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

19 Comments on “The Secret to Portraiture”

  1. I also almost always edit my photos because I want to share what I see how I see it — with eyes and mind and heart.

  2. I see so many poorly taken, unedited and over-filtered pictures on the internet, I wish there was a licensing procedure before anyone could post them ;-)/2.

    Seriously, there are books and videos and a few minutes will pop your photos to at least ‘good’ if not great.

  3. When Krissy’s not intentionally smiling for the camera her default facial expression is “I’m going to end you,”

    Fist-bump from another person with Resting Murder Face! My author photo (my solo one, not the joint M.A. Carrick one you took of me and Alyc) has me not smiling because I’m absolute crap at smiling naturally on command, and I kiiiiiinda look like I’m going to shiv somebody. On the other hand, it’s one of the few photos of myself that I genuinely like, so it’s going to be my author photo until I’m seventy.

    Thumbs-up to everything you said about editing. My go-to illustration of this is the before-and-after of a shot I snapped with my phone of a translucent white pot in the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. What came out of the camera was yellowed and murky and showed the blemishes in the glass where museum visitors had scratched and smudged it. The edited version has the correct color balance, much crisper detail, and no little artifacts from the glass. All of the editing in that case was just about getting the photo to look more like what I saw with my own eyes. But if you want to go for non-realism, that’s also a valid aesthetic choice.

  4. One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of what photo editing should do is make the person look like themselves on their best day. If you shave 20 years off her appearance by recoloring her hair and removing the natural contours of her face, she would no longer look like herself.

    You give her the best look of who she is, including the clear love and affection she has for you, for Athena and for the various members of the menagerie.

  5. I cannot smile on purpose — the paralyzed side of my face just sort of hangs there, and it looks positively grotesque. Spontaneous smilies work fine. This has resulted in a lot of really bad pictures of me, but if you see me smiling you know I really mean it!

  6. Cameras aren’t even close. At least not the ones I’ve ever bought. I came across an astonishing pink rock in Anza-Borrego (CA desert. Quartz of some kind?). The photo barely knew it had red in it. Color balancing to make the pink look right made the other stones look like onyx. Which they weren’t. Just gray speckled gravel.

    The most shocking one, to me, was trying to photograph some glowing white mushrooms in very low light in a dense forest. They were spectacular. Not phosphorescent, but they stood out as if they did have their own light.

    The photo? You couldn’t even see them except as grayish shapes. Use flash? Everything washed out. It dawned on me after a while (I’m no expert) that there wass no way to see those mushrooms properly without the dynamic range of the human eye.

    So edit away. We want to see what you saw. Not some dumb piece of machinery and code.

  7. You shouldn’t feel bad about working your digital photos in Photoshop. Photoshop is to digital photography what a darkroom is to film photography.

    Quixote: The low-light mushroom photo probably can’t be helped without a time machine, a tripod and a longer exposure but if you still have the pink rock image there are techniques that might be able to improve the color range. The LAB color space is allows adjustments that RGB cannot achieve. There’s a good article on how to use it here: https://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-use-lab-color-in-photoshop-to-add-punch-to-your-images/

  8. That has ALWAYS been the secret of portrait photography. It just used to be insanely difficult. Sometime look up how to dodge and burn with film.

  9. There’s nothing wrong with editing photos. People who think they’re purists argue that “Ansel Adams didn’t edit his photos!” YES, he did! He dodged and burned like a maniac. He used contrast filters. He did selective development. That was Photoshop in the analog, wet darkroom days.

    Those are the tools that we can easily do in Photoshop easily these days, the digital darkroom. And if he were born later and shooting digital these days, he’d be using Photoshop and other digital tools like a maniac.

    And yes, Ansel Adams shot a digital camera. It was a prototype by Kodak. And apparently he was impressed. I attended opening night at an Adams exhibit that had original prints made by him and several people who worked with him, and I asked one directly what they thought he’d think about digital cameras. And they told me he actually worked with one.

    I’ve been shooting for over four decades now. I love my digital kit, but I do miss B&W film and working in darkrooms. Nine years ago I was shooting some B&W C-41 process film that I had scanned and worked with in Photoshop, very different visual experience. I go back and forth on wanting to continue shooting that way.

  10. Editing images is as old as film, because you edit film, too. The only difference is that you don’t edit the negative, you edit when you print. Dodging and burning and selective exposure are all tools that old school film shooters use to edit the final product.

    No one should have to “defend” editing an image. Every image you look at is edited to some degree. The quality of the photographer is defined in the framing, depth of field, and lighting choices they make.

  11. I look at the image of Krissy and immediately say, her skin has been really smoothed. I thought the same when you first posted it and I was viewing on a different device.

    It’s a beautiful image, but IMHO you aren’t being as subtle as you think you are, John.

    I’m an Adobe Certified Expert for Photoshop. I know Ctein reads Whatever, but I just realized he probably has a policy of not commenting on friends’ photos.

  12. Dear Nancy,

    Hi!

    No, I don’t have any such a policy– in fact, in the past, I have commented on John’s (among my other friends’) photos.

    Generally, I don’t criticize unless asked to by the artist or unless I am certain they didn’t achieve an impact that I knew they were trying for (very different from whether or not I like it or would do it that way myself).

    I never went for ACE status. It looked way too scary. I am impressed!

    I didn’t comment in this thread because everything I might have said was already said by someone else.

    I am impressed with my own words… but not THAT much!

    pax / Ctein

  13. A follow-up. A meta-critique, if you will. I have observed that John and I have different artistic intents. I very much want to be the Wizard, where you are in awe of the Great and Terrible Me and are paying no attention to the man behind the curtain. If it looks to you like I manipulated the photograph, I did it wrong (not counting the cases where people imagine something was manipulated that wasn’t, which happens).

    John, in contrast — this is my take on his work, and if I’m reading you wrong John, PLEASE TELL ME — has no such objective. The Hand of the Artist is usually evident, sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant, but only very rarely invisible, and this is by intent. I try to show you “Reality, as close as I saw it” (not remotely as easy as it sounds, as you know). John wants to show you “Reality, as I’ve felt it or as I’m choosing to interpret it.”

    Put another way, my artistic goal is to be The Invisible Guide and his is, most often, to be The Narrator and Interpreter.

    Am I anywhere close, John?

    pax / Ctein

  14. Thanks for the tips, earlier commenters! I’ll look up LAB. Never heard of it before. My camera will do HDR, but I’m not usually organized enough to carry a tripod, and without it, at least in my case, shake ruins the photo. Plus, in my experience with it, I’m guessing the mushrooms would have just laughed at it.

  15. Nancy:

    Inasmuch as I note in the first paragraph of the piece that Krissy’s skin secrets are “Oil of Olay Anti-Aging 7-in-1 Moisturizer With Hint of Foundation, and also, a husband who knows his way around Photoshop,” and then later go into specific detail into how I’ve manipulated the photo, including evening out skin tones and drawing back contrast to minimize wrinkles (i.e., I’ve smoothed out her skin), I am not exactly surprised that you, as an expert, find evidence that Krissy’s skin has been smoothed in the photo.

    Indeed I hope that even non-experts find their attention drawn to it, since, you know, that’s kind of the point of the article: I’m drawing attention to how I manipulate the photo to make the point that the photographers make choices in how their photos are presented, and the potential line where those choices go from being reasonable to insulting to the (general) viewer.

    All of which is to say that in this photo I am being exactly as subtle as I intended to be, and having done that, I then rather directly went over what I did and why so that people could understand those choices and the aesthetic process behind it.

    Whether they are same choices others would make in the same situation is of course another question entirely (I myself have a couple of different versions of the photo with other aesthetic choices made, including use of color and the amount contrast applied to the skin). But again, that’s part of the discussion. It’s evident you would, as a certified Photoshop expert, make other choices. That’s fine.

    Also, Ctein, who has been I think slightly awkwardly drawn into this specific discussion, is largely correct with regard to my philosophy of the photography I present here. I’ve been pretty clear over the course of a number of articles across several years that I feel free to edit for effect. I’m not usually doing journalism here, and when I am, or something close to it, I’ll generally follow AP guidelines for photo presentation. Otherwise, yeah. You’ll see lots of evidence of me in the photos here.

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