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Shooting portraits that reflect personality

Posted by Eric Bauer, Boston.com Staff  July 31, 2008 12:18 PM

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Brendan Hogan as photographed by Yoon S. Byun
Yoon S. Byun took this portrait of WGBH radio host Brendan Hogan in Cambridge's Inman Square.

By Yoon S. Byun
Globe Staff Photographer


I'm a fan of subtleties and symbolism when making portraits. When thinking less editorially in style, I also attempt to be more conceptual.

The first thing I look for is light (regardless of what the situation is). Light quality varies throughout the day. Light quality can vary depending on the type of weather. Light can be bounced, diffused, redirected, or filtered. It can be harsh or soft. I think of light as a compositional element to a portrait. It can determine what the picture says.

Often, but not always, I'm a big fan of nice, soft, natural light. An open window on an overcast day creates a very similar effect to a studio softbox. Soft light creates soft shadows and de-emphasizes contours and creases in a person's face. Hard light brings a lot of those details out.

A good exercise to see how light shapes a person's face and body is to move the light source around the person. Angle your light source from above, below, and all sides. Watch the directions the shadows are cast on a person's face and body.

Two basic lighting situations are broad and short light. Broad light directs light on the part of a person's face facing you, while short light will illuminate the part of a person's face not facing the camera. Broad light tends to give a slightly wider and flatter look, while short light tends to narrow the shape of a person's face. The definitions are fairly literal. The amount of light hitting a person's face is either broad or short. Typically, shorter light is more dramatic.

I also look for details -- details on people's faces, their clothing, or objects in their surroundings.

Sometimes I direct people, but often I don't. I kind of observe, a la Greg Kinnear's painter character in "As Good as It Gets." Sometimes my lack of direction makes people wonder if I know what I'm doing. But sometimes that lack of direction puts into motion the picture I'm looking for. People often relax and become "themselves" once you put the camera down, or lower it from your face. Once I see the moment, I'll simultaneously ask the person to hold that position and I'll begin making pictures.

More Yoon Byun photos

colonel.jpg
Yoon Byun photographed Colonel Mark Delaney in natural light at State Police headquarters in Framingham.


Want to keep improving, or have some tips to share? Check out all of our tipsheets or submit your own.

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