52.2 month 09 : classic portraiture

Headshot, Half-Body or Three-Quarter, Full Body, Groupings

This week we begin our month-long compositional study of classic portraiture. We begin with one of the most classic portraits of all time – the headshot. A headshot typically comprises the head to shoulder area. Making a good headshot portrait is very important and practical, as many people rely on them for business purposes, framed portraits, online profiles, and as their first visual introduction to the world. To the photographer, the portrait is a challenge and extends far beyond the technicalities as we strive to capture the personality, spirit and essence of the person. You can often see how the subject feels by looking at their eyes. As the saying goes, the eyes are the key to the soul.

As we continue our month-long study of classical portraiture, this week we explore the half-body or three-quarter profile portrait. This is the common pose of classic artists – think of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or the portraits of Botticelli and other artists of the Renaissance. The three-quarter pose can tells us more than a headshot: it reveals the story and character of the subject through his or her clothing, status and surroundings.

As we continue to explore classic portraiture, this week we are delving into composition for full body portraits. Like the half-body and three-quarter portraits we explored last week, full body composition offers clues and context about the subject being portrayed. In many instances, the photographer will stand a considerable distance from the subject, getting a wide shot that reveals rich and detailed information about the subject’s life and personality. This kind of shot is excellent for storytelling, although the photographer must take care to ensure the subject is well-composed within the frame so they do not get lost in a busy background or otherwise compete for the viewer’s attention. In other cases, a photographer may direct their subject to get into a variety of body positions (sitting, kneeling, or lying down) in order to achieve an intimate portrait while still offering a narrative glimpse into the subject’s life.

Photographing groups of people can be an especially challenging and rewarding exercise in creative composition. A modern approach to a posed group portrait might focus on subjects physically touching and emotionally connecting with each other. Something more old-fashioned might recall the formal poses of classical painters, where subjects are often rigid, carefully posed and emotionally restrained. With the resurgence of film and the popularity of post-processing techniques that emulate film, this old-school approach to posing groups of people is especially trendy right now.

A lifestyle approach to group portraiture is similar to street and travel photography (and other types of photography that recall a photojournalistic style) in that it is is often more candid and seemingly spontaneous than a carefully posed portrait. Using this approach, a photographer must often exert deliberate patience in order to capture what Cartier-Bresson famously called “the decisive moment”. The effective use of depth and subject separation in this candid style of group portraiture can make for a very powerful image.

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