November 30, 2021

Portraits around the world – this is what I learned

It's the brief moments that make a picture interesting.

With a powerful kick, the farmer's wife threw on the starter of her motorcycle, a second climbed onto the back seat with a fat chicken under her arm. I barely had time to focus my lens before the two ladies roared off. But I had my portrait, right out of the rural idyll with chicken, zinc tub on the wall and pink knickers on the clothesline.

In the broad field of photography, people are among the most exciting subjects. And it's often the short, spontaneous scenes that make portraits come alive or tell a story. Some technical aspects can also be important, such as light, focal lengths, perspectives, tripod or monopod. 

Portraits are Dialogues.

Photographing people is a matter of trust, which also includes openness and respect. Portraits are an exchange between two people, an intimate encounter, because both have an unspoken agreement: one shows something of himself, the other makes it visible with the camera. And there are the small, special moments, just before, just after, or in between. They are relaxed without pose, without intention, and convey a little more authenticity. Sometimes these are the more interesting portraits, they speak to us more directly because they are without the filters of control, vanity, bias.

There are different concepts for portrait photography. It can be the snapshot, out of the situation, without preparation, without pose. Usually these are the more natural images. Or the portrait session, often with carefully placed light, with selected wardrobe, neatly made up. Here the protagonist determines even more controlled how he wants to appear. 

Then there is the simulated situation, portraits of people at their typical activity, carefully staged from the props to the light. Or the whole person, integrated into his typical environment. A special genre is advertising and fashion photography. Here, nothing is natural anymore, yet the scenes should come across as credible and authentic. Model and photographer work together on the image effect.

I used to try photographing people unnoticed on my travels. This really only works with a very long telephoto lens from a certain distance, or a wide-angle lens up close. There you hold the camera hypocritically in a slightly different direction, but still have the person sideways in the picture without him being aware of it. Today I have become more polite and considerate. Before I take pictures, I talk to the people, and I also have to cover myself should I use the picture later. 


When I photograph people, my contact with them determines the quality and message of my images. Very important to me is a relaxed atmosphere. This can already arise through a conversation before and without the camera. During the shooting, I try to motivate with appreciative remarks. Sometimes I start taking pictures just before it officially starts, and even I continue at the end when it's actually already over. This results in particularly loose moments that produce surprisingly lively expressions. For group photos, I find this tactic very helpful, in contrast to the often stiff images you see when people pose for the camera.

I usually also show my protagonist the first results on the camera display and we plan jointly how we want to continue. That inspires and makes us both a motivated team. 

The Lens.

From wide angle to telephoto lens, everything is possible depending on the image composition. However, the wide-angle lens should be used with caution, because too close to the face it can easily change the physiognomy. It tends to make the nose bigger, which is not necessarily flattering. The advantage is the inclusion of the surroundings without blur.

The medium telephoto lens between 80 and 150 mm (35 mm standard) shows the face in its most natural form and leaves the background out of focus when the aperture is open, thus enhancing the expressiveness of the portrait. It is important to always focus on the eyes. The ears, the nose may be slightly out of focus, but the eyes must be sharp. 

Framing and Perspective.

Both decisively determine the statement. The extreme close-up conveys a very special intensity. While tightly cropped at the chin and forehead, the face can be so close that no wrinkle, no detail remains hidden. The opposite is the inclusion of the surroundings with the wide-angle lens. It can tell a story and connect the person more clearly with his individual world.

Perspective also changes a statement. In the movie "Westside Story," for example, the Latino gang in the New York ghetto of the thirties was filmed from an elevated vantage point, looking down from above. The group of white counterparts, on the other hand, was viewed more from below, looking up. The clear intention behind this was to elevate one group above the other. By looking up, the importance of a personality is increased; conversely, the person is literally made smaller.  


The effect of a portrait also depends decisively on the light, of course. In film, the cameraman is responsible for lighting and mood. Some actresses have their favorite cameraman who makes them look particularly advantageous, and stars often insist on their favorite at the camera. As a well-attuned team, they know the most advantageous perspective and the differentiated effect of light and shadow for an attractive appearance. 

In bright outdoor light, I avoid the glaring sunbeam on faces. Everything then looks hard, wrinkles become overly obvious, every pimple pushes itself forward, the nose possibly casts a hard shadow, the eyes blink irritably. That's why I only allow bright sunlight from behind my protagonist or slightly from the side. When the sun is low, however, the warmer light can be quite flattering. 

If the direction of light cannot be influenced at all, and if, for example, you don't want the surroundings to be too bright, then a reflector is useful, a white surface with which you can softly brighten up the face. Such aids are part of professional outdoor lighting technology anyway: semi-transparent cloths stretched on a frame, with which hard sunlight is refracted, and reflectors for brightening up shadow areas. Here, different materials determine the effect: white is good for soft light, silver for hard light, gold for warm light.

Outdoors as well as indoors I prefer backlighting, it has many advantages: on the shadow side the light on the face is soft, you should just be careful not to underexpose too much here. The background is then automatically overexposed and thus recedes more, so the foreground is emphasized. The light from behind/above illuminates hair and shoulders and enlivens the scene. If the light is a little to the side, it touches the ear and cheek, which brings depth into the picture. In the studio, I need only two light sources: a powerful beam from behind/above, a soft brightener from the front. If I move this a little to the side, a light-shadow gradient is created that suits the portrait well, the image has even more expressiveness. 

The Technique.

Mobility is part of my style dealing with subjects - even when I'm photographing a portrait. My protagonist should be able to move freely and I want to follow him with the camera. Whether he is bending or tilting the head, stepping sideways or backwards or forwards, moving his arms - all that requires a lot of different framing which I have to remain flexible for. 

But often the lighting conditions don't allow short exposure times, and especially with lively action the camera has to be stabilized. This is an old issue with me and I have experimented a lot to solve this problem as optimal as possible. Of course, a tripod is very helpful, and if I don't lock the ball head I can follow the movements of my subject. But for travel, sports and events, mobility is a particularly high commodity, so a monopod is more practical than even a travel tripod. In the end, I found the most elegant method for me: I shoot with the Steadify technique. It supports the camera from the hip, which gives me total mobility and at the same time the stability I need.

People are constantly moving, hardly anything about them remains still for a long time. The lips, the gaze, the eyelashes, the head, the arms - as a photographer you can't always have control over every detail and the optimal overall image. That's why you should take a generous amount of pictures, it improves the chances of a successful photo of people.

The photos show all the aspects described: light, cropping, perspectives, focal lengths, snapshots, and staging.

Gert Wagner travels as a photographer and cameraman for magazines, corporations, and brands on all continents and has received numerous awards for his visual language. He is also the inventor of flexible autofocus - now standard in every camera - and the HipJib and Steadify stabilization techniques for cameras.

Gert Wagner

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What is the ideal focal length for portraits?

Basically 80-150 mm, so the face remains in its natural proportions. For more inclusion of the surroundings you need rather short focal lengths, they should just not be too close to the face, because then the proportions can distort. With particularly long focal lengths and an open aperture, the background becomes blurred, thus emphasizing the portrait even more - a sought-after effect in many areas of photography and film.

How to prevent the eyes are closed by blinking?

By taking as many pictures as possible, then the probability is greatest to avoid closed eyes. However, wind can also cause more lash, as can to brighten a light directly from the front.

Won't too much be lost by cropping the image too closely?

On the contrary, the narrower the framing, the more intense the portrait becomes.

What is the easiest way to photograph children?

Since the patience of children is exhausted quickly, you should make all the preparations in advance. It is best to let them act freely and choose the best moments. Many photos increase the chances of natural, fresh photos of children.

What light is best to use for particularly dark skin?

In fact, very dark faces are much more difficult to photograph than light ones. Dark skin in particular absorbs a lot of light, and contours are easily lost. Direct light can also cause disturbing reflections on the skin. For these reasons, it is important to illuminate the face with a soft, bright light and at the same time always measure on the dark parts to the exclusion of the surroundings.

How important is a tripod in portrait photography?

In a confined space, framing and surroundings are limited, and here the camera must remain permanently fixed on one setting. A tripod is well suited for this, even when a shorter exposure time impossible. But as soon as there is more room for a lot of gestures and movements, a camera stabilization from the shoulder or hip is recommended: shoulder tripod or Steadify. This gives you more room to follow the movements of the protagonist. For shorter exposure times, it's best to shoot handheld only.

Is eye contact with the camera important?

Basically, the look of the protagonist in camera causes an immediate directness to the viewer. But it can also enrich a portrait if the gaze is lowered, or dreamy, sad, cheerful, without being able to look directly into the face.

Should you make up faces for photos?

A truly professional portrait also includes a carefully made-up face. You don't have to go that far, though;a powder puff is usually enough to make too much shine on the skin disappear. A completely unadorned face may not necessarily be advantageous, but it is the most authentic and thus often the most interesting.

What is the significance of a monochrome image in portrait photography?

Interestingly, black and white portraits have a certain intensity, especially when you increase the contrast.

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