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Lighting, Luck and Laughter – The Magic Of Portaits

Honestly? I'm lucky. Or, at least, I FEEL lucky - not quite the same thing, I guess. Maybe luck is just a positive attitude and a sense of opportunity. Anyway, whatever it is, it works. Believing you're lucky is a big part of this game, particularly when photographing people: believing that today, this very moment, you're about to create the best portrait you've ever taken gives you the energy for the magic to happen. I have always loved portrait photography, whether in the controlled environment of the studio or utilising available light out on location. Photographers always ask me what it takes to create a great portrait, and I would say that lighting, luck and laughter make all the difference. Here are a few tips I've gathered along the way.

  1. Eye contact always helps. And I don't mean eye contact between you and your subject - I mean between the CAMERA and your subject. If your subject is gazing right down the middle of the lens when you hit the button, the image will have something special that convinces the viewer that they're there as if having a conversation with your subject. This is increasingly important as cameras appear with sophisticated flip-screens (like the old days with waist-finders!) You must remind your subject to look into the lens, not at you!
  2. On that note, the conversation is critical: keeping your subject interested throughout the session creates expressions that can't be faked. The more engaged your subject, the more interesting the picture will be.
  3. Laughter can lift an image. Even if the mood you're ultimately looking for is enigmatic or sombre, reacting quickly to any moments of laughter can create images that might surprise you (and your clients will love them).
  4. Observe how light creates life in the eyes of your subject. Those catchlights are not there by accident; they bring a face to life. Move your strobes and modifiers to create the perfect light in the studio. When out and about using available light? Well, the only thing you can adjust is your subject. But what is true for both is that getting those perfect catchlights makes all the difference.
  5. Don't be afraid to crop, whether in-camera or in post-production. I love a tight crop on a face - who needs to see the top of a haircut?! It's about the eyes and the expression for me: think about it, the last time you had a great conversation with someone, do you even remember how the top of their head looked? Nope. It's always the eyes that hold your attention.
  6. Colourful clothing is excellent, but if you get the chance, matching the tones of the outfit to the scene or the background can harmonise an image, emphasising the face as the point of interest.
  7. Conversely, switch your portraits to monochrome to remove even more distractions. Black and white photographs distil the image down to the fundamentals of a face and eyes.
  8. Posing doesn't need to be complicated (unless you're creating those editorial fashion images so popular in the Sunday magazines!) Learn to read your subject's body language, how they sit, and where they place their hands or cross their legs. Learn to read it and replay it the way you'd like it. That way, the pictures look natural, but you still have control.
  9. Keep your batteries charged! Using studio lights nearly always requires using radio triggers - and these nearly always need AA (or AAA) batteries. The great thing about eneloop batteries is that you can charge them and forget them - they will hold their charge indefinitely between shoots, so you only need to switch them out when they're fully used. There's nothing worse than having to fumble around mid-session for some replacement batteries: always keep a set charged and ready, and you never need to worry again!