Pay attention! You're shooting more than just your subject.

Portrait photography is about more than just the portrait-ee. Whether you’re shooting weddings, formal portraits, or candid character shots, the context in which your subject is embedded really shapes the quality of your photos. And by “context,” we don’t just mean the background. Context includes the lighting, the foreground (if any), depth and closeness to the subject, and what the subject is wearing and doing.

portrait photographyIn [this piece], Jackie DiBenedetto discusses the various factors involved in establishing context for your subject, and he illustrates the discussion with shots from a photo session he did with an actor friend.

Here are three of the elements he explores:


Mr. DiBenedetto confined himself to natural light, supplemented by a regular ol’ external flash during this shoot, so as you might imagine, he had lighting issues. His camera settings were not as helpful as he might have wished. He tried various strategies for addressing the less-than-optimal light, including having his subject move around, and using an umbrella to partially block the sun. One of his difficulties, he says, was that the direct sunlight could cause a halo effect on the top of his subject’s head. (Of course, 500 years ago the portrait artists would have killed for an effect like that, so we can’t help wondering what’s the problem.)

portrait photographyColor balance

Using that umbrella introduced a new problem: the need for color correction. The umbrella he used to filter the sun was apparently a bright orange, which played havoc with his subject’s skin tones and created other coloring problems. He was able to restore a more natural look by adjusting his white balance, supplemented by judicious use of a gray card.

Relationship between camera and subject

It never ceases to amaze him how many interesting variations can be obtained on a single pose in a single location, simply by moving around the subject and shooting from a wide variety of angles. Not only does it capture a variety of perspectives on the subject, but it brings in a variety of background variations and nuances. This might sound elementary, but the more adventurous you are in your experimentation with different distances and angles, the more pleasant surprises you’re likely to encounter.

portrait photographyPortrait photography is not rocket science. Pay attention to some basics in the the way you address what’s going on around and beyond your subject, and you should be fine. Even when you’re shooting in a fairly stripped-down, uninspired setting, by paying due attention to lighting, color balance, and your position vis-a-vis the subject you can work wonders with the context in which your subject is set.