Portrait photography is about capturing souls with your lens, not faces

Portrait photographs are are real life situations. some will make you smile and are pleasant to look at, while others will make you think, recollect or even dream. Capturing faces can be fun, but capturing souls is simply an enticing experience. Those are split seconds when your model is warped, zoned out, somewhere else in her past or future, traveling through memories or past experiences, her desires or wishes. Those are the moments when the time pauses for a second yet the captured expression itself is timeless. When the photo you have captured truly moves the model emotionally when she looks at it, then you know you have dug deep enough to touch her thoughts. And this is what I call a great portrait.

model: Iselita

model: Iselita

Photographing people without their social masks, real people, takes time and patience, it also requires mutual understanding, connection and good communication. You have to reach way past their private zones, to where whatever you say or do will have a direct impact on their mood. The emotional distance between people is what kills images, and as a portrait photographer you should learn how to minimize that distance to zero without having your model retracting to her shell of safety. Trust is essential here, feeling of comfort, and most importantly peace and quiet. This is mainly why I detest shooting portraits in areas crawling with people. It depends on the assignment or idea behind the shoot, and also on how many times I worked with a given model, but generally I avoid crowded spaces. Studio would sound like a good solution but studios have this clinical "I am about to get shot" feel. Outdoor sets, on the other hand,  have so many distractions where elements of city or nature that bring memories. Women react to sounds, smells, and those could easily project images, even more so for those with developed artistic side.

model: Nami

model: Nami

Another way to capture moody and intriguing images is by evoking emotions. Do not talk to your model, instead talk with your model. Even better, forget she is a model and think of her as a girl or a woman. Engage her mind, intrigue her, make her laugh or revive some memories by simply having a chat about anything that you both find interesting. It is all about disabling the defense mechanisms and removing shields of "gee I hope my lipstick isn't crooked". Make her forget not only that you are photographing her, make her forget you are even there. If you manage this for a brief time, then you got yourself superb images. Learn their face, how light falls on it and how shadows are created, use that to your advantage. Face expressions can be amazing but when complimented by appropriate colors and light they can be mesmerizing. If you think of human face expression as an art, then think of each photograph as a single frame from a story. It has to be self contained, but also open enough for a viewer to be able to adopt it to their own life story,. It always makes me laugh when people interpret poetry or paintings. What a bunch of fools. It's art, you are supposed to absorb it not analyze it. If a portrait photograph makes people dissipate emotionally, then you are not a photographer anymore, you are an artist.

model: Iselita

model: Iselita

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What are the key elements of a great portrait photo

Photography is all about light. That is it. Light determines composition, mood, colors, depth, and so on. Without light, all you would see is a black rectangle. However, once the light is cast, more elements come into play. Portrait photography is not about photographing faces. It is about photographing emotions, moments, personalities. If you focus on the face only, you lose depth and story. Face is not the subject here, the moment is. Just like when you photograph dancers, you capture movement, energy, gesture and composition, balance and grace, power and momentum. You do not photograph legs or arms.

model: Anna Mitzel

model: Anna Mitzel

Psychology plays massive part in portrait photography. Your job, as portrait photographer, is to search deep under the surface of social masks that everyone wears. They make people feel safe and invulnerable. You have to learn how to strip them off even just for a moment. Similarly to how street photography is about waiting and predicting a happening, portrait photography is about capturing and evoking split seconds of feelings and moods. Knowledge of body language is as important here as the ability of connecting with another human being. That connection has to be sincere so they feel comfortable and loosen their guard. This cannot be done in a haste, so do not rush your portrait shoots. This is also why I do not agree with charging per hour. It feels like mass production to me. I charge per each final image, and yes, post processing is the second reason here. 

It is said that the best portraits are taken when people do not realise they are being photographed. True, but for me this is a bit too invasive. One of the reasons why I am not comfortable with street portraiture, even though I do appreciate it's raw beauty, is because it feels unfair and even vulgar to invade other people privacy. It does not feel fair to me to steal those moments. I want to witness them, evoke and experience them, be a living part of them. Only then I can truly understand who is that I am photographing. In portrait photography the model knows that she or he is being stalked with a lens. And yes it is way more difficult to take a natural looking photo this way, but that is why a specific set of skills is required.

model: Anna Mitzel

model: Anna Mitzel

Key elements of portrait photo for me would be complementing light, natural body language, undisturbed flow of energy through the photo, and impeccable post processing. Perfect exposure has nothing to do with image being good. Far from it. Mindless following of "photography rules" will also get you nowhere. Photography is an art, not a science, even though there is science behind it. The energy flow relates to all elements including the background,, which is often overlooked and yet so important. Post processing is huge and I would never allow to be photographed by someone who does not edit their own photos. They are either lazy, too focused on squeezing more shoots to make more money, or simply lack artistic vision. I do not just shoot and edit, I shoot with a vision of editing. When I am asked to pass RAW unedited images to a client I am actually being insulted. I do not produce snapshots, I create photographs.

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How to take portrait photographs of professional artists and performers

This is by far one of the most demanding and yet the most rewarding type of portrait photography that you can get into. Most of the people have no idea what portrait photography is all about, hell, they even do not know what they want. Everyone has their own style and they know what they like when they see it, but have difficulties with envisioning it. Just like you buy furniture in a store, when you see a sofa on its own it may not do much for you, but if you see the same sofa in a context of other complementing furniture, then it may make you think - oh wow this would be perfect for my house.

See Artists are different. We do not see trees, we see light synchronizing with amazing maze of shapes and shadows. We do not see city streets and cars, we see art in motion, a happening of movement, a game of kinetic energy and 100s of unique face expressions passing by. A true artist will never tell you, "man, just make me look good", most of them have a vision of what they want, but they are more than excited about bouncing ideas on the go with you. It feels like long vacations on Maldives for the soul.

So how do you shoot artists, performers, singers, and so on. Well, first do not get intimidated, get excited instead. This is the time when you can let your creativity go mustang. Remeber that it is essential to go outside your comfort zone EVERY time you shoot, otherwise you will not grow. On the other hand you need need to stay composed and know exactly what your client or model is after. Do a research on what they do and ask them all questions that you need to know regarding why and what for they need a portrait photo. It is challenging because you have to take their specific or abstract and loose ideas on board, and then imbue it with your own style. Photographers are, or should be, chosen by their portfolio. You are not going to book a photographer whose style is not appealing to you. It makes no sense.

Above is a portrait shot of Dobolo, a hip hop artist from Tokyo, who needed a photo for promoting his new song About to Blow (you can see the video clip below, created by a really talented videographer Jeremy Rubier. Dobolo needed a metro / urban portrait shot, that will be powerful but at the same time simple in form. It had to be a photo that will go well with the theme, message and vibe of the song. I used natural lighting only, breaking all rules of what you will learn when you start with portrait photography, which are to avoid hard sunlight, and always position your subject face towards the light. Well soft light would not work here at all. I had flash guns with me but I figured that the massive contrast between dark and light tones will actually bring this photo closer to black and white, making it way more impactful in terns of tonal difference. I needed space for the text but I did not want it to clutter the breathing space around him, so I was shooting with 16:9 ratio in mind. Also, I knew how I willl do the toning of this photo inside of photoshop and also that bringing down saturation and shifting tones in the photo will only emphasize light qualities.

Tiny angle change of the portrait gives it a bit more energy and modern look. It is a slight tilt, nothing too aggressive. It it were, then it would overpower the model, and since this is not high fashion, the model is actually important. It is not that in high fashion models are not important, it is just that the message being conveyed usually overpowers all other elements, and the model becomes an integral part of the image. In fashion photography it is about the art, not about models. Last but not least, notice how the fence behind Dobolo imitates a keyboard. It is not supposed to be evident but subliminal in a way.

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Harmony between soft and dramatic light in balck and white portrait photography

Two extremes co-existing together in perfect harmony. Symbiosis in dichotomy. This photo is from a recent shoot with an American artist and model Mandy Jane. We set the shoot for 7 am in Yokohama. It was gloomy, rainy and cold, so we had to shoot anywhere with a roof over our heads. Most of the shots are from the underground tunnels in Minato Mirai. We searched for any place with good light, be it natural from outside, artificial or mixed. There is no perfect weather, light or place to shoot. If you understand how light works and how to control it or use it to your advantage, then you can shoot anywhere and anytime. But you can go even one step further, and reshape the light or change the quality of light in photoshop. This is why the skill of shooting with a vision of post processing is so important in my workflow.

Taking a great photo is as complex as sensing how to post process it. This shot was lit by natural light, with delicate influence of artificial ambient light. Light is soft and supple. It was coming through a huge entrance to the underground passages. Now, the light on Mandy's face is soft and delicate, just like her distant and remote expression. Light on the metal blinds at the background, is also soft, but their shape creates dramatic conversation between light and shadow. I purposely softened the light hitting the model even further, because I knew that I want to change the light quality of the background to much more powerful and hard. Parallel horizontal lines create another contrast, because they introduce stability and harmony. This photo expresses a quite intimate moment in a powerful and dramatic setting, but cocooned in a strong vignette which encloses the scene. This is also why I photoshopped out the bottom line which was too bright, and darkened the top one, and also warped the whole left hand side of the photo outwards.

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How to retouch a male portrait in photoshop - a few quick tips & speed art video

First thing to realize is that you should usually retouch women and men differently. Most of the retouching techniques are identical, but they are applied with different strength or in a slightly different manner. For instance, the most obvious would be skin retouching, which is a huge part of any portrait editing workflow in photoshop. In most cases, for girls, you will emphasize smoothing not only tonal transitions but also invest lots of time on skin texture smoothing, preferably via the taxing process of micro dodging and burning. Now, men usually look better in hard light and with rougher skin texture. Sometimes you will even want to enhance that roughness, it all depends on what sort of effect you want to achieve. Since women look better in soft light (although not always), naturally you will want to make therm appeal softer. That leads to the contrast (for example though macro dodging and burning) and micro contrast intensity issue (it is a rather vulgar comparison but think here in terms of clarity slider), which can be easily cranked up when you work on male portraits. Even tonal transitions can be harsher in male portraits, but this is not always the case. You will also spend more time on removing imperfections and skin blemishes in female portraits. For men, you can either remove them, or reduce their visual impact, or leave them as they are. Regardless on what you decide, always pay attention to the mood and light

quality in the photo, and the purpose the photo will serve. This applies to both sexes. For instance if you are shooting a headshot for an actor, you will want to stick to the original as close as possible, where in a promotional portrait for commercial website, you will want to make your model look as good as possible, and draw the attention of the viewer to their personality and aura, rather than face features. Below video is a speed art of a portrait edit in photoshop that I did for a friend of mine, a fellow photographer John Becker. The aim of the photo was to display him as a professional with a really sunny and outgoing personality (a mixture of confidence with accessibility), which is exactly who he is in reality.. Black and white high contrast edit allowed me to redirect the attention from the face features to face expression and the eyes. I also lowered the tonal value of the background. The light was very soft, so soft you could call it dull. I had to be really careful with skin retouching and I did very little of micro dodging. At the end of the video you can see a RAW file and final image comparison, so you can easily assess how soft the light was (only ambient light was used, no modifiers or reflectors). If you would like to learn more about professional portrait editing techniques watch my full length in-depth 5.5h long tutorial. Here is a link to a quick guide video.

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Understanding the connection between image elements and photo retouching

Portrait photography is a very powerful story telling platform. It expresses not only the style, vision and ideas of the photographer, but if done skilfully it captures the true personality of the model, her or his feelings, and mood. It leaves the door to a personal and private space slightly ajar. Those moments last for split of a second and when combined with complementing lighting and balanced natural body language can be further empowered by post processing of an image. Image editing was always present, even in the film days, but in times of digital photography retouching skills are a very powerful artistic tool. It literally allow us to draw on the image. Used sensibly and with understanding can lead to superb results. Every time I edit a photo it is a new adventure into the world of shadows and highlights, colors and shapes, and just like in a puzzle all the elements have to fit to complete the image. Having an idea of post processing has to be in tune with the elements and the mood of the photo. That is why, I never use tools such as coloring presets, or photoshop actions that do the job for me. Just like a camera set to auto, most of automation in editing is a recipe for disaster. I want a full creative control. It takes time, sure, but all the good things do. It is worth every minute spent in the digital dark room. Photography is a symphony of light, which can be either brilliant or poorly composed. It can be inspiring or painful to look at. If the image is inspiring, it will lead you the right way throughout the post processing, as long as you know the which tools you should use to achieve a desired effect, and how to look at the photo to understand its energy. There is a huge difference between editing the way you can, and editing the way you envisioned the final result in your mind when you pressed the shutter. It is a difference between a craftsman and an artist, a difference between a person who captures what they see, and a person who captures what others cannot. Model: Nami

model: Nami