The Substance Of Portraiture

(A follow-up to an earlier article called “The Psychology Of Portraiture.” )

by William Lulow

I usually spend a good deal of time on teaching lighting technique, but there is a whole lot more to doing good portrait photography than just knowing your lighting. In anything you attempt to do in your life, you have to ask yourself if it’s (1) something you really enjoy and (2) it’s something for which you have a natural inclination. If you really are nervous around people and especially nervous with photographic equipment, then photographing people is really not your thing. If, on the other hand, you are a detail oriented person, love to pour over an image setup and all it’s nuances before even taking a picture, then perhaps shooting still life images is for you. It’s important to realize fundamental personality traits about yourself before you attempt to make it in any of the creative arts.

With this said, I think most artists are driven to do what they do and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. And, they probably have an intuitive knowledge about who they are, to begin with. But, in this digital age, with an abundance of images out there taking up cyberspace, it takes a real effort and understanding of who we are as artists, to be able to stand out from the rest.

I guess this is why I tend to talk so much about technique. Because without the knowledge of the “science” of photography, one is just adding to the number of images out there without really producing anything of lasting value. If you don’t learn the basics, you can’t hope to elevate your efforts to the level of “art.” And, it’s the art that truly endures the test of time. Why else are we still impressed with the images from Avedon, Penn, Halsman, Karsh and Newman, to name just a few luminaries in this field.

When it comes to portrait photography, this is even more important because you are dealing with other people’s images. (Or, more correctly, images of other people). The portrait photographer hopes to represent other people as they might wish to be pictured. (If they want to make a living at it.) So, within that framework, there are rules that need to be followed at a minimum. The “substance of portraiture” therefore, is, literally, the total involvement of the photographer and the subject in the act of creating a portrait. This means from the lighting to the processing of the image.

As I indicated in the earlier article, making a quality portrait entails much more than taking a picture of someone. If you examine the works of the great portraitists, you always find something you can relate to.  From the Civil War images of Lincoln shot by Matthew Brady, to the images of modern day portrait photographers like Francesco Scavullo. What makes these images last is the substance of the individual subjects brought out by the photographer. These are the goals which we must all strive to attain.


Photograph by William Lulow