Exercise 3.10 A formal portrait – background tests

28th January 2020

How would you make a formal portrait of someone, that tells the viewer about that person’s character, life and interests but remains subtle and restrained?

OCA Foundations in Photography Course Folder pg 116

To begin my research on formal portraiture I performed a google image search. I was questioning the difference between how the search images were predominantly head and shoulder shots which contradicted the OCA folder’s description which states, “It’s generally a full-length portrait of a person showing their whole figure deliberately posed to be the main subject of the composition.” OCA Foundations in Photography course folder pg 116

Below I have taken two screen shots of the first images on Google when searching the phrase, ‘a formal portrait.’

This contradiction has made me very eager to research formal portraiture further – as if I needed an excuse to research more!

30th January 2020

Now that I am researching further I started with the Google search again with the phrase, ‘A formal portrait.’ The focus description on the Google landing page states that a formal photograph is,

A formal portrait is a posed picture of a person or a group of people. … Formal portraits are different from informal ones, which show the subject in casual poses, possibly looking away or engaged in some activity. It is a long-standing method to capture professional-looking images.

Google landing page, ourpastimes.com Our Pastimes

This description is the same as the OCAs but it does not state the photograph has to show the full length of the subject.

I have decided that if I look at the webpages that discuss formal portraits in order that the Google search has presented them, I may be able to decipher what a formal portrait means in real life terms.

  • Digital Photography Review dpreview.com COMPOSITION: FORMAL PORTRAIT A portrait is an image of a person’s face that clearly displays their likeness and may often display some aspect of their personality. A formal portrait is not a snapshot but a carefully arranged pose under effective lighting conditions.
  • Expert Photography expertphotography.com THE TEN DIFFERENT TYPES OF PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY YOU SHOULD KNOW … A sub-genre of the traditional portraits are formal portraits. Formal portraits use the same posing and studio setting, but with formal or business attire. 
  • Portraits, Inc portraitsinc.com INFORMAL ‘V’ FORMAL PORTRAITS … the subject’s personality, achievements, status, interests and manner… Formal portraits don’t necessarily mean the subject must appear stiff and lifeless. Informal doesn’t have to mean unprofessional, but often means natural. Even if the subject is dressed in a formal manner, the end result can still be more casual. For example, a friendly, laid back businessman might wear his buttoned up suit for the portrait, but a natural, relaxed pose at his desk can make the portrait informal.
  • Pinterest pinterest.co.uk FORMAL FAMILY PORTRAITS
Formal Family Portraits pinterest.co.uk

Did this searching help clarify things in my mind? NO because the Pinterest collection shows full body shots as the OCA course folder has informed us while the other websites have just commented on specifics such as facial expressions and poses, and the images show head and shoulder to half body shots.

The National Geographic webpage states,

PEOPLE PICTURES FALL into two categories: portraits and candid. Either can be made with or without your subject’s awareness and cooperation.

Settings—The Other Subject

The settings in which you make pictures of people are important because they add to the viewer’s understanding of your subject. The room in which a person lives or works, their house, the city street they walk, the place in which they seek relaxation—whatever it is, the setting provides information about people and tells us something about their lives. Seek balance between subject and environment. Include enough of the setting to aid your image, but not so much that the subject is lost in it.

National Geographic People and Portrait Photography Tips nationalgeographical.com

A formal portrait is any portrait where the shot has been deliberately set up, as opposed to a candid shot… However, formal portraits don’t have to look posed – you can still get your subject to pretend and set up the shot to look like you’ve caught someone behaving naturally. For any type of pose to be successful, you need to try to relax your subject and get them to be themselves. Try to get a rapport going.

The classic formal head and shoulders crop, where you compose so the subject is cropped across the shoulders just below the collar line , is effective and looks clean. But you don’t have to stick to this. Full body portraits can be equally as effective, particularly if you want to convey a character trait, perhaps through flamboyant clothing, for example.

Harman and Jones (2005), The Digital Photography Handbook, London: Quercus pg74 Formal portraits

Logged on, Zoned out

I was quite upset because completing this exercise had been postponed twice as I was let down by a sitter. The idea with this sitter was to have her sitting in the window of our local Weatherspoons, hands wrapped around a mug of coffee and staring out at the passers by. The work would have had the title, ‘Coffee Watching.’

After the postponed dates, which meant a week and a half of not being able to get on with this work I had to resort, yet again, to asking my daughter to sit for me. I made some notes (below) which relate to some of the points I had researched.

Brain storming

If anyone talks to me on the phone and says how quiet my house is knows that my youngest daughter is on the computer. It is her go to area where she can put headphones on and shut out the world and all of its noise and confusion. Being on the autistic spectrum not only does she like to separate herself from unwanted stimuli that we cannot pick up on but she likes to use the computer for anything and everything from gaming, listening to music, watching YouTube and doing her home ed work.

One thing which is known about poppy she multi-tasks. She likes to have a youTube video running in the background while she is working or playing games and sometimes she can be doing four separate activities at once but all with concentration. Does one thing distract her from the other? No it doesn’t, in fact her concentration is very intense and often she will look as though she has completely left her body and zoned out while she is working and playing.

I thought for a formal portrait that captures Poppy’s character we would indeed shoot a daily ‘computer’ scene.

I had actually cleaned the studio a couple of days ago and apart from poppy’s messy table the room was unnaturally clutter free. So to set the scene I threw a lot of the stuff back on the floor and on my desk in the background.

I am not ashamed to say we both work in a chaotic environment because I also work on multiple things at once and the layers of work and books quickly pile up, BUT we know exactly where everything is. So yes, it may look chaos in the room but it is organised chaos.

Poppy is in that time of life where as a teenager there is no chance at the moment of keeping her work space clean and clutter free. However the objects that were on her desk were re-arranged, for example the two empty water bottles were stood up to add to the composition rather than just laying haphazardly on the table, getting pushed and moved around when my daughters working space needed to change.

Other objects were left where they were as I thought they lay in appropriate places to add to the composition and to also move our eyes around the picture plan after we look at the main subject.

Next I asked Poppy to put her favourite top on, which was a very striking lime coloured jumper with stripes. I was a bit worried that the photograph would begin to be quite a challenge on the viewers eyes, with the chaos of the objects, the vivid lime green and the stripes all playing for equal attention which would mean the subject might not get noticed as the main area of interest.

I was determined to set the scene though as naturally as possible so I asked Poppy to sit relaxed with her hands in her usual way on the keyboard and mouse.

Once this was was set up I let her continue playing a game so that I could capture her concentration which would be seen her eyes and neutral facial expressions.

The shots I took are in the contact sheet below. I used different viewpoints from behind the subject matter, to the side of and in front of as well as above and below the subject.

I thought afterwards how silly it was to shoot a formal photograph from behind as you cannot see any of the face at all, but I have learnt!

Contact sheet of shots

From the contact sheet I chose two images that I thought were especially strong.

These images are both from different sides of the subject and one is a shot of the side of the face so that the eyes become the pre-dominant feature that tells the viewer of her concentration as opposed to the shot on the left which shows more facial expressions and also the hunching of her body which she does when she is relaxed.

below are the two chosen shots which I then converted into black and white.

Once I had brought the images onto the screen I was able to critic them more. I found quite a lot of disappointing errors which were present because I wanted the ‘natural’ look. These errors are connected with the lighting especially in the image on the left where we can see that I had left my daughters overhead table lamp on which gives a distinct orange glow to the image. This glow is not present in the second image because I had remembered to turn the light off so the lighting is more natural here all be it ‘dull.’

My second criticism is the composition on the image in the left did not take into consideration the window with its intense light which although contrasts well with the remaining image allowing specific different light and dark areas it does bleach out part of the background.

The window light does not impact the second image on the right mainly because it is not present in the photograph as I am not directly shooting towards it but also because as I am taking the photograph my body is blocking out the light going towards my subject. This has caused the image to be quite flat as I feel I need a few highlighted ares to contrast with the overall tone of the image. Maybe I could dodge some of the areas to lighten them? I shall give this a go and see if it helps the image at all.

In the image below I have used the Dodge tool to lighten specific areas that I thought had lost their natural light colour such as the wall, book and bowl. After reviewing the adjusted image I thought that the skin also needed to be lightened slightly so this was my next task to complete.

The new adjusted image definitely looks more brighter and cleaner so this allows me to take note that my lighting and exposure was not handled well. I feel I have lightened the wall far too much and it now actually looks too white and informs me that some of the objects also need lightening up.

So although I have caught the concentration within Poppy’s facial expression and eyes the overall completed image is poor due to the lighting and exposure creating quite a mid tone image.

I have made many technical mistakes in this exercise which I am not too pleased with and I also am still unwise to know if this portrait does indeed fall into the formal portrait category.

I am also still puzzled to whether the coloured images or the black and white images suit the subject the best. The colours and striped pattern are quite vivid to the eye and the overhead lamp causing the orange glow has taken the ‘reality’ shot a little too far because it looks just like a home snap rather than a staged photograph – or does it? Perhaps I staged it too much?

My final image for this exercise is therefore the one below and I have titled it, ‘Logged On, Zoned Out.’

Logged On, Zoned Out – Colour
Logged On, Zoned Out – B&W

I chose this as my final image for the reasons below:

  • Half body shot
  • Facial expressions show concentration
  • Foreground shows her interest (computer) and her using it.
  • Table props/ objects symbolise that she is a teenager and shows her natural working environment
  • Mid-ground continues the theme of concentration amongst chaos
  • Background light adds contrast to the foreground blacks

I am pleased with the image but I am not very sure as to whether this is a formal portrait because those that I have researched seem calm and clean in environment.

I am hoping to really get some nitty gritty feedback on this one and some further research ideas as this is the opposite of my candid portraiture that I am used to and I found it very hard.


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