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 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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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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The art of boudoir portrait photography - how to choose the right photographer?

I look at boudoir and nude photography as I look at my Japanese calligraphy art. It is all about undisturbed energy flow, grace of lines and curves, and the balance between the mood and the form. It is a dialogue between the model and the space around her. I really enjoy capturing people at those unique moments when they zone out for a split second, moments when their mind is somewhere else. Then all I do is photograph the lines and shapes their body forms dressed in highlights and shadows in connection with their thought flow, linking what you can see and what you can only imagine. If you follow me on my blogs you know well that photo retouching plays a huge role in my photography art, and I absolutely love taking my time to retouch every single photo. I find the photo editing process extremely creative and exciting. I hear photographers saying so many times *I would rather be out there shooting than in front of my Pc editing*. I could not disagree with this more! Taking a photo is only a small step in a vast creative process of visualising and realising the final image. I believe that when a photographer starts using automated presets to edit 10s or 100s of photos with a few clicks of a mouse, he or she turns something that could be very unique into a very common and rather dull image. We are very jaded and consumed so much as a human race, that most of us cannot distinguish anymore between art and and a visual insult on our sensitivity. People are confused rushing through life, being too busy to take their time to think what they really like deep inside, and instead they follow the general trend appreciated by the masses. Do not be a sheep and feel it yourself. Art should not be about speed and efficiency, but the the emotion it evokes when you look at it. I do not want to have to rush through the photoshoot, which is why I set my fees to per final edited photo count and not per hour. The final result is so important for me, that I am and will refuse anyone who is approaching me for mere snapshots, or asking me to shoot for 3h and pass 50 or 70 photos to them. As an artist I actually find such requests somewhere between sad and insulting. Portrait photography is all about psychology, sparking a moment, telling a captivating story, capturing an image that will make you wonder or pause for a while, but it also has to allow one achieve artistic fulfillment. This simply cannot be rushed. It takes time to get to know who you shoot, combat their camera fear, lack of confidence, and other issues that a model or client may have. I care more about my images than those who pay for them, in fact I care so much I can take even an hour only to browse through a few shots and think which image from a series of images of a certain look I want to edit. Photo editing is a long process if done properly. A single portrait can take anywhere between 1.5 to 4 or more hours. Extremely creative portrait photography manipulations can take a whole day. There are many ways in which an image can be retouched, from a more traditional way like the one you can see below, to a fantasy theme. When you pick a photographer do not base your decision on the price, but the style and quality of his or her portfolio, the skills and passion that drives them, creativity and attention to details, and last but not least their personality. You should not only enjoy the final photos, but also the experience of being photographed. 

 Eline

Eline

Why photo editing skills are equally or even more important than photography skills?

 RAW file from the camera

RAW file from the camera

Photography is an art and one can produce stunning photos straight out of camera. However, a skillful photo editor can elevate such photos to a completely new level. Photo editing is a huge knowledge and requires a lot of patience and time, constant studies from various disciplines, including human anatomy, color management, behavior and qualities of light, etc. To edit portraiture you literally have to be a painter, in order to blend and smooth out blemishes, unflattering skin shadows and skin tone issues. Human skin is complex and it is a theater for the game of shadows and highlights. It is virtually impossible to capture a relaxed and healthy looking image without any editing process. Now there are those who take shortcuts and do lazy editing, which results in blurry skin, loosing pore details and obliterating face features, and such editing is done by photographers who either lack the skill, or those who simply prefer to bulk edit photos and move on to another client to make more money. Those type of photographer also use presets and with one click sort out 10s of photos. This also why their photographs look all the same. Photo retouching is an art, and it is way more time consuming than actual shooting. A single portrait editing can take up from 1.5 to 4h, or more, depending on which direction I want to go with it. Is it a straight forward editing, a photoshop manipulation, a creative toning, etc. The devil is hidden in details, and when you take care of the details the rest will fall into place. I work on skin pore level, often zoomed in way past 100% of the actual image size in order to correct small issues that when fixed become apparent. Good photography is always vision-driven, and the shutter click is literally the last step in capturing a good image. No matter what gear you use, how many assistants you have, if you are not in love with light and do not understand human psychology, you will not make a good portrait photographer. Then come editing skills, and those are vastly important in combining all the elements together - the vision, the captured image, understanding of your model and the ability to feel the image. Those who think that photo retouching is unnatural should ask themselves those questions: Is art supposed to be natural or appealing? Is female make-up or hair styling natural? Were Picasso's paintings realistic? Are brand items really needed? Do you like concept cars? Should we all listen to the same music? I hear a lot of photographers say "I prefer to be out there shooting than sitting in front of the PC editing". For me editing is far more creative than taking photos, and offers a true freedom of creation. Being just a photographer sounds a bit limiting to me. I need more than that.

 final edit / model: Lena

final edit / model: Lena

Power and elegance - importance and impact of color grading in portrait photography

 image straight from the camera

image straight from the camera

Photo editing is essential in the era of RAW digital photography. Majority of people do not realize that professional photographers do not take photos in.jpg format, but in RAW file format. If you set your camera to produce .jpgs, then the camera does the editing for you. It is the same as setting camera to automatic mode and let it do all the job. No good photographs can come out of such practice. RAW files straight from the camera are flat and without much saturation or contrast, though it all depends on the type of camera used and lens quality. The whole idea of shooting in RAW is to post process the image in Photoshop or Lightroom, and imbue it with personal style. However, portrait editing is not all about removing skin blemishes and smoothing the shadows to make skin look more relaxed and even. Color toning is something that can change a good photo into an amazing one just by skillful adjustments done to colors and tones. Toning changes the mood, look and creates this magazine look that people tend to enjoy, but are not sure why. Professional photo editing could be compared to music in a movie. If you notice the music and it is too obvious you will not enjoy it. Best music is one that fits, but you perceive it only on subconscious level without noticing it is there. For private photoshop workshops via skype please contact me directly or see this page

 final photo / model: Lena

final photo / model: Lena

Ancient art + portraiture = photography on a different level

Everyone can take a snapshot, a few can take a photograph, even fewer can make it fine art image. But for me capturing a photo is merely half way, if not less. Photo editing this days is either abused by those who search for shortcuts, photographers who want to mass produce their images by one-clicking a preset in Lightroom that will edit 100s of photos in minutes, or underestimated by the viewers. We live in era of Instagram garbage, small screens on which you can barely see anything, and so many photos online that no wonder people have troubles with recognizing what is the difference between quality work and something rather dull just colorful. Editing for me is an art form, and one has to be an artist to be able to edit images with a vision, sense of beauty and consistency of ever-evolving style. Being a multi-genre artist, I enjoy merging various forms of visual arts together, be it digital art and photography, creating photo manipulations, or by merging Japanese or Chinese calligraphy art of my authorship with my photography. Calligraphy can be intimidating due to its highly abstract nature, but when accompanied by an image, it much more approachable and perhaps can be appreciated from a different angle.

Calligraphy art in semi-cursive script: 雲中白鶴 (lit. white crane in clouds / meaning; someone of pure heart and transcendent character)

 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.

Good light and body language - two key elements of portrait photography

No matter who I am photographing, I always say the same thing - I need good light and natural body language, and the rest can be fixed in post production. Modern photography is all about those three elements, and retouching is a seriously underestimated powerhouse. If you are a pro or amature photographer, and especially if you are a portrait photographer, you must learn photo retouching or else your photos will be weak. And I do not care about what all the "pure photography" idiots tell you, they just jealous, lazy or not talented enough to be able to work their own photos. I go even further, I think that post processing is more important than shooting, and the reason for this is simple - the possibilities you have with photoshop (forget lightroom and all the presets, leave that crap for lazy people), provided you have an artistic sense and vision, are endless. For anyone interested in private photoshop workshops, see here. Portrait editing is all about fixing all small issues that we all have as humans, like tiny skin discolorations, skin unevenness, over pronounced features due to unfortunate lighting, things that mess up the compositions but could not be dealt with in camera, and so on. If your editing skills are low, you are stuck with what you capture. Photography is not about what you capture, but what you want to share and show. Photography should not be a xerox copy of reality, but an image of a combination of your own artistic vision with the energy of the unique moment in time that you have witnessed.

 model: Diana

model: Diana

Why you should photograph people against the sun

Unless you shoot high fashion, model photography, or going for some special look, backlit portraits are the best. The person doesn't squint, you have a beautiful rim light, and it just looks incredibly flattering. Especially if you shoot mature models, you do not want any harsh light on them. I took this photo without any fill light, and I was relying on the reflected light from the nearby walls, the ledge at the bottom, and also the highly reflective gold color background helped a lot to lift the light levels, and boost the colors. Good portraiture is all about understanding the light and the face features of your model, as well as confidence in your editing skills, especially if you shoot without any fill light. The person you photograph should be brighter than the background, so she or he stands out, regardless of how blurred and background is. There has to be a contrast between the eyes, face and the background, drawing you inside the image, creating a center point of the image and tone based leading lines or leading planes as I call them.

 model: Nami

model: Nami