What is a psychological portrait?
This type of portrait is just one of the many ways there are in photography to take a picture of a person. However, not just any portrait can be called psychological.
What do we intend to express with this type of portrait?
Apart from making a physical representation, in the psychological portrait we try to reflect the character of the portrayed person. To capture a range of their emotions in fractions of a second or to understand their personality in a single image.
The roots of the psychological portrait are in plastic art and in painting, where apart from capturing the corporal and physiognomic similarity, the painter has to find a true way to represent the character or even the “soul” of the model, and also simultaneously to reflect something of the time and the society in which the portrayed person lived. Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Velázquez were masters of the psychological pictorial portrait.
Being a psychological portrait photographer is not as easy as it might seem. The portrait photographer has to know how to relax the sitter so that they will get the best out of them in front of the camera. And this is the real talent of the portrait photographer who, in addition to knowing how to handle photographic techniques and light, must also be a good psychologist and skilled communicator.
In this type of work, the photographer must first of all know how to take the initiative, to know exactly what he is looking for and how he can get it. For this reason, there are special techniques that allow us to achieve our objective.
One of the best ways to learn how to do psychological portraits is to know how the great masters of this genre worked. Among the tips below are the methods of portraiture employed by Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Robert Mapplethorpe, Sarah Moon, Anton Corbijn, Paolo Roversi and other photographers. I will try to summarize in several points what they were looking for and what tools they used to find it.
Why and what for?
- Before we take the camera in hand, we have to ask ourselves two questions and know how to answer them. Why do you want to take this picture and what is it for? If you know the answer, half the work is already done. This reason will be your goal.
Looking for empathy
- The main objective of the psychological portrait photographer is to find or even create an expression in the portrayed person that will engage you, as a photographer, and then it will engage the viewer. It is not enough to represent only the external beauty of a person. It is necessary to find something within them that will awaken a deep empathy or even a strong rejection in the viewer. There must first be a CONNECTION first between the photographer and the sitter, in order for there to be a connection between the finished portrait and the viewer.
- The most important thing is to constantly ask oneself the question: What is my model expressing right now? What emotion am I capturing in my work? If there is no emotion, no connection and no empathy between the photo and the viewer, the photo does not work.
- On the model’s face all the elements have to work: eyes, lips, eyebrows. The movement of the lips has to confirm what the eyes express. And if the eyes are closed, all the attention is focused on the lips and it is down to them to express emotion.
- Look for something that surprises, in the face, in a gesture, in the body posture. As Richard Avedon says in his documentary “Darkness and light”: I always look for contradictions in the faces of the people I portray.
- Do not make the model pose, but make them live within the frame. Remember, only professional models know how to pose in a natural way. Non-professionals posing tend to look slightly ridiculous. We must always keep in mind that the viewer must feel something is happening in the photo, and this is reflected in the expression of the face and body of the portrayed person. It is only through an action that you can achieve a reaction.
- Being portrayed is hard work and the person in front of the camera must understand this and must collaborate. In the process of creating the psychological portrait, both the photographer and sitter do the work.
- Create within the image movement of lines and light. Alternate light and shadow to create a rhythm of light. This illumination scheme that comes from classic painting, is called “Leonardo´s light ”. It means that we put “the illuminated parts of the model on the dark unlit background and the unlit part of the model on the illuminated background”. It was also used a lot by Irving Penn. This is also called ‘diagonal light’. How is this type of lighting created? You put the main light for the model in the lateral or semi-lateral position and put the background light in the opposite direction, creating a light-dark gradient in the background. Thus the illuminated part of the model’s face and body is on the dark unlit background, and the unlit part of the model is on the illuminated background.
- Know what you are looking for and want to get out of the model, by highlighting them with photographic means (position of the head, body posture, gesture, adequate lighting scheme, use of some props such as glasses, hat, scarf, etc.) If we look at the portraits of Irving Penn, he quite often used different props and even an old rug he found in his studio. He used grey colour background usually, and on many occasions he used black colour accessories to separate the portrayed person from the background.
- Get rid of everything in the picture that is unnecessary. Leave only the essential details. During the session don’t think about the rules and what others have already done. Look for what is important to you in the portrait, as well as in life. After all, the portrait does not only speak about the portrayed person, it also reveals something of the photographer’s own personality. As Richard Avedon said: “My portraits are more about me than the people I photograph”.