Portraiture and Self-Portraits: A First Approach

"When you are trying to make a portrait of someone you know well, you have to forget and forget until what you see astonishes you. Indeed, at the heart of any portrait which is alive, there is registered an absolute surprise surrounded by close intimacy."

From the essay 'Jean Mohr: A Sketch for a Portrait in Understanding a Photograph by John Berger

Portrait Photography by Nicoletta Fornaro - Venice Italy

We humans are imperfect creatures, incredibly fascinating, with all our flaws, virtues and peculiarities. Each individual is a universe and taking portraits means getting deeper with others, a risky yet beautiful responsibility given to us photographers.


There are so many aspects of this genre to be studied and discussed, but for now I will start with some basic practical issues. First of all, - the subject must feel at ease, thus we need to create a connection and a sort of 'intimacy' and feeling of trust,

- secondly, we should not underestimate the importance of posing, something often considered as unnatural but that actually helps highlight our subjects

- and thirdly, I believe it is essential to have a story in mind. It may be helpful to create a mood board prior the shoot, discussing with our subject colours/patterns and situations.

Portrait Photography by Nicoletta Fornaro - Venice Italy
Portrait Photography by Nicoletta Fornaro - Venice Italy

Anyway, before we can actually delve into the introspective and narrative sides of portraiture, we need to make a step back and deal first with some very basic practicalities:


• Should the subject look into the camera or not? For most people the answer is yes, because our eyes and expression create a connection and are the mirror of our soul. I have experienced that most people tend to smile when faced with a lens, and this is not always (well okay... quite rarely, let's say it) the best expression for a portrait, unless it comes very spontaneously. Even if we use a lens with a big aperture like f1.8... our camera will register expression lines, fine lines and wrinkles... and nobody likes to see them on their face! So, it may be better to stay serious or keep a sort of Monalisa smile and not show our teeth. It will be the eyes to smile and make us shine.

Portrait Photography by Nicoletta Fornaro - Venice Italy

Then, it is important to find our subject's best side -usually it's the left- and not hold our camera only at the height of their eyes, but play with them, capturing them from different angles and perspectives.


My approach is soft and very natural. In general, I suggest my subjects to be their best selves, to dress smartly but in a way that they feel relaxed, and to wear makeup only if they like it. I won't deny that I have a preference for simple and clean looks, monochrome and minimalistic outfits and am not a fan of heavy makeup. I think people are beautiful as they are and that the signs of time only make us wiser and more intriguing, nevertheless I have sometimes been explicitly asked to photoshop things like wrinkles, so I have discovered that if needed, there are lots of creams and cosmetic products that have instant effect on wrinkles, puffiness and acne (just to name a few: Remescar, IncaRose Instant eye firm, Thomas Roth instant firmx, Clinique acne solution, and lots more...). I have been using myself a lot to better understand facial expressions, so that even without the use of any product I can provide suggestions to my subjects.


Another important aspect is... the hair! In our everyday, normal life, especially in a humid city like Venice, the top of our head seems to be constantly electrical, so there are always those annoying shorter hair that disturb the contour of the subject . In fashion, there is always a hair stylist and in the majority of cases the top part is always taken care of (sometimes with a hair gel/lacquer or styled in a wavy way), otherwise a blowdryer or similar is used to make the hair move...

In this stunning picture of Julianne Moore by Peter Lindbergh her hair adds a sense of movement to the stillness of the scene. My rather sad attempt to learn from it shows not only how much the hair contributes to the storytelling, but also that the fact that she is looking at us straight into the eyes makes the photograph very powerful. My image instead is flat and my gaze thoughtful (I was looking into the screen of my tethering app...). Also, because I am holding my leg, I am creasing the skin making it look drier than what it actually is, which takes us back to the importance of posing and positioning our hands.

Portrait Photography by Nicoletta Fornaro - Venice Italy

Most people believe that posing is unnatural, but I think it is very important to help people understand that poses and clothes actually make or break an image!!!! For example, if we keep the arm attached to our body... it will look fat, and this is true even for skinny people. The position of our face influences how our neck and skin look, the position of the legs can make us look taller or slimmer (I think everyone knows the crossed legs trick by now), and the hands too are soooo important, people never know what to do with their hands. It may help to give our subject an object to hold, or have them sit down, so the hands can be easily placed on the knees or thighs. Men can sometimes keep their hands in their pockets, or simply cross their arms, whereas for women it is often best to put the hands on the hips. We are getting our picture taken, so: back straight, shoulders up, tummy in.

Portrait Photography by Nicoletta Fornaro - Venice Italy

And we haven't even started thinking of storytelling... not to mention the history and development of portraiture. I hope to find the time to write more about this topic in the future, but for now I'll just go through the more immediate practical points. When I take self-portraits, the biggest limit is that I can't move around the subject and depend on my tripod and tethering app, so I must control frame and focus while trying to look relaxed, but in general it is key to play with our models.

Portrait Photography by Nicoletta Fornaro - Venice Italy

The last thing I want to say about the eyes... is that I think that when the subjects looks into the camera we relate more to the person, we kind of 'feel' them. Those pictures are proper portraits in my opinion. When the subject isn't looking into the camera, I see the representation of 'an emotion' or 'a situation', like the feeling of being thoughtful, happy, or whatever (like in the examples above)... And the very very last thing is that, if you show the same picture to 10 people, you will get 10 different opinions!!!!


Anyhow, so far we have dealt with portraits in which the subject is the photo. But I also enjoy taking a diverse style of portraits, in which the person is 'only' a tool for the general narrative, for example my chiaroscuro pictures, in which the face is not so important and often not even recognisable. At the end of the 18th century there were lots of portraits in which women where merely a decorative item inside a refined environment, they were not meant to be recognised and so they were named as Madame X. I am not trying to refer to such paintings, but it is true that at times the person is not the protagonist, but only a tool to convey a feeling.

Portrait Photography by Nicoletta Fornaro - Venice Italy