What Makes A Great Portrait?
by William Lulow
First, all great photographs have several things in common.
- Tends to hold the viewer’s attention by good composition
- Exposure is optimal
- Subject matter is interesting
- Lighting is arresting but doesn’t call undue attention to itself
- Says something about the photographer
A great portrait usually says more about the artist than the subject. Of course, the subject is portrayed in the manner the photographer wants, but that’s exactly what creates the “greatness.” Great portraits are about showing the subject the way the photographer desires. The pose, lighting, exposure and even the way the image is shown, all play a part in the viewer’s perception of the subject. Every step is important to the final outcome.
Commercial portraits (different from “artistic” portraits) usually have to be approved by the client. The photographer has to be able to show the subject in his or her “best light.” I’ve always said that this process begins with an understanding of human beings in general. People always see themselves differently than others see them. That’s why the commercial portrait photographer needs to find out what kind of image the subject wants. This is done by asking a lot of questions or, in the case of someone more famous, doing your homework. I have always seen discussion as a tool for the portrait photographer. Even if you have to photograph someone who is well-known, I have found that having information about what the person likes to do, hobbies or other interests is invaluable in eliciting that special expression or attitude that will make a great portrait. Even if you have all your lights set up correctly and your exposure is correct, if there is no special expression or the photograph doesn’t stand out in some way, it won’t be a great portrait.
So, a great portrait for a commercial portraitist is one that the subject truly likes and a great portrait for an artist is one that he/she truly likes.
When I was photographing New York studio musicians for a New York Magazine article, I decided that I wanted to capture each with their instrument of choice. I felt that it would say something about who these people were.
Here is an example using the great jazz bassist, Ron Carter: