How To Make Great Portraits

by William Lulow

Great portraits can stand both the test of time and constant scrutiny. They evoke feelings in the viewer. They take a look at a person and psychologically take the viewer on a journey trying to find out about the subject. Lighting is certainly a key factor in aiding this journey. It draws the viewer in and reveals as much about the photographer as the subject. Mysterious lighting can sometimes be quite revelatory. Flat lighting is revealing in another way.

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All the great portrait photographers put a great deal of thought into the kinds of images they made. More often than not, a photographer develops a kind of style into which he/she places the subject and it then becomes more of a statement about the photographer than the subject. Because, photographers have choices about lighting, pose, background, and overall “look” to an image, it’s up to them, therefore, to try to elicit something special in expression from their subjects. They must take into account as many things as possible about their subjects and try to “say” something about them; not just place them in an environment and snap away.

Arnold Newman developed what he called “Environmental Portraiture.” He placed his famous subjects within places that were revelatory of their various fields of work. Richard Avedon, took all of his subjects out of their environments and placed them in front of plain, white backgrounds. Irving Penn, strove to capture a certain “look” from his subjects within his studio. Philippe Halsman, always tried to bring out the “character” in his subjects, no matter what the background.

These are just a few examples, but each photographer should try to develop his or her own style and stick with it. Try to come up with a “look” for your portraits and duplicate it over many portrait sessions. This will enable you to develop a style over time. It is also important to study carefully, the work of the great masters of portraiture. There are many more than the ones I’ve named. See how they developed their styles. Study their lightings, backgrounds, compositions and poses so that you can begin to notice how important all these elements are to developing your own style.