Me, Myself and MRI

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The eyes are the windows to the soul...

Like many art forms, there aren't any hard and fast rules about how to take a portrait photograph. Each photographer has his or her own method, their preferred equipment (lens, lighting, studio set up) and their own way of capturing the essence of the subject. Below is a brief overview of how photographer Kippa Matthews approaches portrait photography:

Engage with the subject

A portrait starts with engagement between the subject and the photographer. You need to understand who your subject is by finding out a bit about them and getting to know them as well as you can in the time you have. Some photographers have the luxury of being able to spend a considerable amount of time with their subject. For example Annie Leibovitz likes to spend 2 or 3 days with the person she is photographing, getting to know them intimately, before she takes the portrait. In most situations the average photographer won't have that time, but it is still important to form some sort of connection with the subject before taking the portrait. It helps to be able to observe any sort of characteristics of that person as best you can, but that can also be an ongoing process through the session itself as the subject gets used to you and relaxes in front of the camera - that engagement will eventually bring out the image that you're looking for.


Technical decisions

The next step is to make some sort of technical decisions about a location and/or use of lens, which will to some extent be based on the engagement with the subject. Having spent as much time as possible with your subject, you will already be forming an idea of what you want to do with the photograph. The choice you make is vital to the final outcome. Any sort of portrait, no matter what the medium, has to convey who that person is (see the session on portraiture). It may only take a second to capture that image with a camera (as opposed to days/weeks/months to paint a portrait) but everything you hope to say about that person is in that final image.

Location: You can't always assume that your subject is as well known to you as they will be to everyone else. Even David Beckham in 100 years will not be as recognisable as he is now, so how will you know that this man used to be a footballer? Unless your subject has a particularly characterful face or striking features you may want to consider placing him or her in context to their profession/life/situation.

Lenses: There are no hard and fast rules as to what lens needs to be used, again it will be down to you as the photographer/artist to make that decision. A long lens will isolate a head shot from the background, which is a method preferred by traditional portrait photographers. However, a wide lens will capture more of the background, which means you have to be more aware of what else will be caught by the camera. My preferred method is usually using a wide lens because it gives the ability to place the subject in context to their life at the moment the portrait is taken. This in turn relates back to the importance of familiarity with the subject.


Posing and Lighting

It is often said that the eyes are the windows to the soul and this is especially true of photographic portraiture. Generally, the strongest portraits are the ones where the subject engages with the viewer, i.e. looking directly into the lens, although this isn't always necessarily the case. Unobtrusive observation can often reveal the true character of a subject, which could be stifled by a direct face to face engagement.


Natural light v studio lighting: I prefer to use natural light because it's the way we normally see each other so it removes any synthetic element from the portrait. The studio is an unnatural environment and can feel more "set up", but the advantage of studio lighting is that it's very controlled. The decision to use natural light or studio lighting goes back to engaging with the subject and seeing them in a natural way.


Photographer Jane Bown has never used flash or lights, but whatever daylight is available. It unburdens the artist because it allows you to concentrate on observing and engaging with the subject. However, the option to use natural light isn't always available, especially once a location has been decided on. For instance, in the MRI project, the subjects were photographed in a place of work or somewhere that related to what they did for a living, and most of these locations didn't offer enough natural light, so I ended up setting studio lights on location in order to get the best shot.

Photoshoot Video

In the video below Kippa talks us through how he goes about setting up a photoshoot.

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Next section: How we created the exhibition portrait photographs