26 Dec 2007

How to photograph people - a simple portrait

The inside of the synagogue was a blaze of coloured wall tiles and, understandably, most of the visitors waned to take photographs of these. When I set eyes on the faces of the rabbis and scholars, I’m afraid the colourful surroundings faded into the background – such wonderful faces! While the others looked around the synagogues inner sanctum. I made a beeline for the man handing out the obligatory skull caps. There was no time to spend on chat and I don’t think the poor chap knew what hit him, but I wasn’t prepared to give him the chance to refuse to have his picture taken. I took him gently by the arm and sat him down by a small window – the best light available.

Setting up a tripod was out of the question, it was a case of making the most of the conditions as they were.

Fortunately, there was a table between us and I was able to rest my elbows on this to hold the camera still for the 1/15sec exposure. The result – a simple, but powerful portrait, whose impact is due to the sidelighting, which brings out the quality of the man’s features and the unblinking expression on his face.

The penetration and gravity of this simple portrait centres on the man’s doleful, knowing eyes. A frown or a smile is so often merely a transient, fleeting expression, and a more reliable giveaway to a someone’s personality is to be seen in the eyes. When we photograph someone looking straight at the camera like this, an intimate and hypnotic link is forged between the subject and the person looking at the picture.

The lower picture shows the simple set-up where I took the portrait. Just one small window and a table. It’s sometimes all you need.
First published in my book 'A Practical Guide to Travel Photography'.


Anonymous said...

That is a seriously brilliant picture. Have you any plans for a portrait workshop? – Russell

Philip Dunn said...

Thanks for the comment. Yes, the next DVD is about photographing portraits in natural light. No flash, no fancy kit. I hope to get the DVD out by spring. I will keep you informed through the blog.
Meanwhile I would be happy to give more tips on portraiture if you wish.

altamiranyc said...

Wow. Jaw drops to ground. This is absolutely brilliant....must have more coffee to keep reading!