Composing Portraits

My personal favorite portraits often of a specific character which I usually call the "environmental portrait". An environmental portrait is one in which the subject occupies a context which is meaningful. It is also one, of course, where the context is easy to determine, which means that the photographer used either a wide anlge lens or a far distance, and a small aperture for deep depth of field in order to include it.

Another interesting fact about portraits is that often what distinguishes great portraits from others is that the subject is relaxed and seems to be acting like themselves. Consider any of Anne_Leibowitz's portraits of celebrities. One of the tricks of getting a subject relaxed is to have hold an object or have them doing something; this makes them less self-conscious.

Another very important part of portraiture is to understand that the lighting and its corresponding mood will have a huge impact on the "feel" of the image, and thereby effect the feelings accociated with the person portrayed. For us to understand lighting, we'll be experimenting with shooting the same portrait with various types and directions of lighting.

Front lighting: This is light that strikes the subject from the front. The most extreme front lighting is on-camera flash or spot lights, both of which create a very flat contrasty light source.

Side lighting: Side lighting is light that strikes the subject from the side. This can have dramatic impact on the apparent texture of the person's face or clothes, and comes in two varieties: direct and indirect.

  • Direct side lighting is created from direct sunlight or strong artificial light. It creates dark contrasty shadows and can often be dramatic and expressive, albiet hard to meter.
  • Indirect side lighting is a softer more diffused light quality that gives a softer, more gentle mood to the portrait. Often portrait painters from hundreds of years ago would have studios especially designed with large windows that faced North. Facing north, they generally opened to the part of the sky opposite the sun. This large sky as the light source, combined with large windows as the light source made for very soft flattering light quality.


Back lighting: Back lighting is when light strkes the subject from behind. This light quality (as we've discussed before) is often problematic for your camera to understand and can also result in lens flares, less contrast and color saturation, fuzziness, etc. Sometimes, however (especially combined with reflected front light or fill flash), this lighting can create beautifully soft light on the face, and bright halo-like lighting on the head or hair. Use fill flash with backlighting for this part of the project

For the first part of this project, I'd like you to shoot an image that displays each of these types of lighting...make sure your exposure is correct and make the portrait look as nice as possible. Choose 4 different people for this part.

For the final part of the project, I'd like you to shoot one portrait that uses side window lighting (indirect light), or side indirect sky light for a soft light quality that will be as apealing as possible and allow the viewer to study the image. The portrait should be an envoronmental portrait thereby including a context that is meaningful for the person. The background should be in focus (so use a small aperture) and a tripod may be necessary. The person should be holding or somehow presenting their "favorite thing". It is not required that they look at the camera, but it is required that we can see their face clearly.