Study portrait photography to take better portraits

Coffee table books can be instructive as much as they are entertaining.

2008 National Geographic Society

I was the lucky recipient of the tome “Odysseys and Photographs: Four National Geographic Field Men” as a prize at a Christmas party this year.

The 224-page book is filled with striking images taken by four world-traveling photographers and their stories. Amid photographs taken under water, from mountain tops and in the middle of exotic cities are portraits of ordinary people. Wearing loins cloths or sporting fezzes or holding rifles, they may not be ordinary here in northern Illinois, but they are, at least, ordinary in their geography.

Even though I no longer travel to far-flung places across the globe, the images of the people in these places can be reproduced with the familiar people in immediate realms. When in Rome, do as the Romans do; if you live in Rome, figure out what makes the Romans special, even if it’s commonplace to you.I cannot reproduce the dramatic lighting or incredible detail a professional photographer has mastered, but you and I can try to capture the essence of a loved family member or dear friend in an image.

Photographer Thomas Abercrombie

All four National Geographic photographers shared iconic portraits, but Minnesota native Thomas Abercrombie’s pictures are especially eye-catching (it is, perhaps, because of the four he is most recent and therefore featured more color images). The face of his Japanese calligrapher isn’t even visible, but the viewer can see what is important to this man. The Saudi Arabian holding a gun is wrinkled but distinctive. The Indian baby is covered in dirt and looking intently into the camera.

This, then, is what I learned: Capture your subject doing what comes naturally, do not ask your subject to dress up and do not wait for the dust to clear. Sometimes, the best portraits are the least expected ones.


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