Category Archives: 1 – Portrait – Scale and Setting

Portrait Scale and Setting

As long as I can remember I have always hated taking formal portraits so getting motivated to start with this module proved to be very difficult. I have vivid memories of when I first was first starting in photography people asking me to take portraits at family events and then criticising the results “I don’t look like that” etc. Perhaps those early experiences resulted in a lack of confidence in my ability t take portraits that has stayed with me over many years.

Having made several false starts I decided to take self portraits for this first exercise and setup my camera on a tripod in a corridor in my house, one problem of living in a fairly cluttered country cottage is that it was hard to find a space that was suitable to take a services of portraits from full length to cropped face with a lens of focal length 70mm which I felt would be suitable for portraiture. This choice of location is somewhat  contrary to the instructions for the exercise that the portraits should taken in an interesting  setting. While this is not important for the first two portraits it becomes significant in the whole torso and full length shots.

For the picture that crops out part of my face but leaves some of my right shoulder in the frame I also positioned myself so that there was light from a window lighting the right side of my face. I like this portrait the face, in particular, the eyes attract the viewer and the plain background does not distract from the face.


For the second portrait I choose this head and shoulders view which I don’t really like my expression looks like I am really fed up with having my picture taken and that I wish that I was doing something else. The pattern on the door is a distracting and I think pulls the viewers eyes away from the face. I could have retaken this with more light on my face and the background more out of focus. There were also better pictures in the series I took but I think that it is important to learn from mistakes and not just pretend that everything is always perfect.


The torso shot picture works better that the head and shoulders one but it looks a bit too much like a mug shot or a passport photo for my liking. Here the door in the background is less distracting than in the previous shot. I should perhaps have had my hands visible in the picture and this could have made this a more successful image.


I really don’t like the full length shot, I think it just makes me look fat and this was the best of a bad bunch! What I have certainly learnt from this exercise is that taking self-portraits is much harder than I thought it would be.


This full length shot also emphasises the importance of pose and setting to give some context to a full length portrait like this. With a strong pose it is possible to create a great full length image against a plain background. One example that I always remember is the picture below of Naomi Campbell taken by Herb Ritts that I saw in a exhibition some years ago. Although this is fashion shot to show off the boots it really illustrates how posing a model getting the right expression and lighting can make a great picture.


As I was writing up this exercise I was thinking about an exhibition of portraits by John Hedgecoe that I have recently seen and I selected the four images below that show how he used different crops and backgrounds to make statements about his sitters of bring out their personality.


The cropped portrait of Peter Sellers shows someone who really could only be a comedian. Francis Bacon stares up at the camera looking somewhat threatening with one of his pictures in the background. The author Alan Silitoe looks somewhat pensive with perhaps the painting of the nude behind him reflecting that his books were still somewhat controversial when this picture was taken. Finally the full length portrait of Henry More is really made by the silhouettes of two of his sculptures next to him.

For me this was an exercise where I feel I have learnt a lot, not least portraits are hard, think more about pose and setting.