Sunday, March 30, 2008

Approach to taking a portrait

Portrait of Amitabh Bachchan. Click on the image to see larger version.

Every portrait is different but there are also elements which are the same, whether you’re shooting the famous or the locally famous.

Fame is of course all relative. It depends on profession, accomplishments or media celebrity status. Whoever the ‘famous’ individual is there are millions of people in the world who will never have heard them.

For example I photographed the legendary Indian Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan, who amongst his many accolades was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, the highest civilian award of France. But I’m positive that many people in North America will not have heard of him – although he has more fans than Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro put together.

I find that however well known a person is cracking through egos and insecurities is really important when it comes to getting authentic strong portraits. However I hasten to add that when it came to photographing Amitabh the experience could not have been better. He is a gracious, warm, friendly and actually very interested in photography being a photographer himself.

Some photographers like to arrange every single thing before the photo shoot and they know exactly what they want and how they are going to get it. I’m different. I like spontaneity. I like to set the stage for interesting things to happen. Sometimes though you do have to take a more rigid approach particularly if time is severely limited, like when you’re photographing a well know individual who has decided to spare you ten minutes for a portrait shoot.

Taking an open approach to a photo shoot however doesn’t mean you can ignore preparation. It’s absolutely essential. Here are a few things to think about:

Background. Find out about your subject. Whether you’re photographing a politician, an actor or a school teacher, it’s good to have common ground that you can talk about and the more you know about them the better. By the way if you’re photographing a football player, don’t chattily say you’re not interested in game. Tact is important!

Equipment. Only take what you need and make sure that it all works properly and you’ve got a backup plan if something goes wrong with a camera body, flash or lens.

Location. Some will say it is essential to scout locations. I think it depends on the circumstances but you should have an idea of what to expect. Make sure you know where you are going and that you get there in plenty of time. Nobody likes to be kept waiting.

To show or not to show. Shooting digital means that you can show the portrait session to your client/subject as you are taking the shots. Be careful not to kill the flow of the shoot though by stopping and starting too often. There will be natural breaks during changes of clothes and lighting. It can be good to show what you’ve been up to and sometimes this leads to great creative collaboration. Always keep control of the shoot though.

Making magic. In essence when your subject is in front of your lens they are acting themselves and you’ve got to help them give you something special. One well known portrait photographer used to speak very quietly and the subject would lean forward straining to hear, and at that moment the shot would be taken. The result was the subject looked alert and attentive. Another photographer makes his subjects stand for hours in a swimming pool before taking their portrait – thereby stripping away all facades and expressions. Whatever strategy you use it is up to you to direct your subject and create the right environment for something special to happen so that you have a unique portrait that is meaningful and has authenticity.

There is much more to write on this subject but for now I hope the above has provided you with food for thought and that you’ve found it useful.

Till soon,

Paul Indigo
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