A face devoid of love or grace,
A hateful, hard, successful face,
A face with which a stone
Would feel as thoroughly at ease
As were they old acquaintances,--
First time together thrown.
-- "A Portrait" by Emily Dickinson
Below are two photos by world-famous portrait photographer: Elsa Dorfman. Elsa has
the same kind of studio, background, lights, and equipment as a
lot of folks with more technical skill. Yet those folks aren't portrait
photographers and Elsa is. What's the difference?
Elsa cares about people. She is genuinely curious about people she has
never met and can connect with them in just a few minutes. After a
one-hour session, she knows more about her average subject's life than I
do about my sister's.
Elsa uses a 20x24" Polaroid camera. Film costs about $50/exposure, so
she limits herself to two exposures per subject. Yet her photo of me
and Alex (below right) is one of the only pictures of myself that I like.
Our advice to digital photographers is to fill the flash card with at
least 50 images in hopes of yielding one that captures the essence of
a subject's expression.
Elsa's artistic success implies that the most important thing about
portrait photography is an interest in your subject. If you are so
busy working that you can't care about strangers, don't take their
photos! Or at rate, don't expect those photos to be good. Some of my
better portraits were taken on a trip to Alaska
and back because I had 3.5 months in which to be
alone and learn to appreciate the value of a stranger's company and
If you don't have or can't create a photo studio, concentrate on
environmental portraiture. Show the subject and also his
surroundings. These tend to work best if you can enlarge the final
image to at least 11x14 inches. In any smaller photo, the subject's
face is simply too small. Taking photos that will enlarge well is a
whole art by itself. Your allies in this endeavor will be a low ISO
setting, prime (rather than zoom) lenses, a tripod, and at least a
There are two elements to a photo studio for portrait photography.
One is a controlled background. You want to focus attention on your
subject and avoid distracting elements in the frame. Probably the
best portraits aren't taken against a gray seamless paper roll. On
the other hand, you are unlikely to screw up and leave something
distracting in the frame if you confine yourself to using seamless
paper or other monochromatic backgrounds. You don't have to build a
special room to have a controlled background. There are all kinds of
clever portable backdrops and backdrop supports that you can buy or
build. If you absolutely cannot control the background, the standard
way to cheat is to use a long fast lens, e.g., 300/2.8. Fast
telephoto lenses have very little depth of field. Your subject's eyes
and nose will be sharp. Everything else that might have been
distracting will be blurred into blobs of color.
The second element of a portrait studio is controlled lighting.
With lights on stands or hanging from the ceiling, you get to pick the
angle at which light will strike your subject. With umbrellas and
other diffusion equipment, you get to pick the harshness of the
shadows on your subject (see out studio
photography primer). There are some pretty reasonable portable
flash kits consisting of a couple of lights, light stands, and
umbrellas. These cost $500-1000 and take 20 minutes or so to set up
on location. If you don't have the money, time, or muscles to bring a
light package to a project, the standard way to cheat is to park your
subject next to a large window and put a white reflecting card on the
other side. Don't forget the
tripod, because you'll probably be forced to use slow shutter
Stealing a Location
What if you don't have a big open space with diffuse light and a
neutral background? Steal one. If you live in the United States, a
vast open space with light pouring in from expensive skylights is as
close as your nearest art museum or university. With a 200mm lens set
to f/2.8, the background will be thrown out of focus. Here are some
examples from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and a couple of lobbies
at MIT, taken on a cold February day in Boston. Canon EOS-5D,
70-200/2.8 IS lens, handheld without flash.
The most flattering light for most portraits is soft and off-camera. A
large north-facing window works, as does the electronic equivalent, the
softbox (light bank). The Elsa Dorfman Polaroid photo at the top right was taken with
two large light banks, one on either side of the camera. Note that
there are essentially no shadows.
If your subject is outdoors, an overcast day is best. If the day is
sunny, make sure to use a reflector or electronic flash to fill in
shadows underneath the eyes.
At right: In a New York loft, light coming from a bank of windows
at left. Canon 70-200/2.8 lens on tripod. Possibly some fill-flash.
Fuji ISO 400 color negative film.
What if you're in Mexico, the sun is strong, the longest lens that you
have is a 50/1.4, and you meet someone who needs a portrait for her
Web page? The results will not be happy (left). On the other hand,
if you're photographing people for whom bright mountain sun is their
natural environment, the portrait can be acceptable (right; Olympus
E1, 14-54/3.5 zoom at f/7.1 and 37mm (74mm equiv.)).