|Irving Penn, 1949|
|Irving Penn’s Tree of Influence
A Notebook At Random,
|Irving Penn, 1949|
|Irving Penn’s Tree of Influence
A Notebook At Random,
Photographic portraits that aim to emulate classical paintings are usually made with a single light source. Complexity and nuance are enhanced by using flags and reflectors to shape the light. This portrait of model Trisha Bradshaw was lit by a single Calumet Quattro beauty dish with a shower cap diffuser.
The Quattro is angled to skim the gray ultra-suede background. A mirror opposite the main light and behind Trisha creates the rim lighting. A black foam core square behind Trisha flags the background and adds a geometric element. The camera, a Nikon D700 and 105mm lens, is about six feet away, angled very slightly up.
Not that Trisha needs it, but this lighting approach has a slimming effect because the shadow side is toward the camera and the rim light adds to the 3D illusion.
What do these portraits have in common?
Rembrandt self portrait
Al Pacino by Irving Penn
Boy Bitten by a Lizard, Caravaggio
Gary Cooper by Edward Steichen
There are seveal common elements here. First, did you notice that the light souce is to the sitter’s right? I recently read a study that claims more than 75% of portraits are made with the main light to the left of the subject. My own less formal browsing definitely agrees. Why is this?
One theory I find intriguing is that most painters, like the rest of the population, are right handed. If the main light is a window, then having the canvas lit from the left avoids a shadow cast by the painter’s hand. Rembrandt used a mirror for his self portrait, so the mirror image geometry fits the theory, too. By the time photography was on the scene, portraits lit from the right looked the most natural. Subjects lit from the left seem to convey a different emotional impact due entirely to a convention dictated by 600 year old practical concerns.
Another thing to note is the the light source is broad, yet directional, as if coming from a window slightly higher than the subject. The nose shadow does not cross the lip line. The contrast from lit side to shadow side is fairly sharp, which helps delineate form and reinforce overall design.
So, a classical portrait has a main light with these characteristics:
These are the main light “rules” to be broken, and of course, they frequently are with great success. The point point is that the classical main light rules yeild the most natural looking portraity. Moving the main to a different position usually introduces a new tension and increases drama. For instance, moving the main light high and to the left creates a new classic, the beauty shot, like this Ricard Avedon portrait of Liz Taylor:
Moving the light low and to the left is yet another classic I like to call “Frankenstein Light”:
The position of the main light conveys a great deal of nuance, so it one the many tools available to the portrait photographer.
After reading several articles in a row, like Ken Rockwell‘s March 2008 article, “Portrait Lenses”, I found myself fearful that good information about classical photographic portrait technique technique is being drowned by voices high in search ranking but low on education and skill. I belive that the classical foundations are critical to producing consistent, top caliber work. It is easy to demonstrate that portrait masters like Irving Penn, Yousef Karsh and Arnold Newman used the classical portrait techniques as the point of departure for their work.
What is the ideal classical portrait? Like it or not, the ideal that challenges us all, even photographers, is Leonardo DaVinci‘s Mona Lisa. I don’t think it is a surprise that the most famous painting in the world is a portrait. We are hard wired to recognize and appreciate every nuance of the human face. Furthermore, we have the ability to detect even the slightest asymetry or distortion. Classical portraiture, whether painting, sculpture or photography, aims at simultaneously capturing an accurate likeness and idealizing the sitter. This balancing act is mastered by only a few artists in each generatation, so it must be very difficult. At least, there are rules of geometry that guide the way, which is the topic I plan to cover here in the next few posts.
So, the first order of business is to choose a suitable portrait lens. The rule of thumb criteria for this is well established and nothing like Rockwell’s 15 foot theory. Perspective is extremely important to making a pleasing portrait. Perspective is determined by the camera to subject distance. Most of use believe that the ideal camera to portrait subject distance to 5-7 feet and that the lens focal length should be twice normal focal length of the capture format, where the normal focal length is defined as the diagonal of the capture format. For example, the full frame DSLR diagonal is 43mm. Therefore, the ideal head and shoulders portrait focal length is 86mm. It is therefore no surprise that Nikon, Canon, Zeiss and other lens makers offer several 85mm lenses that are tuned for portraiture. Leitz is a bit of a maverick here. First it set the standard normal focal length for the 24x36mm format to 50mm, a few millimeters longer than theoretcal. Continuing the trend, 90mm is the Leica portrait standard, which it holds alone.
So, what does a classical portrait look like? Simple, classical portrait of Ernest Hemmingway is the first Karsh I ever saw in person and the power of it is still impressive. It was shot on 4×5 film using a 14″ Kodak Ektar. This is the image most of us have of Hemmingway.
What happens when a photographer deviates from the ideal? Given a lens focal length that fills the frame with the head and shoulders, if the camera is too close, we get an unpleasant wide angle distortion, making th nose too large, forehead bulbous and ears recede. Arnold Newman used just this technique as a deliberate hatchet job in his famous portrait of Alfried Krupp. The classical foundation led him to choose the “wrong” lens to momentus effect.
On the other hand, if the camera is too far away, the subject appears too heavy and flat. I could not find an example of a master portrait made this way, in spite of Rockwell’s claim that “pro model shoots in the field” have photographers shooting head shots with 300mm and 400mm lenses perched on monopods. While this might happen if a timid sports photographer is asked to shoot a swimsuit model, surveilance gear is not the norm for portraiture or fashion. It achieves a creepy, voyeur effect that is not flattering to the subject.
So, keeping with the formual that 5-7 feet yeilds an ideal perspective, we have two common variants; full lenght and extreme close-up. To accomplish a full length shot, a normal lens is in order. For instance, the portrait below of Max Ernst and Dorthea Tanning by Irving Penn was made on 8×10 film using a Schneider 300mm.
Finally, the extreme close up, which can be very powerful, but seldom flattering. Irving Penn used a normal 80mm lens on his Rolleiflex to shoot Truman Capote:
Whereas Arnold Newman used a Leica with a 135mm lens to capture Marilyn Monroe:
Since most people reading this blog use a DSLR, I’ll confine recommendations to that format:
(24mm X 36mm)
(23.7mm x 15.5mm)
|Full Frame Head||105mm||70mm|