Photography – Portraiture – A Beginner’s Guide – Talking Pictures – Image and Genre an article by Goff James

Welcome followers and visitors to another update in my Beginner’s guide to photography.

Today I will be talking about portrait photography; defining portrait photography, looking at, and analysing one of my own portraits titled “LT”.

As I have mentioned in previous articles it is good to take an in depth look at ones own images as well as other photographers’ work.

IMGP0113aCrop Crop_edited-3Clon Ed FBO
Goff James, “LT”, 2017, (FL 18.00mm, Exp 1/100 sec, Is0 400

Photo “LT” Attribution, Goff James,

Copyright (c) 2021 Goff James – All Rights Reserved 

Portrait Photography – Definition

Portrait photography may be defined as;

  • a photograph of a person or group of people that captures the personality of the subject by using effective lighting, backdrops, and poses.[1]
  1. Francis, Kathleen (2007). The Focal Encyclopaedia of Photography. Focal Press. p. 341. ISBN 978-0240807409.
  • as being about the face and distinguishing facial features, while capturing the person’s attitude, identity, and personality. The photo may include a blurred background and the person’s body, but those factors are not emphasised in the image.
  • as possessing both a reflective and deductive process possessing four definitive approaches;

The Constructionist Approach is one in which an idea is constructed around the portrait and applied in studio and social photography. It is also used extensively in advertising and marketing when an idea has to be put across. A constructionist approach to portraiture is all about building emotion and atmosphere.

The Environmental Approach depicts the subject in their environment -work, leisure, social or family. They are depicted being involved in a particular activity related to themselves and reveals more about the subject and the subject’s identity. Such images can possess historical and social significance as primary sources of information.

The Candid Approach is where subjects are photographed without their knowledge going about their daily business. The danger with this approach is that it can be be invasive and exploitative. However candid photography is important as a historical source of information about people. Candid portraits are all about looseness and capturing the essence of a subject

The Creative Approach is where digital manipulation (and formerly darkroom manipulation) is brought to bear to produce images of people.

Reference Attribution

IMGP0113aCrop Crop_edited-3Clon Ed FBO
Goff James, “LT”, 2017, (FL 18.00mm, Exp 1/100 sec, Is0 400

This image of “LT” is a staged photograph set up in the studio. The lighting set up was muted high key. The lighting coming from the left was set pointing downwards

The image is a narrow angled close up studio shot. The image possesses a shallow depth of field ensuring that the sitters face is clearly defined whilst the background is blurred.

If one views the image from the bottom up I have attempted to use the rule of thirds to dictate how the image is laid out.

The darker shaded area of the upper torso travels a third of the way up the image, the middle third is taken up with the hands and the top third is composed of the sitter’s head.

The image is also made up of approximately fifty percent brightly lit whilst the other half is dark. The muted half tone of the background and dark areas of the torso isolates the sitter silhouette. This counterpoint of light intensifies the dynamics of the image.

Compositionally there is a diagonal line that runs from the top left hand corner to the bottom right hand corner passing along the sitters right cheek bone down through the fingers and along the line of his left arm that creates two right-angled triangles.

The right angle to the left predominately contains the deep dark areas of the image. Whilst, the upturned right angle at the top of the image contains the lit areas of the left arm, hands and the left hand side of the face.

The central vertical line which travels from the top of the image downwards along the bridge of the nose, lips, chin and hands simulates the horizontal theme of thirds of the composition by dividing the frame vertically into thirds.

In this monochromatic image it was my intention to use the contrast of black and white to be the dominant factor within the composition. The dominance of the sitter’s eyes within the black and white setting accentuates the emotional intensity of the image.

The focal point of the image is the penetrating stare possessed in the sitter’s left eye. The pool  of shade which surrounds that eye isolates it from the remainder of the composition.

The highlighting on the bridge of the nose draws the viewer’s own eyes in that direction and  accentuates this area as the dominant focal point. The composition demonstrates a very good balance between the light and dark areas of the composition.

There is a scattering of dominant subjects across the whole image – that includes the sitter’s torso, his left arm, the hands and the face. All arranged around the two slightly offset equilateral triangles that are crated within the frame.

The first has its base resting along the bottom edge of the frame set between the sitter’s elbows and the sides of which rise and meet at the top of the hands.

The second hangs from the top frame and is pinpointed by the sides of the sitter’s temples and the point of the chin that creates an almost perfect X.

This configuration of placing the apex of the two triangles at the point of the chin creates an intersection that divides the sitter’s face symmetrically. One half in complete darkness the other half highlighted.

The vertical line created between the point of the chin and the point at the top of the bridge of the nose leads the viewer’s point of vision directly to the sitter’s eyes (though only one is visible) and in so doing accentuates the main focus of the image, the sitter’s left eye.

It is this feature, within the monochrome setting, that the viewer’s eyes are drawn to. There are no other distracting colours. It is the monochromatic nature of the composition that unifies the whole composition.

A pleasing counterpoint is created through only use of contrasting light and dark areas. The sitter emerges out of the darkness looking directly towards and confronts the viewer through making direct contact.

It is this provocative intimidating confrontation that directs the viewer’s own eyes towards the sitter’s lone visible eye. In so doing this ignites within the viewer a reasoned questioning of his or her own emotional state, fears and identity.

The whole image create a Freudian context within the composition which creates an intense emotional tension.

A strong sense of rhythm and movement is created through the different geometrical constructs within the composition.

The fluidity the flow of the many directional lines created within the composition by the arms, fingers, face, chin, curve of the shoulders and top of the nose which lead the viewer’s eyes directly to the main focal point – the sitter’s left eye.

More photography by Goff James

I trust that you find some of these ideas useful within the context of your own photography. Don’t be afraid to experiment and allow different ideas to develop as you go along.

Remember what I referred to in previous articles about taking photos and creating photograms; the same applies to considering your own photos, other photographers’ work as well as applying different artist’s ideas too.

Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Experiment! Experiment! Experiment!

Remember there are no right or wrong answers or ways of doing it.

Your photographs are your world.

You can do what you like. 

Don’t worry about the theory and trying to remember everything about how to take or consider how to look at or stage a photograph.

Don’t worry about what you might think is right or wrong in talking about or taking photographs.

 Make mistakes. Laugh. Have funJust enjoy the process.

Happy Photography. 

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