Portrait photography is not easy to do….or to define.  What makes a good portrait?  Is it portraying the subject as “beautifully” as possible?  Or having them project a certain type of image?  Why do we feel that some portraits work and others don’t?  Obviously, the choice of setting, lighting and composition can have a big effect on the creation of a portrait, but there is more at play.

When looking at a good portrait, you can feel that it’s good.  There’s something about it.  The camera has not just recorded an identity, it’s defined one.  But how?  This is where Henri Catier-Bresson and his concept of the decisive moment can help.

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”  Henri Cartier-Bresson

It’s easy to visualize a decisive moment when it involves the freezing of an action, such as a man jumping over a puddle or someone hitting a piñata at a birthday party.


But what about in a portrait?  Well, sometimes there is action to freeze, especially in environmental portraits out in the field.


In the photo above, all the movement has been fixed, and an instant is captured for eternity.  That certainly helps to emphasize the havoc caused when everyone is trying to put on bathrobes and get warm.  But there is more.  Although all movement is fixed, it is the expression that really gives the picture it’s identity.  Now we’re getting to an essential of good portraiture, and how it relates to the decisive moment. As Cartier-Bresson puts it, “What is there more fugitive and transitory than the expression on a human face?”  In the photo below, there is not much action to freeze, but several fleeting expressions…


The key is to get the right expression, but what is that, exactly?  A single expression can’t completely define someone, but it can show a true aspect of their identity…in the moment.  Laughing or crying are typical expressions we see in photos, but expressions don’t always have to be fully animated.  Sometimes they can be a certain, defining look…


Or, several contrasting looks in the same frame…


It can be hard to capture defining expressions in a photo, especially if the person is influenced by the presence of the photographer, camera and lights, etc.  That’s why it’s important to establish some kind of bond with the subject, and gain their trust, if possible, before the shooting starts.  On a recent portrait session of a businessman I’d never met, I sat and chatted with him for an hour before even unpacking any of my gear.  When all the lights were set up and it was time for the shooting to begin, he was very relaxed and comfortable in front of the camera.  We had a very long, productive session.

Sometimes, though, there’s just nothing you can do.


Posted by Kit Swartz

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