by Dave Newman Published 01/02/2005
As photographic portraitists we must be aware of the wide variety of controlling factors present in the simple, classic or traditional, head and shoulder portrait process. There is no simple or universal set of cookiecutter guidelines that will apply to each and every portrait client who sits before your camera. Portraiture-for many thousands of professional photographers-is a business that not only requires patience, but the honing of a variety of technical skills, not the least of which is the ability to make and execute many rapid working decisions. We are in a constant state of evaluation and decision making. There is no simple or universal set of cookie-cutter guidelines that will apply to each and every client who sits before your camera. The simplest of tasks (a client's request for a traditional head and shoulder portrait, for example) can quickly become a horrendous challenge to our work-a-day world if we fail to perceive the intricacies involved. In professional photography, even the "simple" portraits are not easy if performed with savvy.
Ultimately, we must recognize the personal desires of our clients. So often these unspoken requests hinge upon the anticipation and expectation of flattery. Face the facts: people who want to look their best exercise great faith in our skills to help them achieve this. They are also very willing to pay for it. The strength of our skill in facial analysis and subject enhancement is often the barometer of our success in portraiture as our livelihood.
To refine this skill, we must first learn to analyze our subject just as a master jeweller would view a diamond in the rough: choose the finer facets to highlight and conceal the less desirable imperfections. My brief statement here will attempt only to draw attention to those areas in which expertise may best be honed. Most of what directs our analysis and photographic decisions can be contained in the concept of facial physiognomy.
Physiognomy speaks of the human face and all that it entails. Definitions of Physiognomy encompass the perceived appearance of the face, the design of the face, the characteristics of the expression, and physical structure of the face itself. Some studies have concluded that certain measurements of distance of eyes to nose and to month to chin etc., can indicate true pleasurable, measurable beauty.
While others derive beauty from a subject's skin texture, hair design, eye size and flesh tone. Still others purport that the expression of the face is the most important aspect in conveying a flattering image. As we study faces by their expression and structure and physical characteristics, we ponder the very controls that we make use of in our work of enhancing our subject. We begin each session as if presented with a flat, clean canvas. The lighting we use, the angle of the face we choose, and the length of the lens all add up to not only the resultant portrait, but also to a naked statement of our skills as a portraitist.
The majority of my clients are looking for a photographic rendition of themselves which is neither an over-glamorization or a character study, but simply a traditional and unaffected presentation. Samples on the walls of a studio's showroom may certainly present many exciting and different styles of portraiture, but, alas for the customer, none of these "looks" seems to suit the norm that most people want. So often we offer our clients ice cream "with all the toppings" when we find only too late that most are really happier with plain, old vanilla. The questions now stands before us as to just what avenues of our expertise must we employ to create a meaningful and satisfying headand- shoulder portrait of our sitter which is based upon the deceptively simple wish of simplicity and (at the same time) enhancement or flattery. It is not enough just to aim and shoot with correct exposure.
To assist in this client enhancement process, more than a few factors come into play. We should always be aware of the many camera room techniques and controls at our fingertips even while we are deciding upon those few which can have the greatest affect. Personally, I lean heavily on the established fact that the better portraitists rely mainly on just three areas of camera room control: (1) lens choice, (2) posing and (3) lighting.
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