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Book Review: The Portait: Understanding Portrait Photography by Glenn Rand & Tim Meyer

The Portait is a detailed examination into the area of photography what is commonly referred to as portrait photography. Portraits have been created for thousands of years to convey to others the person captured by image whether through painting or photography. The portrait is about the subject. It is well established in the introduction, the portrait is not about you, your camera, or your lenses.

In The Portait: Understanding Portrait Photography, the author's goal is to help you understand that the creation of a portrait is a conscious act. It is the process of the photographer, through a series of choices of setting, lighting, pose and more, trying to communicate a specific result and thus conveys something important or unique about that individual. While some full body poses are used, the main focus of this book is the facial portrait. The Portait is 200 pages in length and divided into 14 chapters.

Chapter One, "A Very Brief History of Photographic Portraiture," begins with a short history of portraits in general and more specifically the photographic portrait.

Chapter Two, "Light Dynamics and the Portrait," provides a fundamental concept that is used throughout the book, that of Light Dynamics (LD). It is through this concept that the authors build an understanding of the primary tool of all photography, that of light and how it affects your scene. In this chapter you get a very good look at how light can be used in its rawest form.

Chapter Three, "Lighting Sources and Equipment," examines the different kinds of light that is available for you to work with. This includes continuous light, creating light, ambient light, window light, and strobe lighting.

Chapter Four, "Light Modification," takes your light source and now looks at how you can manipulate this source to get different effects. This includes the use of reflectors, domes, soft light modifiers, hard light modifiers, and modifying intensity

Chapter Five, "Exposure and Metering," describes ways to control the light. Here you will look at basic exposure, unmetered exposure, using light meters, substitution metering, tonal placement, and testing for exposure.

Chapter Six, "Lighting Ratios," relates to human perception and how we interpret a scene without it feeling staged. Here you will see how to get the right levels.

Chapter Seven, "Lighting Patterns on the Human Face," examines the five primary surfaces, or planes of the human face. This is important to understand if you are going to get the correct illumination.

Chapter Eight, "Lighting Setups," takes you through the major setups for lighting. These are the one, two, three, and four light setups as well as looking at some specific techniques for certain types of effects.

Chapter Nine, "Backgrounds," discussed how backgrounds, if not understood and controlled, can prove to be a distraction from the main subject. Here you will examine how best to use the background to its best effect.

Chapter 10, "Mixed Ambient and Electronic Flash Lighting and Exposure," is about an area a little more complex as you are dealing with a source that you have less control over in the ambient light. Here you will see how to control exposure in mixed environments.

Chapter 11, "Posing," is about the act of changing physical position to increase visual interest. Here you will get a sample of the basics of posing. These include physical posing, head placement, and looking at posing as composition as well as expression.

Chapter 12, "Portrait Compositional Basics," describes how a portrait works. These include the elements, principles as well as the perceptual aspects of composition. Here you will look at balance, lines, shape, similarity, juxtaposition, color, texture, patter, and content.

Chapter 13, "Facial Analysis," is about what helps us make our subjects individuals. There is a balance between looking ones best and looking perfect. It is through these techniques of facial shape and expression that you will have a better feel for how to bring out the best in the individual.

Chapter 14, "Relating to Subject," is important to portraiture photography. It is a conscious act that involves cooperation on both the subject and the photographer. If the two cannot relate on some level, the end result will not be effective.

The Portait is a very easy read and really well defined in the goals it is attempting to accomplish. While there are many topics that are described in this book that could provide material for books on their own such as lighting setups, The Portait does a very good job of distilling the fundamental techniques so that anyone can understand the basic concepts and put them to good use.

While much of this book's techniques are grounded in film photography, most of it is still very relevant to today's modern digital techniques. Even with some that may not be as important such as lighting ratios, I feel it is still important to understand the concepts. If you are looking for a good basic book on portraiture that will provide you with an excellent overview of the fundamental techniques, then I highly recommend The Portrait: Understanding Portrait Photography.

About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.

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