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Portraiture

According to Paul L. Anderson, The Fine Art of Photography (1919), “The fundamental purpose of portraiture is to furnish a complete and satisfactory likeness of the sitter – the true portrait, then, should present a complete and satisfactory representation of the contours and gradations of the face; it should be as fully descriptive as possible of the sitter’s character; and it should be a picture of such nature as to be artistically pleasing to one who is unacquainted with the original – the best portraitist is the one who combines in fullest measure the power of reading character, knowledge of the effects of light and shadow, and mastery of the techniques of his medium, and it necessarily follows that no one ever passes the need for study.”

Rohinton Mehta

Portraits need not be taken in photo studios only; they can be taken anywhere – outdoors or indoors. The idea is to have a pleasing representation of the subject (usually, but not necessarily) and bring out his/her characteristics. Lighting and pose take on great importance but so does the choice of the lens, shooting angle and background. Another aspect that is often forgotten or not taken seriously (especially by beginners) is the importance of make-up and/ or hair styling. A good make-up artist can completely transform an ordinary looking subject into a beauty to behold.

Note: In this write-up, I will not discuss the art of make-up or hair-styling; I will leave that to the professionals; they know their job better than I do.

Portraiture works on the concept that light areas stand out and dark areas pull back. Hence by placing highlights on the five frontal planes of the face – forehead, nose, chin, and the two cheeks – and placing the neck and the sides of the face in shadow, we can create modelling and realism. By careful use of lighting, we can hide facial defects and idealise the subject.

Basically, there are three types of lighting used in portraiture – Short lighting, Broad lighting and Butterfly lighting. Short lighting is also known as Narrow lighting and Butterfly lighting is also known as Glamour lighting. Before we begin, let us clear some misgivings. How many lights does one need for a successful portrait? Portraits can be taken using several lights or with just one light. The entire world is lit by only one light (the sun or the moon) and everything looks so beautiful, so why not our portraits? Do keep in mind that for a successful portrait, there should be one dominant light source and any other light, if used, should improve on the overall lighting and not compete with the dominant light source.

Unless otherwise required, we use light that is neither harsh nor excessively ‘soft’. If you take portraits outdoors in ambient light, consider doing so when the light is angular and soft to medium soft (early or late in the day or when it is overcast but bright). If shooting indoors using studio lights (electronic flash), try and use light modifiers that soften the otherwise hard light from the flash. Light modifiers can be studio umbrellas, soft-boxes or just a soft plain cloth (like muslin) through which you fire the flash. The larger the light source (in comparison to the subject size), the softer the light. Another trick is to ‘feather’ the light (you illuminate the subject using the periphery of the light, rather than centering the light source to the subject).

Short lighting

Short lighting is a corrective lighting for plump or round faces. People with plump faces generally like to look slimmer. In this set-up, the Main light (also referred to as the Key light) illuminates the ‘short side’ of the face. Please check the box below in case you do not know what that means. The Key light is the ‘modelling light’; it is the light that models the features of the face; that is, it defines the contours of the face.

The Key light

The Key light is generally a broad light source (note the word ‘generally’) placed higher than the subject’s head and pointed down at approximately 60 degrees. This light is kept approximately 45 degrees between the camera-subject axis but sometimes it may be necessary to move this light slightly further behind the subject (keep in mind that we are talking of Short lighting).

How do you ascertain that the Key light is placed at the correct position?

There are three points to consider before you can say that the light is correctly placed:

1. The shadow of the nose cast by the light, should not touch the lip line. You may have to adjust the height of the light stand till the nose shadow is correct. You will also observe that the side of the face and the shoulder away from the Key light will be in shadow.

2. The ‘catchlight’ (reflection of the light in the eyes) created by the Key light should be either at 11 O’clock or 1 O’clock position – depending on which side the face is turned.

3. An inverted, highlighted triangle must form under the eye opposite to the Key light.

If the above three conditions are met, the Key light is in the right position.

Fill-in light

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