A little while ago I found this excellent blog on Nikonians by Martin Turner. He writes about how the classic potratit painters worked and how we can improved our portrait photography by learning from these masters. He has written several very interesting blog posts on this subjects and I felt like commenting on them myself.
In his first post also titled ”Learning about portraits from the masters” he discusses the context of the portrait more than the actual technique to pain or photograph. A portrait is supposed to say something about the person being portrayed and therefore it is important to not lose context and pay some attention to the surroundings of the person, the positioning of the subject, any other props or objects in the picture should have meaning and add to the portrait and not detract from the person being potrayed. I think this is an important lesson and something that is easily forgotten.
In his second post he speaks about differential focus something that has been used by painters for a long time and photographers using a telephoto lens, wide open aperture and focusing as close as possible to re-create. Of course post processing can also be used to achive this and there are more than one way of doing nice differential focussing on a subject.
For a portrait we want the eyes to be sharp, then the mouth and the hair are also important — putting too much fuzziness on the hair makes things look strange and the eyes and mouth are what we as humans focus mostly on when we are viewing a portrait of someone else. An excellent example about this is the painting of a Genoese nobleman painted by Bernardo Strozzi in oil on canvas.
Another thing that he notices are also that backgrounds in paintins are almost always very dark. Almost to the point of being black but never completely black there is always some texture to them but in a very subtle way and the idea of isolating the person from the background is very evident.
Today in photography we often use light backgrounds, even white overexposed so called high key shots which usually means you put 4 times as much light on the background as you do on the subject. Makes it easy to cut out in photoshop and re-arrange in a different background but I get a feeling there is a reason that portrait painters never used such backgrounds.
He also talkes a lot about skin details and softening of the skin in portrait. This was done by painters also using selective focussing techniques when painting but this is also likely down to that our minds generally don’t remember much skin details, we focus on the areas around the eyes and mouth and we tent not to remember too much on other details.
The rest of the posts are also interesting but his number 2 post was the best one so far in my opinion.
You can find Martin Turners Nikonian blog here if you want to read more, and I hope you will because it is very interesting to read his articles!