Worth a THOUSAND WORDS... A Look at the Emotional Side of Portraiturein Portraiture and Fashion
By deleted224040/deleted (30,146)
on October 6, 2007 9:20:17 AM CDT
I'll begin by saying, I'm not a writer. I am not very good at saying how i feel with words or expressing myself. So if you know grammar or are good with writing, you may feel my article to be very faulty. I hope the reader can gain some benefit however from its' content.
I was looking through the articles written here on Photosig, and often times as you view articles in photography magazines, they mostly deal with the technical side of photography, which as we all know is of the utmost importance. But I decided that it was time to include some writing that deals with the emotional characteristics of a portrait.
A couple of years ago, when I had already been involved with portrait photography, I realized that I had not been putting my best into it. I realized that it was becoming more of a J O B, rather than a career I loved. So I decided to educate myself and do what I could to inspire myself by reading books and magazines and anything I could get my hands on that had to do with photography. I even read books on the chemical aspects of the darkroom. This to me was important because I wanted to be the best photographer I could be. I read everything from the history of photography to science books on the nature and properties of light. Which i recommend any photographer to do. It will give you a much better grasp on photography when you learn to understand light. If you understand light, you will automatically become a better photographer. Anyway, in the process of reading books, I came across a National Geographic Book of some of the best portraits ever taken. And there was this photograph taken of a boy from South America who was crying and his pain was so apparent in his eyes and his tear drenched face. And I wondered, why is this boy crying. Then i read his story. Minutes before this photograph was taken, a truck passing at a very high speed that didn't even slow down, ran over and killed most of his herd of sheep. And then I saw the dead carcasses behind him. It made me so sad, I cried. I cried for at least a minute. The photograph at that point was probably thirty years old, but it had such a powerful effect on me; not only right then and there but afterwards when I contemplated the immediate effect that that image had on me. I just knew after that point that I had to learn how to cause others to have emotional responses from looking at their portraits. From that point forward, i have tried to figure out what it takes to make people so happy they will cry when they look at a portrait I take. Or so happy that they scream for joy! An example of what i mean is recently I photographed some portraits of a newborn that the mother wanted taken the day it was born in the hospital. Upon looking at the photographs, she began to weep and said, she had never seen her kids like this before. What she meant, was she had never experienced her kids in such a way. We as portrait photographers, have the ability to change lives, to affect lives, not only to record what someone looks like. I will explain in this article, just how to do that.
We here on Photosig are intended to look at a photograph when critiquing and point out if it is artistically and technically perfect in order to award three thumbs up. But in a portrait and possibly in other images as well, such as real life journalism, street photography, weddings, etc. there is another aspect to judge and that is, does this image touch you emotionally. When i began here on Photosig a couple years ago, my mentality towards emotionalism in photography was negative. I truly believe it was shallow to think that way. I have come to realize that there is truly an excellency to obtain by not only having your portraits be technically and artistically perfect and mastered but by reaching a new level of viewing your subjects and that is to get an emotional response from the viewers when they look at your portraits. Some subjects will be easier to obtain an emotional image from than others. For example, it's easier to solicite an emotional response from a premature newborn being held by a father than it is to get one from a senior portrait. But nonetheless, regardless of the subject, every subject is capable of having an emotional portrayal made of them. Now the purpose of a portrait is to represent, mainly in the face, a representation of the subject. How you do that can vary infinitly. Just look at the images on Photosig. There are many ways to alter the appearance of a subject. You can do this all with the technical side of photography. Here is a small list of things you can do to portray your subject differently:
direction of light
diffusion of light
And there is much more to consider but as I stated, this is a small list. But consider some of these elements of an image and how they effect the mood. A hard contrasty lighted portrait with lots of grain and harsh shadows... picture it. What subject comes to mind? A beautiful bride? A young toddler in a field of flowers? A Heavy Metal Band? Well, if you have any photographic sense at all, you'll say the Heavy Metal Band. That's because the entire image has to be cohesive in its' technical elements as well as it's artistic to create hopefully the right emotional response from the viewer. When they are cohesive, you will get an emotional response. For example, the band portrayed this way, will get an emotional response of hard edged, rebellious to mainstream norm, stoic, feel. If you were to create the same technical conditions for the rest of the subjects mentioned, your emotional response would be chaotic. A beautiful young child in a field of flowers portrayed by harsh contrast, would be a bad portrait. So to get the emotional response, the technical side of the portrait has to be mastered as well. For example, a lot of people want to learn new poses. That's fine. Poses are good, but the technicals have to match. Let's think about this situation. You have an attractive female senior to photograph. She has long flowing hair, beautiful eyes, a great smile. You want to do an up close hand pose. So you pose her filling the frame with just her face, smile, and hand by her chin. You photograph her two different ways. The pose, composition, framing, crop, etc. remain the same in both. The difference will be lighting. The first, is softboxes softly diffusing and set above her so to cast a soft beautifully diffused butterfly lighting, with a soft focus yet sharpened eyes. The second example will be harsh side lighting that totally looses light on one side of her face or worst yet, harsh on camera flash, that overexposes her forehead, the photograph is out of focus, the camera angle is too wide causing her to look fat in the face when really her face is narrow and attractive. Do you see how the technical aspects of a portrait, dramatically alter the state of your portrait. The same exact girl, the same exact pose, yet two different, totally different feels and results from the same session. Now to give you an even better idea of the idea i am talking about. Think about who in this world is portrayed the most glamorous in the public eyes? It is the Hollywood elite. Though their bank accounts are not common, though they are portrayed as someone high, they are human too. Think about how they are portrayed perfectly with lighting, makeup, perfect poses, focus, TECHNICALS, etc. Yet these same people who are supposed to be so glamorous and SUPER HUMAN on the cover of Vogue, Men's Health, Playboy, Seventeen are the same on the covers of the tabloids looking like garbage. Why do you think that is? DUH! It's all the technicals that i have been mentioning. If you catch a person in overexposed sun on the beach with heavy casted shadows and not in the perfect pose, without makeup, looking serious or worst upset, what do you think they're going to look like? And think about it, that even solicites an emotional response... What do you think when you see an actor or movie star looking like this when you're used to seeing them looking perfect? It shocks you. It disgusts you. Or it makes you laugh. Whatever the response, it is an emotional response that is meant to sway your thoughts about a particular person. That same shocking photograph of the person may have been taken as they were walking in our out of the studio from having their portraits taken for some publicity. They may have ten minutes earlier been made to look like a model, and then ten minutes later in the blaring sun, slumped over, a bit of a gut hanging out, bad posture, with a slightly serious look on the face, wide angle, etc, made this person look unattractive. Allow me to give you a simple yet real situation that happened to me. I decided to take self portraits of myself some time back and i have a little weight that shows in my face. I tried all sorts of lighting directions, straight on, side lighting, barebulb, softly diffused, even underlighting and the end result was some i was very happy with, they slimmed me, some made me look heavier than i even thought that i was. Again, the technicals caused me to think different things about myself, thus evoking an emotional response from the image.
Now hopefully you have seen in a very small and simple way how the technicals can directly affect your emotional response to an image. The key is knowing how to use these different tools at your disposal to send the right emotional response of the subject to your viewer. A few quick examples and guidelines:
Use harsher contrastier lights to portray harder subjects such as aged men and harder subjects like punk rockers.
Use softer diffused lighting to portray young children, bridal portraits, glamour portraits, etc.
The use of grain can enhance a black and white image's emotional effect when used subtly to enhance an emotional moment for example a child crying a funeral at the death of a loved one.
A narrow or shallow dof where the background is blurred can really isolate your subject to put more focus on them.
The use of soft focus after the fact in photoshop or some other photo editing software can enhance the soft and peaceful feeling that an image has. For example in a baby's portrait in the hospital where lighting may not be so soft or diffused, doing some correcting after the fact can take that portrait even more where you want to take it.
You can use bright colorful colors to portray happy moods and feelings. For example, children playing happily on beach would be muted much if the image were in black and white, when there could be bright colors of a blue sky, green water, white sand, green palm trees, yellow bucket, red shovel, orange swimwear, a multi colored umbrella, etc... you get the point.
Conversely, sober colors can be used to portray a more somber mood. Like brown and dark green hues could be used in a more serious portrait of older people in a more serious downcast or melancholy mood. Black and white or desaturated washed out colors can have the same or an even more powerful effect.
There are many many more examples that could be stated here but will not be. The point is, that if you can manipulate light or other factors to help emphasize the point you want to convey in a portrait, the image will most likely convey a strong emotional statement. Use of all tools at your disposal are good and should be done often to create portraits that speak "1000 words". A snapshot doesn't speak a thousand words. Emotional, creatively artistic, technically excellent portraits, speak a thousand words.
So I will leave you with this. Master your craft. Master the technicals. Master your style of photography. Practice, Practice, Practice. Photograph every chance you get. Do it until it becomes habit. Develop what you like about what you're doing and always incorporate the technical side of photography to convey the emotional point you are trying to deliver. It was once said, and i am paraphrasing, because i can't remember exactly how it was said... "One dark picture is underexposed, 100 dark pictures are an experiment, and a thousand dark pictures are a style." The point being when we master the technicals, develop an artistic style, learn to manipulate light, we can then experiment till we create images that people will recognize before they see your signature on it. And the likeliness that someone will ever truly begin to recognize your images in a good way if there is no consistent emotional value to them, is likely not to happen. Thank you for taking time out to read this article.
If you found this article helpful, check out Pieces of the Picture It's a link to our brand spanking new blog! We are excited to announce that we are going to be bringing to the masses advice, tips, stories, interviews and much more about everything that revolves around family based portrait photography! The blog is a joint collaboration from my wife Holly and myself. Check it out!!!
Sincerely, Tommy Peterson, thpeterson photography
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