Portrait Composition: how and when to use contrast in your people photography
The word ‘photography’ comes from the Greek ‘phos’ (light) and ‘graphis’ (paintbrush). The literal meaning is ‘painting with light’.
It doesn’t say anything about softboxes, reflectors or the other paraphernalia of professional portrait photography.
So don’t approach portraiture with preconceived notions of how it must be done; the best photographs are often those that you discover rather than those that you construct.
Our main shot is a snap taken when our subject was playing with a torch during a power cut.
Of course, it breaks every single rule of portraiture – it’s the wrong sort of light coming from the wrong direction with a dead-centre composition that couldn’t possibly work. It’s not even sharp. But what does any of that matter?
The image illustrates how you can use the principles of light and dark in portraiture as readily as you can in other kinds of shots.
Dark, or black, areas in a photo aren’t simply dead spaces, they help define the shape of the lighter tones and the structure of the whole photograph.
Dark areas act as a counterpoint for the lighter areas and it’s the balance between the two that produces the composition.
It’s true that harsh lighting doesn’t necessarily work for female portraiture, but that may be because we look for different things in a female portrait (softness, subtlety) to those we want in a male portrait (strength, drama).
In many respects, the advent of colour photography has dulled our sense of light and dark and how they can work compositionally.
Classic black-and-white portraiture of the type produced by Yousuf Karsh, for example, is a world apart from today’s commercial photography, displaying a complete mastery of shadow and tone.
You see the same contrast in films between contemporary, soft-lit colour sets and the dramatically staged lighting of black-and-white films. But which do you prefer?
You may find it easier to explore the possibilities of light and shade by shooting in black and white.
It’s tempting to shoot colour files and convert them later, but if you shoot in mono mode your camera will display black and white on its LCD, an advantage old-time black-and-white photographers never had.
PAGE 1: Portrait Composition Tips – where should your subject look?
PAGE 2: Portrait Composition Tips – using virtual lines and framing for eye contact
PAGE 3: Portrait Composition Tips – how to compose people and objects
PAGE 4: Portrait Composition Tips – how to avoid background clutter
PAGE 5: Portrait Composition Tips: using the sky as a background
PAGE 6: Portrait Composition Tips – how and when to use contrast in your people photography
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