What Makes A Great Portrait?

by William Lulow

On my home page, I indicate that light is probably the single most important element to consider when doing portraits. But, once you’ve decided on the kind of lighting you want to use, and you’ve got all your exposures and light placement down right where you want them,  the next most important thing is to find a combination of expression and attitude that says what you want to say about someone you are photographing.

Today, I’m going to take you behind the scenes a bit,  in this process!

I am always called on to make portraits of individuals that can “sell” them! By this I mean, that I want a viewer to look at one of my portraits and think “I’d like to meet that person,” or listen to what she has to say. So, my technique includes making many images while I engage my subjects in conversation, mostly trying to find out what will animate them and bring out their personalities a bit. The shoots average around one hundred poses. Some are very similar, but there is always one that captures that elusive moment when the subject has become relaxed and begins to have an emotional attachment to the camera. Such was the case recently with one of my Linked In connections who needed to update her portrait. 

One of the things I’m fond of doing during the shoot is NOT to look in the camera all the time. I set my camera on a tripod and when everything else is all set up, there is really no reason I need to be looking in the viewfinder. Perhaps this is a throwback to the days when I shot many portraits with a view camera and film and thus was not able to be looking in the viewfinder when the photograph was made. So, I position my face as close to the lens as I can and sometimes I ask my subjects to play to the lens. They can still see my face so that there is nothing blocking them from seeing me. The camera should not really be in the way of the photographer relating to his subject.

The other thing I’m always looking for when I do portraits, is the expression in my subjects’ eyes. The eyes are the most important element of the face when it comes to portraits. First of all, there are usually the white parts of the eye and then there is the color of the eyes themselves. Second, when the subject is truly involved in the shoot and is reacting to conversation, there is a certain gleam present in the eyes that creates that intangible feeling of connection for which I’m always on the lookout!

Here are some samples from this recent shoot:

Note that all of these images were taken at the same time, perhaps just seconds apart. They have also been chosen by the subject and there has been some basic retouching done on all of them. To me, they are all pretty good and they show the subject off with a high degree of clarity. The lighting was just what I wanted. So, what makes the difference? Obviously, the larger one (which is a blowup of the last one above it), is better than the rest. But what makes it so?

Well, I’m looking for several things: the angle of the head, the shape of the mouth and the intensity of the expression. Remember, I want people to look at these images and think “I would love to meet this person.” So, left to right on the top, the first portrait is good, but there isn’t much happening in the eyes. In the second one, the angle of the head may be just a bit stilted. The third is much more direct. The head is straight up and there is a glimmer of something in the eyes, but the last one has a “presence” about it. It’s friendly but also professional. The eyes have a definite gleam and it is a welcoming kind of portrait. This is the one that we both agreed would be the one she would use.

This is the process that I use most often when deciding which image, out of a hundred or so, to use. Sometimes it is very difficult to pick a best one. And, many of my clients have told me that the most difficulty they have is picking among a number of great images. That’s the result I always want to have.

Note: Thanks to Michele Magazine of Michele Magazine Search, LLC . Michele is an executive search professional in the New York City area.