Dylan Goldby is an Australian photographer and photography teacher based in South Korea. Specialising in family, editorial, wedding and corporate event photography, Dylan is also a passionate documentary, street and travel photographer.
The subject of portraiture is extremely broad and can take an entire career in photography to truly begin to understand. Here we’ll be looking at a few things you can do to improve your portraiture. Rather than simple tips and tricks that might only work for one specific situation, we’ll look at things more broadly and discuss an approach to portrait photography. Although we’ll be diving into a few genres of portrait photography to illustrate the points at hand, these ideas do not apply specifically to family photography, engagement photography, studio photography, or any other genre of portraiture. Each of these can be applied to every type of portrait you make. Before we jump into those, though, let’s quickly define what a portrait is for our purposes today.
Image Credit: Dylan Goldby
What is a Portrait?
At its simplest, portraiture is the likeness of a person represented in a photograph. For the sake of brevity here, let’s define portraiture in a more narrow way so we can focus on the steps to making better photographs of people. Let’s assume that a portrait requires the subject to be a knowing collaborator in the process and not an incidental part of the resulting photograph. Let’s also assume that there’s a larger story to be told with our portraits so we can avoid being included in a mashup of identical posts on social media.
What are the Important Elements of Portraiture?
As with all photographs, the main photographic components of a portrait are light, composition, and moment. By focusing on each of these in our portrait photography, we’ll stand a better chance of making great images. In addition, since we’re working with people in portrait photography, the human element is also extremely important. All the technique in the world won’t fix an uninspired expression. For the rest of our time here, we’ll dig deeper into these four elements and how we can work on them.
Let’s start with the basic building block of all photography: light. Light is just as important in a portrait as it is in any other type of photography, if not more important. Light can be used to create mood or further the story you’re trying to tell. Consider a close-up of a person short-lit, staring off into the distance and surrounded by darkness. Light plays the role here of creating mystery. Now consider the late afternoon sun illuminating a smiling couple as they walk along a beach. Light, in this case, helps to create a positive and bright feeling to the image.
"In photography, there is no such thing as good light or bad light.
There is only appropriate light."
In photography, there is no such thing as good light or bad light. There is only appropriate light. A hard beam of green light may work well for a fashion editorial but less well for a newborn baby portrait. This is an extreme example, but it demonstrates the need to be deliberate with our choice of light for our portraits. We need to be sure to always consider what type of light will work best for the image we’re trying to create. When thinking about light, we need think about its quality. This can be especially difficult in the beginning, but there are a few questions we can ask ourselves to help out. Where is it coming from? What colour is it? How does that affect my image? If we’re wanting to create warm, glowing family portraits, midday is not the time to do that in most parts of the world. Planning portrait sessions around the light you need for the emotions you’re trying to bring out, or breaking out the strobes and creating your own light, is a great way to ensure you’ll get the results you’re after.
Example: The Editorial Portrait
Editorial portrait photography is a genre in which we can usually slow down and be very intentional with our light. An editorial portrait is the kind that we see accompanying an article or interview in a magazine. At its core, an editorial portrait should be a flattering photograph of the subject that hints at the content of the article. It should carry the level of production or polish that the publication generally applies. Let’s break that down. The very first thing we want to do if we’re asked to make an editorial portrait, or even if we self-assign, is to take a look at the style the publication works in. Chances are they’ve hired us because of our own work, but it’s always good to take stock of their visual style and incorporate elements wherever possible. Do they usually use natural light? Are strobes used subtly or in a heavy-handed manner? How does their use of light usually feel? What can we bring to the table on top of this style? In the example below, a local magazine had asked me to make a portrait of their interviewee. We chose this background and composition based on the elements of the interview that were important (we’ll talk about composition and getting to know your subject below). From there, it was time to choose the light. The magazine prints on a soft matte paper and they prefer open shadows and a natural-feeling image as the stories are very down-to-earth and grassroots.
Image Credit: Dylan Goldby Shot with Fujifilm X-H1+Fujifilm XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR Lens | f/4, 1/180 sec, ISO 200
Unfortunately, our location was between two buildings on a cloudy day so the light wasn’t particularly flattering. It was lighting the subject from both sides and above, and picking up all the colours of the different surfaces around before getting to him, while still giving him ‘panda eyes’. The result was a ‘dirty’-looking light that didn’t suit this positive story or clean aesthetic at all. I imagined what this might look like if the building behind me wasn’t there. The open sky lighting him would be full and slightly contrasty. So to simulate this, I set up a large (152cm) umbrella with a flash nside and added a subtle pop of light to his face. The resulting image fit the brief and had my stamp on it. As you can see, the light here is clean and his skin tone looks good. The extra pop of flash also draws you directly to his face. In this second example, almost the exact opposite was required. The subject here was a lawyer for Samsung and the client wanted something that looked “high tech” and related to IP law for the magazine. Samsung gave us 30 minutes in their display centre for this shoot, so we could only use what was there.
The interior light of the building was the usual overhead fluorescent bulbs and wouldn’t give the subject the pop and contrast that the magazine wanted for their story. So, again, I put a flash inside a small softbox and illuminated the subject. This time, I didn’t need to be subtle. You can definitely see the result of using a flash here.
Due to its simple composition and direct message, this image ended up being used as the cover for the magazine. Whenever you get an editorial assignment, it’s a good idea to make at least one image like this. I hadn’t been asked to photograph the cover for this issue, but I made an image that I knew could work (simple, direct, lots of space for text) to show my editor that I could photograph their cover in the future if needed. This time I got lucky!
Composition is a large part of how we, as photographers, give our viewers information. Consider again the couple on the beach from the beginning of our discussion about light. A wide composition including white sand, palm trees, and parasols gives us a sense of place and makes the photograph more about a couple in a situation. However, if we then switch to our trusty 70-200mm (equivalent) and get a close-up of the couple with a blurry background, the photograph becomes more about the couple than it does the situation they’re in.
In order to begin composing a portrait, we need to think about our intention (what we want the image to say to our viewers) and the output (how the image will be shown to our viewers). Our intention defines what we do or do not include in the composition. As we discussed with the simple example above, this can greatly affect the amount of information that the viewer receives. Output also informs how we compose. A portrait on Instagram, for example, needs to be much closer and simpler than a double-page spread in a magazine. It will be viewed smaller and by someone who is likely passing time rather than setting out to spend time with photographs.
As with any composition, we begin by considering what needs to be in the image and what does not. This will not only help us to tell the story we’re looking to tell, but help us to reduce the clutter of the real world and simplify our composition down to something powerful.
Example: Environmental Portrait Photography
A style of portraiture in which composition is extremely important is environmental portraiture. This type of image is used to give the viewer a window into someone’s world by showing a person in the place they spend much of their time doing something they often do. It is about the place or action just as much as it is about the person. Both elements of this style of portraiture contribute to an overall story. Thus, choosing what to keep in your frame and what to remove with an environmental portrait should be considered first and foremost when framing your image.
Quite often, environmental portraits are made with shorter focal lengths, so don’t be afraid to get out that 24mm or 35mm lens. A wide angle lens will allow us to get close to the subject. This has a couple of benefits. The first is that it allows the subject to remain large in the composition while still including a lot of background and foreground to further the story. Wide-angle lenses also tend to feel quite inclusive. The photographer’s necessary proximity to the subject transfers quite well into the final image and the viewer will likely feel that they are right there with the subject. Many environmental portraits also make use of smaller apertures to have more legible detail in the foreground and background, as well.
In this portrait of an Apatani shaman, composition was very important in telling the story I wanted to tell. The lens I used here was the Fujifilm GF 23mm f/4 (approximately an 18mm equivalent). This is not typically what a portrait photography guide will recommend you use as a portrait lens and would certainly not be my first choice when trying to flatter a bride on her wedding day. But, it works for the type of image I was going for here. This wide angle of view meant that a lot would be in the composition and whatever was close to the camera would be given a lot of weight.
I chose to get down low and look up at my subject to give him a sense of dominance, but also to ensure I could place his head in a clear area of the frame. Getting in very close allowed me to give more weight to my subject while still including the important elements of his life, such as the sacrificed skulls on the wall. Furthermore, it allowed me to compose out the elements I didn’t want, such as his calendar and television. If I’d left those in the composition and moved back away from him, this image would tell a very different story.
The third element of portraiture is arguably the most important one. The slice of time we choose to show tells our viewer a lot about us and a lot about the subject. The peak of a smile, an introspective look into the distance, fingers fidgeting in the lap. All of these moments tell us something about our time with the subject. People are complex and made up of millions of moments. The one we choose to photograph and show is the only story we’ll give to our viewer.
Example: Family Portrait Photography
Let’s consider a type of photography that is all about moments – family photography. The definition of a family portrait has changed dramatically over the years. Traditionally, it may have been focused heavily on getting every member of the family in the frame looking at the camera together (this was the moment – us, now). Their heads would be placed in patterns of imaginary triangles to give a pleasing pattern for the viewer to follow as they explore the image. It would likely be photographed in extremely soft studio light or open shade to ensure everyone was flattered and that the world “smile” would likely have been uttered just prior to releasing the shutter. While this sort of image certainly has a place, a more modern take would be the lifestyle family portrait.
Lifestyle Portrait Photography
A lifestyle family portrait focuses less on the moment of the family simply being together and more on the moments they experience while they are together. It is the photographer’s job to influence the moments that will be presented and then be ready to capture them in the best light. This is potentially far more difficult than a simple portrait of everyone looking into the camera, but also potentially far more meaningful for the family themselves. What parent doesn’t want to hear their child screaming with joy and have that moment immortalised to look back on for years to come?
Image Credit: Dylan Goldby Shot with Fujifilm X-H1 + Fujifilm XF 50-140mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR Lens | f/4, 1/550 sec, ISO 800
In this family portrait, I had given Mum and Dad some suggestions about the types of interactions I might like to see for this photograph, but not exactly what I wanted. It’s always important that moments are, dare I use a buzzword, authentic in photography. It’s very easy for viewers to spot contrived moments. So, I always like to involve my subjects in the creation of moments that are meaningful to them. I positioned them where I would need them for this image and encouraged them to play as much as was needed to draw out expressions and create a moment to fill my composition. We’ll discuss this more below. The choice of lens here also adds to the feeling that this is a caught moment of a family enjoying themselves. I mentioned above that wide-angle lenses help to give a feeling that the viewer is right there with your subjects. Telephoto lenses, such as this one (Fujifilm XF 50-140mm f/2.8 lens – 75-210mm equivalent), were more traditionally used in portraiture because they tend to flatter the face when working in close quarters. In this case, my distance from the subjects allows this to feel like a moment stolen from afar.
Image Credit: Dylan Goldby Shot with Nikon D800 + Nikon 85mm f/1.4D lens| f/4, 1/20 sec, ISO 100
The same thing is true of this image of a traditional musician in Korea. The moment here is the pose of his hands. Once I had everything technically ready to go, I asked him if he could give me any input on which moment of his playing would best visually represent what he does. He showed me exactly the moment that was the most elegant in his art and I worked towards capturing that in its best light.
As we can see, moments do not necessarily have to be the peak of an emotion. They could be the movement of a hand, the wisps of smoke from a cigar, or a moving light illuminating the subject in just the right way. Doing our best to inform ourselves of which moments work best in photographs is an important skill we can develop. However, we should also be open to the serendipity that could express our ideas in even better ways.
The Human Element
We talked above about the technical elements of portrait photography. Composition, light, and moments will bring the photograph together, but the subject needs to be part of it as well. Their ‘performance’ can make or break our photograph. If we don’t think of what we’re doing as photography, but simply as human interaction, the human element becomes much easier to incorporate into our photography. It is this one very simple thing we can do to improve our portraits and make them stand out from the masses of images that flood our eyes every day. We can be curious. Be curious about our subjects. About what they do. About why they do it. If we want our subjects to smile genuinely in our portraits, we need to know what makes them happy. If we want to create an environmental portrait that tells a story about the subject, we need to know what that story is. By involving the subject in our process of learning about them, we not only gain knowledge that we can use to inform our portrait, but we also gain their trust. With knowledge and trust, we can make our portraits much stronger and our work on the technical side can begin to sing.
Example: Involving the Subject
This portrait of a blacksmith was made at the end of a very long day for him. My fixer and I had showed up out of the blue as he hadn’t answered his phone in the morning. Initially, he had said that he was busy, but we’d be welcome to a cup of tea since we’d come all this way to see him. We gratefully accepted and watched him work at his anvil for a few minutes. He worked in a very repetitive way: one hard stroke, two lighter ones, one hard stroke, two lighter ones. As he took a break to collect his next set of tools, I quickly asked about the way he was hammering. His face lit up. Curiosity paid off. He showed me the handle of his hammer and how it had gradually shaped itself to his hand. Then slowly, he showed me what each precise hit he made was doing.
Curiosity here not only allowed me to photograph a man who was originally too tired from his day of work and wanting to go home, but also informed my portrait. How was I to know that his handle wasn’t custom-made, per se, but formed from years of hard work? From one simple question, I started a 30 minute long conversation about this man’s life and formed the basis of an idea for a meaningful portrait of him.
As we navigate the path to great portraits, keeping in mind these fundamental components can get us closer to making the portraits we dream of each and every time we head out to make photographs. If we treat people with respect, compose our images with intent, choose the right light, and wait for the moment, the only thing left is for the light trap in our hands to do its job. Don’t forget your memory card.
Want more tips for portrait photography? Ask one of our staff photographers in store, online or over the phone.