A constant challenge for many beginner and amateur digital photographers is that many techniques are counter-intuitive, meaning the correct action is the opposite of what appears to be obvious. This is the case with portrait photography. Where you are looking from behind the camera is often not as important as where your subjects are looking. Following their sightline or asking them to look anywhere but the camera leads to more creative portraits and signifies you’ve learned a very important lesson about photography.
The next time you have the opportunity to “use” a family member or friend as a portrait subject, start with the basic poses that you learn from other PhotographyTalk.com articles about portrait photography. In these images, the subject is typically looking at the camera or maybe over either of your shoulders. His or her face is relaxed and “smiling for the birdie,” creating the classic photo portrait seen in millions of high school yearbooks, corporate annual reports and fireplace mantels of homes.
Once you have a firm understanding of the basic poses and your results prove it (and your subjects are happy with the way they look), you can then start to explore another kind of portrait photography. Your subject’s sightline is still directed at the camera, but for a different purpose. Instead of the ubiquitous, and often android-looking happy, smiley face, ask your subject to display a number of different emotions: love, compassion, passion, anger, fear, sadness, depression, etc. Now, your subject is not so much a subject, but the expression of an emotion that is driven more forcefully along his or her sightline to the camera. An emotional connection is being made that elevates the quality and interest of your portraits.
This is also an opportunity to experiment with light. Your basic poses were fully illuminated, so the identity of the subject was obvious (Mom and Dad will always cherish it!). Now, you can use lighting to enhance the emotion, mystery and drama that your subject is expressing. It isn’t so important to be able to identify your subject; in fact, you want to make his or her identity secondary to the emotional message you are trying to capture. Move your lights high and low; use two instead of three; or direct one light source on one side of the subject’s face as he or she displays an emotion, which will help to emphasize your message. You have virtually total freedom to use light in unconventional ways to pump your image with emotional or dramatic power. Just remember to insist that your subject strongly projects his or her sightline toward and into the camera.
Feel free to choose atypical positions for your camera too, causing the subject to redirect his or her sightline as you move, as if there were a physical connection between the subject and the camera. Instead of the traditional face-on angle, go low or shoot from a stepladder. You can also strengthen the sightline connection by asking your subject to lean slightly toward the camera, almost as if he or she were being drawn toward it.
When you radically change your camera position and shooting angle, you are also ready to try your first “portraits” of your subject’s sightline going off camera. Shoot at a lower angle with the subject’s face turned obtusely from the camera, as if with anger, and a defiant look on his or her face. Illuminate just that side of his or her face with a single or double light source. Now, you are entering the world of the classic, dramatic poses of the old Hollywood stars. They didn’t pose in front of the camera as just another pretty, cardboard-cutout face; they acted for the camera. If you can direct and inspire your subjects to act with off-camera sightlines, then your results could be spectacular.
You can create an entirely different kind of portrait when your subject’s off-camera sightline is directed toward an object (or another subject) added to the composition. For example, illuminate a portrait with a single candle, held by the subject. Shoot a tight face-on with the candle flame positioned to the outside of one eye and the eyeballs swiveled to view it. Turn the subject 90 degrees to the camera with the candle flame in front of her lips and ask her to blow just enough to move the flame, but not extinguish it.
Your subjects may want a straightforward photo portrait, but you want the opportunity to explore the entire genre. Following your subject’s sightline and learning how to direct where he or she looks is a powerful portrait photography technique and identifies you as someone growing, as a photographer.
Photo copyright PhotographyTalk member Suzanna Patra
People who read this PhotographyTalk.com article also liked:
Your feedback is important to thousands of PhotographyTalk.com fans and us. If this article is helpful, then please click the Like and Re-Tweet buttons at the top left of this article.