Monday, May 9, 2011

Capturing Natural & Complimentary Portraits

One of my recent freelance jobs was to photograph Montana State University faculty who received a promotion and/or tenure this year and who didn't already have a portrait on file with the university. Of the 34 or so who received this honor, 21 did not already have a portrait. Even though the portraits were mostly head shots, each new environment was a challenge. I really loved meeting each person and the varied environments in which I met them. Upon arrival, I needed to quickly assess the location and lighting and how to make the most pleasing portrait within a fairly limited time frame. One of the main challenges was to help the person get comfortable and relaxed with me in a short amount of time. Capturing a casual, relaxed, and real smile was key. Making this happen, however, depends on several variables.

Here are a few tips on how I work with people to try and help them relax in front of a camera:

1. If the person seems busy and stressed, I do my best to assure them I will not take much of their time and I express my sincere thanks for meeting me in the midst of their busy schedule.
2. As I'm setting up and assessing the location, I also engage them in small talk about their work or hobbies (if something in their office suggests a pastime). I try to find and express a common connection. This can be anything from places I've traveled, things I've studied, or hobbies I enjoy.
3. It can be difficult to be funny on the spot with someone I just met, but I try to be as light-hearted without sacrificing professionalism. What I say or how I do this just depends on each person and how they are responding to me. 
4. If I give a compliment, I make sure it's 100% sincere. I never say "Oh, I love that shirt you're wearing!" or "I love that painting behind you!" if I don't mean it.

With this project, I would sometimes ask them to give me that big promotion smile...or that "I'm finished with that grueling tenure process" smile. That would often illicit a genuine smile, although sometimes brief if I had to move my camera too much to put it in front of my face. In other words, I had to be READY for it. That smile can quickly melt when they remember I'm photographing them. :)

Here are a few of my favorites I picked for different reasons:

©2011, Leslie McDaniel
©2011, Leslie McDaniel
©2011, Leslie McDaniel
©2011, Leslie McDaniel
For this portrait series, I used a variety of lighting set ups including window light with a reflector and a flash head on a light stand with a "shoot-through" umbrella.

When photographing people, it's very important to determine the best pose, angle, and lighting that is most complimentary to the subject. In a previous post, I gave some tips on posing for portraits. The importance of using these things to the advantage of the person being photographed can be illustrated by the following example. Look at these two portraits of the person in the first portrait above. The following portraits were made back to back. However, slight changes that occurred to the angle of her body, lighting, and her hair in the moments between the two images resulted in photographs that almost looks like two different people:

11:20:40 AM
11:21:08 AM

As you can see, I chose the first photograph of her at the top of this post over either of these because I felt her smile, pose, and the lighting in that one was the most natural and complimentary.

What process do you go through to make the most complimentary portrait of a person?


Shay said...

I love how beautiful, but also natural these are. I'm sure it is because of the lighting and the genuine postures of the subjects. It's almost as if I am sitting there with the person. The shadows are authentic and the contrast is perfect. Just beautiful.

Leslie McDaniel said...

Hi Shay. Thanks so much!