles.  These are kind of interesting sequences, but I find that it is difficult to get people do a full profile shot.  It is too far out of their range of experience.

My favorite Portrait Photographer is the late, great George Hurrell, who did everything in his power to make his subjects look like marble statues.  Classic Hollywood Lighting using as many lights as the Photographer can find and creating a wonderly complex pattern of shadows.  Then retouching the image until that other worldly Hollywood reality is created.

On the other end of that spectrum is the art of One Light Portraits, in which one light, carefully used, can illuminate the Subject, the background, the near side, the far side, and give the appearance that more than one light was used.  I tend to favor a bit of One Light Portrait lighting as well, but I tend to use it to make Short Light portraits were only the face is illuminated.

Most Assembly Line Portraits are not shot with the idea of capturing anyone’s personality or embarking on any deep philosophical questions of the inner nature of being.  We just want you to spend a hundred dollars and get out the way so the next Subject can do the same.  For the most part, this means paying attention to The Basics and leaving the world of higher abstraction to others.  The Assembly Line Portrait philosophy is more about taking the poses required by The Company than taking poses required by Art.


One the constant nags I get from The Company is that my Subjects are often facing the camera straight on, such as the image of Clint Eastwood-and more interestingly, several of the Sample Portraits on the Passers tables.  Since we are now supposed to be taking many more portraits than the Standard Set, a couple of facing the camera shots is an easy way to pad a sitting.  There are also a lot of people who want head on shots, and I am kind of tired of fighting them when they come in.

The Company’s portrait philosophy is pretty simple, The Photographer should do what The Company tells them to do or find somewhere else to take portraits.  Assembly Line Portraits are all about taking Standard, Tradional Portraits.  This often involves some very old school rules.  Turn the body to 45 degrees, make sure both ears show in the picture, make sure the eyes are always looking the same, get a pleasant expression, and so on and so forth.  The Former Big Boss found this style of portrait to be boring and believed that shooting portraits with more of a Wow factor would sell better.

His philosophy lead to his being free to pursue options elsewhere.  Seems a good number of The Company’s buying customers actually like the boring, standard stuff it has been producing for most of it’s long history.  So now The Company has shifted back to The Basics and the Philosophy is to do more traditional portraits using classic lighting such as Butterfly, Rembrandt, and High Key.  One of the problems is that our vast horde of Button Pushers don’t understand flat lighting, so they are having a hard time dealing with lighting patterns of any sort.

I, of course, am doing what I have been doing for the past fifteen years or so-The Standard Set, with a few modifications here and there.  Since The Company will likely change it’s photography philosophy the next time they change figureheads, there is little point in getting too worked up about the latest requirements.

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One Comment

  • Hi I just sent your article to my fotographer with note please do it this way. I hope she´ll listen! Wish you would do it but I´m all the way here in The Netherlands and you are God knows where. Keep it up!

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