Traditional Portrait Photography (Its all in the eyes)

April 17, 2023  •  Leave a Comment


Hello again and welcome back

Traditional portrait photography (it’s all in the eyes)

Last time wrote about the genre of Environmental portraiture, the process of capturing the subject in a place, work or otherwise that including the background for context.

Today I want to strip back to basics, just the subject, no distractions, just me, my camera, a light or two and the sitter.

Possibly one of the more personal forms of photography, in that as a photographer I am trying to catch a little bit of you at that moment of pressing the shutter button.

It’s a very nuanced moment and the image can be made or broken by a tilt of the head a squint in the eye, a lift of the chin and you will only get a decent portrait if the sitter buys in to the occasion.

 A more religious person than me may say it’s trying to capture a bit of your soul.

In my “Codgers21” project, I took portraits of Ex Merseyside Fire fighters at a monthly meeting. I knew this would take a few months and I wanted consistency across the series. For this I went with the same camera, the same lens, one light in the same modifier (a small umbrella). Not only was this essential for portability, it also was a very quick set up and tear down, requiring very little space in the function room we used.



The rest of the gallery can be found here and fun fact there is a Boston Marathon Winner among them.

This for me was quite an important project as some of the members are getting on and I felt it was important to capture a portrait as a memory, it was joked “at least you’ll have a decent photo at your funeral”. As fire fighters share a very dark sense of humour (that comes with the job) .

That leads me to the importance of a portrait. It’s a moment in time, captured. I’m sure that like me your phone is full of family images captured on the fly but a more formal portrait can be a sense of occasion. When during the sitting, it is all about you and you alone.

For me, I much prefer to place a simple plain black background a few feet behind the sitter. This will give me a near absolute black upon which with the right illumination I can place the sitter. The fewer lights the better, if I can just use one I will certainly do that but if I require more and if it’s appropriate they will be used.

It’s not something that should take too much futzing about, the best ones are always the simplest ones.

However there are some techniques that can elevate the image. I like to place my main or key light so that I will get what is called a “catch light” in the eyes. This is a bright reflection of the light used caught in the eye and gives a sense of life. No lights in the eye for, just doesn’t look right. It’s barely noticeable but you certainly know some things are not right if it’s missing.

Catchlights in the eyes

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We can get our inspiration from many places but the Grand Master painters are certainly up there.

It’s known as Rembrandt lighting for a reason. Named after the Dutch master it requires one light to illuminate one side of the face yet also leave a small triangle of light on the cheek of the furthest side of the face from the light just below the eye. This is a fairly standard lighting set up but it is still very effective. This gives depth and form, with maybe a hint of the dramatic.

Rembrandt lighting

Portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert by Rembrandt 

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This works especially in black and white and I really like black and white portraits.

You can even just use you flash straight at the subject for a much starker image, check out the photographer, Rankin’s Celebrity Portraits, there is an element of a Police Mugshot about them. There is no hiding from the lens in a Rankin portrait.

Check out his work here .

Shooting against a white background adds its own complications as if the sitter is a distance away from the background it gets darker and darker the further away the sitter is , so you have to light the background as well as the sitter.

Shot for Mojos, Churchtown

This photo was for The American Crew Product annual competition so had to be black and white on white background. We also had to make sure the hair was well lit as its a Hair product company. So two lights on the background , one above for the hair and two for lighting the model. 


But having all the gear and the technical knowledge should always take a backseat to the connection between you as the photographer and the sitter. There is also a third person to include in this and that is you, the viewer. There is no better compliment than when a associate of the sitter gives a nod and just casually mention’s, “yes that’s them”.

Some of my portraits, others can be found in the Portrait Gallery, please just follow the link.

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If you would like a portrait either formal or environmental please get in touch here via the website or email@ [email protected]


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