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The Secret to Portraiture

Krissy Scalzi, 8/15/21

As most of you undoubtedly know, I take and post a lot of pictures of Krissy, not only because she’s often at home and is thus a convenient subject, but also because she’s gorgeous and I like taking pictures of her. I post the pictures here and on social media, and on social media I’m inevitably asked what Krissy’s skin regimen is, because her skin, generally speaking, looks terrific. The answer I usually give is: Oil of Olay Anti-Aging 7-in-1 Moisturizer With Hint of Foundation, and also, a husband who knows his way around Photoshop. Both matter in terms of the photos I post of Krissy.

Which is to say — and this should not be a surprise to anyone — that I do photoedit the pictures I post of Krissy. This should not be a surprise because in point of fact I photoedit nearly every picture of post of anything to some degree or another. I edit pictures of my yard and sky to bring out colors and details. I edit pictures of my sunsets to give them punch and drama. I edit pictures of my cats because they’re often sitting in front of windows and their faces are washed out by background light. I often edit pictures of myself to make myself look more goofy, because it amuses me to do so. And I edit pictures of Krissy (and Athena) to make them look good. I edit photos.

And I don’t feel bad about any of those edits, both for technical and aesthetic reasons. The technical reason — which I’ve mentioned here before several times — is the camera sensor is not actually equivalent to the human eye, nor is the image a camera takes a “true” and objective version of whatever subjects it captures. The people who have made the cameras have made choices with both the hardware and the software, and those show up in the image, and how it comes out of the camera.

The aesthetic reason I don’t feel bad about editing is because often those hardware and software choices of the camera are ones I don’t agree with, and either I want to bring the image I’ve taken closer in line with what I see with my own eyes, or I want them to have a certain look that’s as consistent as I can make it across all manner of viewing devices (a picture looks different on a phone than it does on a larger computer screen, for example, because of size, type of screen, brightness of the screen, environment the screen is in, etc). Alternately, I have a specific goal from an image, which may or may not relate to realism. As the photographer, I make choices as well.

When I do portraiture of Krissy (and of Athena, less so with myself), what I want to capture is how I see them, which is strongly rooted in how my eye sees them, with a personal overlay of emotion and memory. What that means is that the pictures of Krissy you see here look like Krissy looks in real life — check with people who know her for confirmation — but I also do a number of things to make them look what I think is the best they can be.

Take the picture above as an example, which I took with my Nikon D780, using my telephoto lens in the early evening. Right out of the camera, Krissy’s face was flatter than I usually see it (telephoto lenses flatten out faces as they zoom in), the light was behind her so her face was slightly darker than it might usually be, the sensor decided (as it usually does) to accentuate contrasts, making Krissy’s skin blotchier than usual and her wrinkles more prominent, and because Krissy was turned away from the light source (the setting sun), the camera decided that her skin tone was an almost alarming shade of magenta.

So, in Photoshop I evened out her skin tone, corrected for lens distortion, fiddled with contrast to draw back the wrinkles a bit, brightened her face and made her skin tone a more natural shade — and then made the photo black and white, which meant another set of fiddling with color settings (which, although you don’t see the color in monochrome pictures, the color values translate into brightness and contrast) as well as other values. The result: Well, you can see it above. Krissy looks like Krissy! And the picture is different than what came out of the camera.

Which brings us to what the headline promised: The secret to portraiture. It is: Don’t insult the viewer. Krissy looks great in the photo, because Krissy generally looks pretty great, and I’ve gone out of my way to make her look good. With that said, Krissy is also 51 years old, and while we all like to joke about her never aging, the fact is that she does (just possibly more slowly than the rest of us) and I’m reasonably certain all y’all would notice if my pictures of her did not reflect the reality of that fact. My pictures of Krissy show her gray hair, her wrinkles around her eyes and on her forehead, stray hairs, and the fact that she has, you know, pores and stuff. Krissy looks great! She also looks like an actual human being who walks around in the world.

Bad portraiture (in my opinion) is not portraiture that strives to make its subject look as good as they can, but portraiture that breaks realism without prior agreement. If I present you with a picture of someone, and they have no pores and plastic-looking skin and too-bright eyes and so and so forth, and I also expect you to believe that it’s “no filter,” then you’re not going to believe it, and you’re probably going to be annoyed with me for attempting to present it as such. When I show you a picture, unless I’ve noted upfront that I’m going wildly out of the bounds of realism, I want you to be able to believe the person I’m showing you in the photo will look similarly out in the world. I don’t want to insult you.

(Of course, the other side of this is that I sure hope you don’t think that people always look exactly like they do in photos. Krissy is not always walking about with her magnificent mane of hair artfully framing her face; most of the time it’s in a ponytail because she has shit to do without her hair getting in the way. When Krissy’s not intentionally smiling for the camera her default facial expression is “I’m going to end you,” which I think is awesome but is not necessarily photogenic in the traditional sense. And of course I have a lot of less-than-flattering photos of Krissy where I’ve caught her at a bad angle or with her eyes half open or whatever. Again, it’s not cheating to take pictures of people with the intent of making them look good. If you expect them to always look that good, however, the problem is not them, or the reality of being a human in the world. It’s you.)

So, yes, that’s the secret to portraiture, as far as I can see: Make your subject look good (or interesting); don’t make your viewer feel like they’re being lied to. It’s worked for me so far.

— JS

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A Compromise Post

I was going to write a post about how writing about news and politics these days in any form longer than a tweet makes me agitated and annoyed, and what that says about my mental state at the moment, but then I got agitated and annoyed with that post, so… here’s a picture of some really cool looking clouds from last night instead.

Don’t worry too much, folks, I’ll my head sorted out soon enough. I usually do. But in the meantime, at least you get some cool photos out of it. Also, you still have my tweets. I’m definitely still nattering away about news and politics in 280 characters or less.

— JS

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