Portraits may be commissioned for different reasons, but the traditional photographic portrait remains remarkably similar in composition and approach to the traditional portrait in oils which, until the mid-to-late nineteenth century, was the standard method of capturing and preserving the face of a person who for some reason required it. Usually the subjects of portraits were wealthy, important or significant men and/or their wives and families.  The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a highpoint of oil-painted portraits. Successful artists made a fortune and moved in the best society. One of my favourites is John Singer Sargent and, like everyone else I have ever met, I have been  fascinated by his famous picture of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1893. Several books have been written about the artist and this portrait of one of the famous beauties of the era with whom he obviously was in love.

John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1893.

Could a contemporary photographer  produce a picture like this?  The closest that would arise might be Royal photographs taken for official purposes.

Photographic portraiture is today used for many different purposes but usually retains several elements of the traditional portrait, especially a clear and flattering image which somehow demonstrates the character and worthiness of the sitter.

Photographic portraits are different to snapshots taken at home or in casual circumstances. They may be taken indoors, with artificial light, or outdoors usually with flash or reflectors. Unwanted shadows and angles must be avoided, especially where they result in things like darkness under the eyes, hanging jowls, spreading features or other unattractive views of the subject.

With Photoshop of course it is possible to remedy a lot of these problems, but the technical elements of the portrait should avoid them in the first place.

Interior studio portraits require a lot of set-up and equipment. They are the opposite of a casual or spontaneous image but they are expected to have some element of informality. I found the studio portrait exercise very frustrating. Using such a large camera and having to be constantly aware of lighting, focus, exposure while trying to make sure the subject was at ease was difficult. Apart from the formal photographs, I also took a series of rapid images with the NEX-N5 to try and capture the subject when he/she was focussed on what others were doing with the larger camera. Here are a couple, cropped and adjusted for lighting.


Robert has such an expressive and lively face. He glanced over in my direction while others were shooting him from directly in front. I cropped the image, keeping in the contrasting shadow effects with the dark on the right and bright behind the left shoulder. It was almost as if he was projecting a kind of aura from his back. His camera-straps and chain on his glasses added a lot to the texture of the picture.

Elaine is such a bright and sparkling personality but there is a deep sense of sincerity and thoughtfulness in her face. By keeping the dark shadows – which could have been minimized in post-production – the serious side of her was brought out. I especially like the lighting here as it is reminiscent of sixteenth century styles, although the very bright background changes the result. I wonder how these two portraits might have looked if the background had been a very dark colour, or even something like black velvet?



Portraits outside are difficult because of the quality of light and shadows.  Also the colour and texture of skin can change a lot under natural lighting. Studio lighting tends to be more forgiving. People tend to look older and more tired outside especially in the Australian sunlight. Still, there can also be an agreeable quality of informality and connection with the natural environment. An example, without flash fill-in:


The tendency of the eyes to disappear into shadow, and the highlight of the lines under the eyes and around the face, could of course be remedied by further Photoshop attention. However this would detract from the naturalness of this picture which captures the warm smile and quiet nature of the subject. It was also great that she was wearing those colours, the gentle dark grey and brown melding nicely with the darker colour of the tree bark behind. A bit more light on the left side of the face would have given a bit more contrast.