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It's often said that eyes are the windows to the soul. For portrait photographers, capturing the eyes is one of the most critical elements in creating an engaging image that feels alive. The subtlest shifts in a subject's eyes can convey a myriad of emotions and allow viewers to connect with the inner essence of who that person is.
When shooting portraits, pay close attention to your model's eyes. Are they relaxed and bright, or tense and guarded? Aim to put subjects at ease so their natural personality shines through. Seattle-based photographer Benjamin Von Wong finds that making jokes helps models relax and let down their guard. The resulting images show them naturally radiant, with eyes that seem to sparkle with inner joy.
Don't forget to ensure eyes are fully open and directed at the camera. Partially closed eyes may look sultry, but don't allow emotion to overtake visual impact. Coach your subject to lift their lower eyelid slightly to avoid a "sleepy" look. Catchlights in the subject's eyes also help bring them to life, so position reflectors and lights carefully.
The angle of light on the eyes matters too. Christa Meola, a portrait specialist in California, strives for a 45-degree lighting angle to avoid awkward shadows. She says, "I want to see a hint of the edge of the iris as well as the window of the eye." Side lighting accentuates facial contours, while diffused frontal lighting makes eyes the focal point.
When retouching images in post, Meola zooms in tight on the eyes. Careful dodging and burning brings out catchlights, while selective sharpening adds crispness. But avoid going overboard, as overly sharp eyes can seem unnatural. Meola says, "I want them to look like a human eye, not a vampire eye." Keep retouching subtle to maintain that elusive sense of a soul shining through.
Finding the right pose is essential for bringing out the best in your portrait subjects. An awkward or unflattering stance can overshadow even the most beautiful face. Posing goes beyond just placement of the body"it involves rapport, directing, and finesse.
Portrait photographer Lindsay Adler emphasizes the psychology of posing. She states, "Posing is about emotion, mood, and storytelling." Rather than placing a subject into a rigid, predefined pose, she interacts with them to discover their personality. Her goal is emotional authenticity, not conforming to expectations.
A connection with your subject enables more organic posing. Check in frequently and give encouraging feedback. Seattle photographer Alicia Love says, "I"m constantly communicating, praising, and inspiring to get outstanding expressions." She watches for signs of discomfort too. "I won't let posing sacrifice the essence of who they are."
Subtle direction can elicit authenticity. Instruct subjects to lift their chin slightly to elongate the neck. Turning the face slightly away from the camera can look more natural than head-on. Weight shifts create curves and angles that flatter different body types. Minor adjustments like moving a hand or tilting the shoulders can create more appealing lines.
Posing cues can also connect the subject"s inner self with the camera. Instruct them to think of a happy memory or imagine conversing with a loved one. Meola sometimes says, "Pretend you"re speaking with your most confident friend." This inner focus directed outward results in images alive with genuine feeling.
Technical factors affect posing choices too. Consider your lens, angle, and composition. Photographing from above can diminish and disconnect, while shooting from below lends power. A wider lens calls for bringing elements of the pose closer together, while telephoto framing allows more space.
Proper lighting is the essential catalyst that transforms a standard portrait into a transcendent work of art. Light establishes mood, guides the viewer"s eye, and imparts texture, shape and depth. Master painters obsess over light"s magical properties, and photographers must as well.
While studio lighting setups enable ultimate control, natural light offers its own mystique. Photographer Tamara Lackey, renowned for her natural light portraits, finds cloudy days ideal. The soft, even shade eliminates harsh shadows that can undermine facial features. Seek open shade, positioning subjects facing the light source. Turn the face just slightly for contouring rather than shadow-filled raccoon eyes.
Direct sun requires diffusion to maintain a flattering mood. Lackey suggests portable reflectors or translucent scrims. The softening maintains directional lighting"s sculpting effects without overpowering contrast. Careful reflector angles fill in facial shadows for a bright yet soft look.
Golden hour light just before sunset imbues an ethereal, romantic quality. The low angle casts a warm glow, putting emphasis on the eyes. Lackey says, "The light during golden hour is diffused since the sun is low on the horizon, making it soft and delicate." Adding a reflector brightens facial features touched by golden hues.
When shooting in open shade or overcast conditions, introducing artificial light sources adds definition. New York City headshot photographer Peter Hurley uses portable strobes outdoors, allowing him to lift shadows and create edgy light. The accent lighting sculpts dramatic contours, conveying a sense of chiaroscuro. Hurley says, "I want that little kicker pop of light."
In the studio, go beyond frontal lighting to impart a specific mood. John Jackson, known for his emotive musician portraits, positions strobes at 45-degree angles. The angular lighting creates a dynamic, energetic feeling. Jackson says, "The lighting helps tell the story of the musician's passion and intensity."
Rim lighting from behind imbues an air of mystery, focusing attention on a striking silhouette. Jackson also positions accent lights low to illuminate just the eyes, conveying a piercing yet intimate gaze. This careful lighting helps convey the inner essence of his subjects.
Subtle backlighting lends a romantic halo for bridal and boudoir images. Feather the light so it fades softly without overpowering hair details. Use grids or flags to contain the light to precisely frame the subject.
Choosing the right perspective when photographing a subject can make all the difference between a flattering, confident portrait and an unappealing, distorted image. Unlike painting, where the artist has unlimited freedom, photography relies intrinsically on the camera's viewpoint. Subtle shifts in angle, distance, and height relative to the subject can dramatically alter perception. Portrait photographers must carefully choose perspectives that bring out their subject's best attributes.
Renowned portraitist Peter Hurley emphasizes that choosing perspective starts with positional rapport. He says, "I make sure my height is slightly below the subject's eye level. This simple move slims the face since you're no longer seeing the subject from below." Standing too high exaggerates unflattering features like double chins and nostrils. Getting below eye level makes the subject look down on the viewer, conveying power and confidence.
Proximity to the subject also changes impact based on focal length. Photographer Lindsay Adler advises positioning far enough away to avoid wide angle lens distortion when using longer lenses. If standing too close, facial features like the nose or ears may undesirably dominate composition. She suggests, "Frame headshots at the equivalent of 70-100mm on a full frame camera. This lets you get close but avoids distortion."
Conveying a sense of engagement and energy requires an oblique perspective. Adler continues, "An energetic look comes from shooting slightly off-axis rather than directly center." Turning the body or head toward the main light source creates attractive triangular posing. The resulting angled lighting sculpts facial features in a slimming way.
A common amateur mistake involves centering the subject uncomfortably close to the camera. Adler cautions against this flat, static perspective lacking dimension. "Your viewer feels trapped when a subject stares dead-on filling the whole frame. Give breathing room and angle the body obliquely for visual flow."
Seeking flattering perspectives means understanding light's interaction with facial planes. Photographer Peter Hurley notes that overhead lighting flattens features, losing a sense of contour and shape. "The most unflattering light comes from directly above. You lose the curves and angles that model a subject's face." Instead, he positions sources at 45 degree angles. "The dimensionality makes the subject's structure pop pleasingly."
Master portraitists understand that capturing the smallest subtleties can make the difference between a flat, generic image and an intimate work of art that reveals the subject's inner essence. Focusing a discerning eye on the finer details enables creating imagery that conveys personality, emotion, and even hidden character traits in profound ways.
Renowned photographer Peter Hurley finds that something as simple as the position of the chin transforms perception dramatically. He coaches subjects, "Slightly lift your chin, open your jaw and relax your mouth." This small change elongates the neck in a graceful, confident way. Letting the chin drop, on the other hand, foreshortens the jawline and conveys diminished power and vitality.
Even minute shifts in hand and finger positioning impart meaning. Hurley notes that male subjects often unconsciously make a fist, conveying too much masculine energy. He instructs them to relax the hands, bending knuckles gently backwards into a more elegant C-curve. For women, he makes sure ring fingers don't press inward towards the palm, as this tension appears overly masculine. Opening the hand slightly suggests receptivity and grace.
The angle of the eyebrows also profoundly impacts expression. New York headshot photographer Peter Brown finds that coaching subjects to raise their eyebrows ever so slightly enables a more positive, optimistic look. Just a millimeter's lift to the brow conveys vibrancy. He reminds subjects, "No sad eyebrows!" A slight furrowing between the brows, however, can suggest thoughtful intensity when appropriate.
Eyes offer subtleties that bring portraits to life. Beyond avoiding red eye and getting catchlights, Brown zooms in when culling images to inspect eye details. He selects shots where upper and lower eyelids frame the iris pleasingly. Any glimpse of white sclera above the iris looks distracting and awkward. Aim for proportions where the visible iris balances beautifully between lids.
Even minute asymmetries in eye expression change the mood. Brown cautions, "Both eyes should convey similar emotion." A squinty smile where one eye closes more than the other appears off-putting rather than joyful. Matching expression in both eyes connects with the viewer.
Parted lips with a hint of teeth add vitality, but Brown cautions against large toothy grins which strain the face. He coaches, "Show just the tip of the upper teeth, like you're starting to smile." This subtle hint of emerging brightness puts the emphasis flatteringly on the eyes rather than exaggerated grin lines.
Masterful portraits capture more than surface appearances - they reveal inner character and emotion. Achieving this requires going beyond merely composing a flattering representation to truly connecting with and directing your subject in an authentic way. Learning to guide subjects to relaxed vulnerability is an art portrait photographers must develop.
Renowned celebrity photographer Mark Seliger emphasizes that portrait sessions are akin to a dance, requiring psychology and sensitivity. He states, "I'm always assessing how someone is responding. Are they stiff or nervous? Then I adjust my energy to make them more comfortable." Seliger focuses on establishing an interpersonal bond first before addressing technical considerations.
Creating comfort builds trust and enables personality to emerge. Seliger engages subjects in genuine conversation to learn what motivates them. He shares, "I'll ask, 'What are you passionate about?' Once they start talking about something meaningful, you see the real person come out." Natural animation and expression follow.
Portrait photographer Lindsay Adler suggests asking subjects to recall fond memories to ignite an authentic emotional response. She says, "Have them remember something wonderful. You want to elicit real feelings." Adler watches for telltale signs like a slight smile or watery eyes to capture emerging expressions at their peak.
Posing direction requires balance between explicit coaching and organic discovery. Peter Hurley instructs subjects explicitly at first to lift the chin and widen eyes. But he cautions against micro-managing every detail, which looks forced. He says, "I then back off and let their natural beauty emerge." Striking this balance results in authenticity.
Patience and reassurance are key when directing amateurs. Photographer Tamara Lackey encourages subjects through minor setbacks. She shares, "If someone blinks during an otherwise perfect shot, I'll say, 'That was beautiful! Let's do that again and keep your eyes wide'." Maintaining supportive enthusiasm brings out people's best.
Nonverbal cues are also powerful tools for photographers. Daniel Norton subtly coaches expression through demonstrative gestures. He explains, "To get a big genuine smile, I don't just ask for it. I show the subject exactly the smile I want by modeling it for them." Mirroring emotions creates authenticity.
Post-processing plays a pivotal role in transforming good portraits into great ones. While capturing a flattering, technically excellent image is foundational, thoughtful editing elevates work to an artistic level. Subtle enhancements draw the viewer's gaze, adjust color and light for emotional impact, and refine textures to amplify the subject's essence. Masterful editing blends organic imperfection with idealized enhancement to create moving fine art.
Los Angeles headshot photographer Peter Hurley recognizes that the camera cannot fully replicate the sophistication of human vision. He states, "A RAW file is just information. You sculpt that into an effective image through editing." Hurley performs meticulous retouching using both global adjustments and local brushing. He dials up contrast and saturation for dramatic styling, reflecting his signature "headshot punch." Eyes and teeth see careful sharpening to accentuate focal points.
Yousuf Karsh's iconic portrait of Winston Churchill reveals editing's profound power. The subtly darkened exposure frames Churchill's stoic expression dramatically. Dodging on the eyes and face guide attention amidst enveloping shadow. Vignetting around the edges maintains central focus. The original RAW file contained none of this artistry - Karsh's meticulous printing brought his vision to fruition.
Senior photo specialist Daniel Norton relies on editing to create dreamlike intimacy. Through meticulous skin smoothing, he eliminates temporary blemishes and spots that distract from the subject's core beauty. Precise iris enlargement adds impact to eyes as the emotive focal point. Soft vignetting draws the viewer's gaze inward. Norton explains, "Editing removes superficial flaws and enhances what I want the viewer to focus on."
While editing refines technical elements, adjustments to color and tone sculpt mood and feeling. Black and white conversion can impart nostalgia or gravitas. Warm, golden hues suggest romance and comfort. Cooler, desaturated shades convey distance and melancholy. Kate Woodman, known for her evocative editorial portraits, alters hues and saturation based on desired emotions. She states, "The right mood lighting is often opposite of what the camera initially captures."
Overediting can undermine authenticity, so a delicate touch is imperative. Chris Knight, a portrait artist in New York, uses editing judiciously to maintain natural skin texture. He cautions, "Heavy-handed smoothing makes people seem plastic and Clerkian. I want humanity to show through." To preserve genuine personality, Knight limits retouching to subtle tricks like whitening eyes and evening skin tone.
Portraiture goes beyond capturing surface appearances - at its highest level, it reveals the subject's hidden essence and tells their unique story. Master portrait artists aim not just to render attractive representations, but to connect viewers with the inner lives and experiences of those portrayed. Crafting imagery that conveys narrative and biographical context enables creating deeply engaging, empathetic art.
Renowned photographer Platon is celebrated for environmental portraits that situate subjects in settings reflective of their lives and work. His image of human rights leader Mohammed Al Baradei against a backdrop of Egyptian ruins roots the subject profoundly in time and place. The commanding yet thoughtful pose coupled with evocative background details expresses Al Baradei"s determined advocacy. Platon shares, "I want to show where someone is coming from, what drives them."
Subtly suggestive backgrounds and props add contextual depth. Photographer Lindsay Adler incorporates personal mementos into executive portraits to reference subjects' journeys and what motivates them. Details like marathon medals, family photos, and diplomas become storytelling touchpoints. Adler finds these personalized elements elicit authentic emotional responses from her subjects as well.
Even neutral backgrounds can impart metaphor when approached thoughtfully. Celebrity photographer Jerry Avenaim photographs actors and musicians against his signature black backdrop. However, precise lighting reveals varied textures and contours, almost resembling a live charcoal sketch. This nuanced darkness evokes mystery and allure, complimenting intensely dramatic portraits that echo Baroque chiaroscuro. The voids hint at unseen depths.
Thoughtful composition also enables narrative messaging. New York portrait artist Dorothy O'Connor Gurney layered symbolic meaning into her photograph of scientist Rosalind Franklin by posing her in double exposure alongside her research DNA imagery. The integrated scientific data visually manifests Franklin's empirical groundbreaking contributions. Gurney's pioneering composite photography lent deeper biographical resonance.
Some of history's most indelible portraits derived meaning from context of their times. Dorothea Lange's iconic "Migrant Mother" encapsulated human struggle and perseverance amidst the Great Depression. Capturing her worry lines and stoic resilience made hardship human, building empathy. Lange recounted, "I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother...She told me her age, that she was 32. She said they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children killed." Understanding this story was key to creating an image that connected society with the people's plight.
Alice Neel's 1970 painting "Gertrude Glass" conveys the subject's societal disconnect and unease through harsh lighting and abstracted facial features. Neel explained, "She posed for me mainly out of kindness...Gertrude Glass led a very secluded life. She slept most of the day. She had no friends except me." Neel's exaggerated, unflattering style exposes extreme isolation. The portrait's disturbing mood stems from understanding Glass's psychological discontent.