Portraits – Aaarrrgghh!!!

Snippet – and warning – Be prepared for a no hold barred article here, then comment below with your thoughts. It might seem I’m labouring the point but there really needs to be a huge mindset shift here.

If ever there was a genre that was the most misunderstood and badly done, this is it.

It’s simply a matter of education and experience, but so many pros get it wrong too, so here’s something to consider afresh.

What’s it all about?  The word Portrait means “a likeness of a person, describe graphically, pictorial description, portrayal, highlighting the unique characteristic of a subject.”

Different types of “portraits” are: (and not to get mixed up)

  1. Formal portrait for business profile
  2. Model portfolios to present to agents
  3. Fashion and Product modelling for advertising, where the product not the model is the main point.
  4. Character portrayals including “environmental” portraits for lifestyle categories and personal work to highlight the person.

What do we get instead whether it’s for formal, fashion or real people? All the same with an unnatural pose and expression of a pretend “model”, with the off in the distance look, or the serious stare into the camera look, or the aloof trying to look something they’re not look, or the mouth open catching flies look.

No images here so I don’t offend anyone. But scroll through a photo group and observe the thousands of same looks that are indistinguishable from each other. And they don’t have fashion or product hanging off them – so they’re personal portrayals????

That look used to be popular decades ago with models on a catwalk (not dumb) because they were supposed to be anonymous so the clothing takes prominence. Same with modelling products. Fashion and product models are/were called “coat hangers” in the industry, no disrespect intended, but it serves as a reminder that it’s all about the product and the model shouldn’t get in the way of that. But these days, a friendly expression is taking over because some bright spark finally realised viewers are attracted to friendly expressions. Viewers will react subconsciously with more favour because they can associate with the overall package. Duh! Would you buy a watch from a dude who pouts at you in a superior, rich kid look that says to respect and admire his haughtiness? The days of class/superior/looking up to someone to be like them is long gone I’m afraid. The bait is now to belong, “you can easily enjoy/look good by buying this”.

Posing a normal person for a personal portrait, to look like a model but not modelling anything, does nothing for them personally. In fact it makes them look pretty dumb because there’s no product to look at. Compare thousands of such “model” poses on the web in photo groups and you’ll soon see that they all look like the same person. Go on, scroll through and observe that same staring, haughty expression. Can you tell the people apart?

Do you really think shooting them this way brings out their best side?

Then the other side of things is rough male shots with scraggly beards and wrinkles that are over detailed, over sharpened, every part is in focus and full of technical over-worked processing that just says, “I know plenty of buttons and sliders to push, so I will.” That’s not natural or skilful either.

Character, personality, engagement, uniqueness – that’s what’s important and what you should highlight.

I came across an advert for a pro photographer offering courses for portrait photography, and it had a dozen sullen, same posed ladies’ faces staring out of the page in that haughty mannequin stunned look with “that” lighting.  But in the corner was his face smiling broadly and naturally posed, with natural looking lighting and a pose that featured his character through expression. Duh!

Ok, so what are the options?

1.  Portraits for a business profile used to be serious and “business-like” but no more. Those days are gone. Friendly, easy to get along with, team player, customer related looks are more appealing and switches on the feel good neuron in the brain. Bring out their essence, make them unique.

2.  For a model portfolio, take several poses in positions that focus of the accessories. Only when the products relate to the face should the face/product be emphasised. And even then, a human look is more affecting than sullen, blank look. The brain switches off and in fact negatively reacts to egotistical or sullen or blank looks because it’s forever on guard against unfriendlies, and forever searching for friendlies in their societal subconscious. If it’s relevant, accentuate their long legs, or sharp features, or huge eyes, or ……… Make them unique. That’s what agents are looking for.

3.  If you are taking a fashion or product shot, use appropriate lighting and surrounds, have the person pose naturally how a normal (targeted) prospective customer would see themselves, and emphasise the product. Don’t have any distractions in the scene.

by Robert Krenker 

4.  For character portrayals, take time to get to know the person, look at their face and body traits for their essence and uniqueness. What surrounds best typify them or where are they most comfortable? Set them up with lighting to suit (natural looking is best) and shoot a natural expression (by talking about their favorite thing) and watch the magic happen. Are they laid back? Jokesters? Playful? Family oriented and loving? Who are they really – show the real THEM for goodness sake. Then viewers will see and feel the real deal. And every photo of every person will be unique. The brain will associate with that person and the impact will remain. Job done. You will get thousands of characters then, not one look for thousands of people.

by Josef Gaggl

“Back in the old days” I hated, so didn’t do, personal and family portraits because the expectation and style then was that stiffly posed, formal look with the 1, 2, 3 lighting setup. (hasn’t changed for most) That came from the days of having to sit still for minutes while the film was exposed. We’ve moved on folks. We have fast shutter speeds now, people can move, be spontaneous, be themselves, be human.

by Malcolm Smith

But what’s happened since is that I’ve discovered the joy of seeing people who have entirely different features and characters, and the photos can all be different! No more same trees, leaves, hills, sunsets (aaarggh) buildings etc. I can get a unique photo with every person I look at. So now my “thing” is real people, and have done very popular exhibitions (and have more coming) with unique and interesting faces looking out and engaging with the viewers. What a turnaround hey?

Another thing to think about to help you is to title these appropriately in your mind: Laid back Peter, happy go lucky Jane, Loving mother, Tough sportsman (always use adjectival/descriptive titles) if you’re displaying/posting them, title them and explain the intended purpose – Gucci dress for Myer catalogue. If they’re practice shots, say so and if you’re brave enough to present them there as a perfect example or to show off, fine, but be wary of unknowledgeable opinions of likes etc. Or silent ridicule of “so what”.  An “amateur” copying the pose thinking it’s a modelling shot will be ignored by those who know better and unfortunately not be pointed in the right direction.

So take “portraits” as appropriate for the right reason and in the right way highlighting the thing or the person. For real people, let’s see real character and personality, who smile or show other emotions that befit their character – cheeky, tough, sultry, loving, studious and so on.

Think about it and comment below.