First steps in Portraiture


My entry into Photography was a very gentle and gradual one. As such, I don’t actually remember much of how it all came about, nor do I remember the specific steps I took, nor in what order I learned the lessons, or why.

Handy, then, that there are people out there who are just coming to terms with their disease, errr, affliction, errr, passion that is photography. In this case, my dear friend Anna went on a rant-a-licious rampage, which might help some budding photographers gain some self-esteem and follow a new-ish photographer in her first footsteps towards what’s promising to become a life-long obsession: Taking good portrait photos.

Without further ado, I’ll hand you over to Anna! 


This last year I’ve become very interested in taking photos of people. There are several reasons for this; firstly I actually have some friends now and want to take photos of them that they genuinely like and secondly, because it’s a damn difficult thing to do and I like a proper challenge. I don’t do conventional portraits (you know the ones; sit up straight, smile for the camera etc.). You can look at those once, put them in a drawer or on your grandma’s wall and they don’t tell you anything at all about the person. When I take a photo of someone, I want it to convey something about their character and in some cases, when it’s someone I know and care about, I want it to reflect that as well.

Photo by Anna Badley

guitarplayer.jpgThe first proper portrait I did was April this year. The friend in question was highly suspicious of my abilities, hugely hungover and rather lined and crumpled (he used to smoke 20 a day and had recently given up). I only had a compact digital camera with me at the time and the light was fading rapidly. I put it into sepia and made it look old fashioned because he’d insisted he didn’t want to look ginger on it, the awkward bastard. He was actually quite chuffed with his portrait and has merrily posted it on websites to show people. More importantly though, it stands as a record of how crumpled he actually was, and now, 9 months on, I’ve taken some more photos where he looks a lot less crumpled and he’s pretty pleased about this. This is what giving up smoking does for you.

Since then I’ve taken a lot of photos of people. Most of them have been fairly reluctant to let me point a camera at them but glad they did when I show them the results. I’ve found that women are more difficult to photograph than men because they are more worried they will look awful which is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy really. If you are anxious about being photoed, the photo will inevitably look crap. This has proved to be the case with my mother. She has the ability to grin inanely in an alarming way that she only ever does when someone points a camera at her. I even managed to capture the stages of facial contortion that lead to the inane grin by taking four photos over the course of a second – normal, anxious having noticed the camera, attempting to form grin, GRINNING ANXIOUSLY.

Photo by Anna Badley

I suspect this anxiety people instantly develop when a camera is pointed at them is because of too many bad pictures taken in the past – rabbit-in-headlights, blinded by flash, cheesy grinning forced posing type shots that never see the light of day again. Let’s face it, there’s nothing like a crap portrait to knock your confidence about how attractive you are and photos can be horribly unkind because they catch you for the tiniest split second where you might be laughing and thus showing off your crooked teeth.

portraitsalma.jpgThere was a point to this post (I’ll get there in the end, honestly) and it was that as Christmas has just been and gone there are a lot of people out there who have been let loose with new cameras, or new lenses for old cameras. Basically, the world is not a safe place right now if you’re nervous about having your photo taken. However, for all those new camera owners, you might get a photo worth sticking on your wall if you try out these five things:

1. Try and shoot in daylight rather than indoors. This will stop the flash going off and giving people red eye. Red eye makes people look mental. Of course, if this is the aspect of their character you are trying to capture, then that’s fine.

2. Photograph one or two people at a time instead of trying to get large groups together; you’ll never get everyone smiling nicely at once and also big group photos rarely look good when printed because you have to stand further back to take them so everyone looks smaller and blurrier.

Photo by Haje Jan Kamps

3. Never ask anyone to smile. It never works because it makes them think about what their mouth is doing – disastrous. Tell them a joke or pull faces at them if you must, or take a non-smiling photo for a change. In fact, if you can catch them when they’re not aware you’re taking a photo that’s even better; for example if they are engrossed in doing something they enjoy doing. You could even take a photo of them from an unusual angle – from the back, perhaps? For the truly camera-shy, there is always the option of snapping them whilst they sleep. This is probably a bit ethically dubious, however, and you might want to show them the photos when they wake up and check they’re okay about it.


4. Timing. With a digital camera you can afford to get a bit carried away and blast off fifteen or so shots of one person on the off-chance one will come out right – a great way to learn what works and what doesn’t. There is no shame in this; even the professionals get a bit trigger-happy sometimes. You can also check the photos you’ve just taken to see if people have their eyes closed etc. which is a major bonus. However, whether you’re working with digital or film, it’s still worth watching and waiting for a potentially good shot and not just panicking and pressing the shutter button the moment you’ve got your victim (er…I mean model) where you want them. Talk to them a bit. Give them time to relax. Ply them with drink. Chloroform them if needs be (only kidding).

5. Failing all else, you can hide all sorts of atrocious things by changing your photos to black and white or sepia. This is very easy in digital – quite a lot of digital cameras actually have these options on the camera itself – sometimes under the manual settings. This means you can actually go all arty and shoot in black and white or sepia if the mood takes you. Not so easy in film of course – you have the options of starting off with a black and white film in the first place, or scanning your photos and adjusting them in an art package. Black and white is a wonderful way of hiding spots, disguising drink-related red faces…and getting rid of purple and pink anoraks.

Good lord I went on a bit there. Sorry about that. I’ll shut up now.

Some of the pictures in this article were taken by Haje, because Anna didn’t send me any before she vanished for her Christmas break. If you like her photos, why not check out Anna’s DeviantArt page or her Flickr stream?

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