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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How to capture sumblime ethereal moments with your portrait phootgraphy

Do you need dreamy meadows and morning sun piercing through the fog to capture very soft and ethereal images with white vignetting around the edges to empasise the softness? Not really. In fact low key dramatic images that remove the background can be even more sublime than anything else. So what is the secret then? The mood and the post processing. And post processing is VERY important. The mood is something that you capture or evoke. It is happening during the shoot. As a photographer you need to build a connection with your models and learn their body language. How they react, behave, their face mimics, emotions and how to spark them, and so on. This is why I usually work alone, one on one with whomever I photograph. For me portrait photography is like ambient music, it is a one giant tunnel you walk into, or a beam of channeled energy that cannot be disconnected. If a model gets distracted, there goes your shoot or at least a theme.

model: Eccaia

model: Eccaia

The post processing is a massively important. Regardless of how soft your lighting may be if you do not know how to deal with harsh shadow transitions and how to accent certain areas like reflections in the eyes, or how to make other parts of the image become less visible and intrusive, you will not be able to achieve this result. It is a combination of mattified skin, smoothed out highlights and shadows, very selective contrasting and balancing the darkest and the brightest tones. Black and white is not always the way to go. Light and mood in your image is like music. Listen to it, and then you will know what genre it belongs to.

Last but not least, the composition must be in symbiosis with the mood and editing. You need to place your model in the frame according to the feel you are going for, or even better so - the feel you are capturing. Sometimes photographers focus so hard on what they envisioned that they are blinded to what is actually happening. Capture images like an artist not like a craftsman. Capture what you feel not what you see. Be like attentive and sensitive to what is going on in front of your lens, and learn how to adjust instinctively. It is good to have a concept for the shoot, but spontaneous moments make the best photos. It should not be your job to know how not to miss them. It should be your second nature and passion.

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What is the difference between a pro snapshot and professionally editited portrait photo

In short, about 2 to 3 hours, because this is how long it takes to retouch a portrait photo on a professional level. Photo retouching is not a skill, it is an art, and for me it is a valid and essential part of my photography service. Not everyone can appreciate the importance and impact of photo editing because this is something that is done behind the scenes. It is a process you most likely will not witness personally as a model or a client, but it is always greatly appreciated when compared and explained.

Portrait photo retouching is a complex process of refining tonal shifts, removing color casts, redirecting or emphasizing the main subject or area of interest in the photo, removing distractions, reorganizing and tiding up shadows and highlights, finalizing the artistic vision of the photographer, amplifying the existing feel or creating a completely new mood in the photo, creating a completely new image via composite photography or an artistically enhanced creation though photo manipulation (fantasy, sci-fi, abstract, etc.), and so on.

I am an artist, not just a photographer. I do not capture images I create them, and pressing a shutter on my camera is merely a part of the entire process. Portrait photo retouching is my passion just like photography, Japanese calligraphy, book writing or any other artistic endeavor that I am engaging in. I love photo editing so much that I can easily take an hour only to look through already pre-selected photos from a given photoshoot to choose the one I think is the best in terms of body language and quality of light for editing. Time wise, photo retouching is far more time consuming than a photoshoot itself and can take several times longer than image capturing. I will give you an example. Let us say a photoshoot lasts for 5 hours and 600 images are taken. Now if I pick 10 photos for editing and spend 2.5h on each, that sums up to 25 hours in photoshop alone. That is 5 times longer than the actual photo shoot. A single complex photoshop manipulation can take over 24 hours to complete.

In the era of digital photography photo editing options are limited only by the skill and imagination of the artist, and it is a never-ending journey of discovery and learning. Every photo is different, every person ha sits own personality and mood. I do not use any ready made presets in my workflow and each photo is manually retouched, toned and finalized. Every photo is yet another day of the great journey.

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Finding a composition for a portrait photo in the chaos of shapes around you

For me portrait photography is about balance between body language of the model, quality of light and harmony of background elements. All pieces of the puzzle have to live in symbiosis. When I am out shooting I look for spots where one element is missing, and that element is my model. Just like in street photography, where one finds a place and then waits for that special moment to happen. That moment is the missing element of the composition or a story that I am trying to convey. Finding that balance and harmony is the most difficult thing to teach, because it will depend on how artistic or sensitive a person is. The same goes to everything in photography really, it is all about finding e perfect balance. Even more difficult is to understand, or be able to feel rather, how to introduce imperfections into the composition to create a perfect harmony. It really is a matter of sensing and weighting all segments of a photograph together. A great exercise to do is to pick one location, and without moving much try to find as many photographs as you can. Then , go back home, open them on your PC and think which elements fit and which do not. What mistakes you made, which elements you have not noticed when you pressed the shutter. Model: Nami

model: Nami

model: Nami

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How to capture movement on photos and make it look natural and balanced

When you film moving people in any type of motion, there is a good chance that they will look natural. Now a still photo is a whole different story. Most of photos showing movement will look unnatural and unbalanced, and that is because they freeze one frame of a sequence of moves that only if combined together in fast motion bring balance to that action. In this photo I was photographing a performing belly dancer and shot maybe 25 frames out of which 2 were fairly good, but still not good enough for me to call it a perfect shot. So, I realized that if I combine 3 photos into one in photoshop and select gestures that would show continuity and add some meaning and reason for this pose it will make more sense and balance the photo. Knowledge of how to post process your photos will not only vastly improve the look of your images and give them a unique look, but it gives you freedom of following your vision as an artist, not just a photographer. If you are interested in learning photoshop, contact me for more info.

model: Lena

model: Lena

Black and white or color - how to decide on photo post processing

It is said that if a photo does not look good in color, it could still look decent in black and white. Indeed, but only to some extend, but even if it is so it's usually down to pushing it. The truth is that if you want to have great results in black and white, you should post process your photo in color first. If you capture something really interesting, and the shot is slightly out of focus or the composition is off, sure thing, convert it to black and white, throw some filters and call it art. But if you are serious about your portfolio or the quality of your photography art, then you will want your photos to look amazing regardless of whether they are in back and white or color. For me, black and white conversion takes LONGER, than editing photos in color. I make sure I got my shot tuned in color version, and then I work on black and white. I usually decide on post processing in the very moment of capturing the image, especially that retouching is an integral and essential ingredient of a successful image. If you want to learn more about black and white conversion watch my full length in-depth photoshop video tutorial.

My Japanese calligraphy teacher - Grand Master Kajita Esshuu (梶田越舟)

I have been studying Japanese calligraphy for about 14 years now, and from the very beginning I was extremely lucky to be accepted by Grand Master Kajita Esshuu (梶田越舟) .as his disciple.  I have spent over 20 years of my life in various schools, including two universities, overseas schools, etc., yet still he is hands down the best teacher and mentor I have ever head. Grand Master Esshuu is so peaceful and humble that one can almost forget how insanely knowledgeable this man really is. He is a descendant of great Japanese Masters, historical Japanese calligraphers, such as Grand Master Kusabe Meikaku 日下部鳴鶴 (1938 - 1922), who had 3000 disciples and was known as one of the Three Brushes of Meiji Era (three greatest calligraphers of Meiji Era), Grand Master Hidai Tenrai (比田井天来, 1972 - 1939), who was known as the father of modern Japanese calligraphy, and Grand Master Kuwahara Suihou (桑原翠邦, 1906 - 1995), who was so respected in Japan, that he was asked by the Imperial couple to assist them to the mausoleum of Hidai Tenrai and introduce them to his works. Here is a portrait of Esshuu sensei that I took recently. I made it into a faded and slightly damaged photo, and contrasted it against his genuine carefree smile, which is something you cannot find on antique photographs. I thought it would bridge between what is in the past and the present times.

Nude portrait photography made sensual and elegant to complement feminine charm

The less clothes your model wears the more difficult is to shoot a human form to make it look appealing and graceful. The most forgiving photoshoots are when the stylist goes bananas and the dress or whatever garment is overpowering the model, and she falls onto the second plan. Boudoir and nude photography are difficult for many reasons, and it goes both to capturing the image and editing it. Balancing of the body parts and their positioning with light and shadows, creating a light and ethereal but at the same time alluring scene, making sure that the background elements and the over composition of the image do not clash with the model and her pose, making sure that the skin tonality is even, capturing a natural body language of a model that will not hint to any discomfort of her being photographed nude, making sure that the model looks really sexy but not vulgar, and the list just goes on. Nude photography has many thin lines, and one has to be careful not to cross them.

I am currently looking for girls in Tokyo area for boudoir / nude / Chinese and Japanese calligraphy body art and cyber girl project photoshoot, please contact me if interested. You can see my full folio on my smugmug page.

model: Lynn

model: Lynn