Ware the whole of this volume devoted to the subject of portraiture, there would, even then, not be room to say all that might be profitably said on this fascinating branch of photography. How scanty and imperfect, then, must be this little sheaf of notes, hints, and jottings.
With the desire of conveying as much help and information as is possible in the limited space available, the present writer asks the reader's forgiveness for adopting a brief, compressed, and somewhat disjointed style.
The experienced professional worker enjoying the advantage of a studio, blinds, backgrounds, reflectors, etc, is not likely to learn anything from a mere amateur. Therefore it may be said at the outset that the reader for whom these notes are primarily designed is presumed to essay his portraiture either in an ordinary living-room or out-doors. It is further assumed that the reader has a practical, if moderate, acquaintance with the steps of ordinary negative-making, e.g. exposure, development, and so forth, but that his experience in photographic portraiture is a negligible quantity.
A hand camera may sometimes be used for outdoor portraiture—i.e. full-length figure, groups, figure studies—but as a rule a stand (tripod) is desirable for several reasons. Not only does it enable one to give a generous exposure, (e.g., a second or more) without fear of the camera moving, but it enables one to fix upon a view point, leave one's camera, and go up to the sitter to arrange a fold of drapery, bit of foliage, etc, and return to the camera to see the effect of the change from the same view point as before. Also, the camera being properly placed one has no need to be thinking about whether we are aiming straight, holding it level, etc.
A stand camera usually is provided with a ground glass focussing screen, and for portraiture this has only to be used a few times to be appreciated. The placing of the figure is a matter of very great importance, and it is by no means easy to space out the picture quite satisfactorily when a small view-finder is one's only means.
It is sometimes thought that the swing back is only used in architectural work, but this is a mistake. For certain relative positions of camera and figure the swing back is, if not absolutely essential, at any rate highly desirable. Not only does it enable one to exercise some measure of control over the degree of definition (sharp focus) of various portions of the picture, but this at times enables one to use a larger stop—in other words, give a shorter exposure—than would otherwise be practicable.
A long extension of the camera bellows is another advantage soon appreciated, as it enables one to get nearer the sitter, or use a long-focus lens when a large scale picture is wanted. And incidentally it may be mentioned that the portraitist often wants to copy other portraits, when again a long bellows is greatly valued.
A rising front also is often of considerable help, enabling us to shift the "placing of the figure " on the plate without altering the relative position of camera and sitter. In fact we may roughly say that the rising front enables us to add or remove space above and below the head, which is often equivalent to altering the apparent tallness or shortness of the sitter, a point which may have a good deal to do with conveying a truthful impression of the sitter.
T/ie focal length of lens is one of the points where the beginner is apt to go astray. Very often he has but one lens of length suitable for ordinary landscape work. This, probably, has a focal length between 5 and 6 inches, in the case of a quarter-plate outfit. With an adult sitter 10 feet away the sitter's head, with such a lens, may be about sVt0 ^4 natural size—say, something less than half an inch long on the ground glass. This seeming too small, the photographer approaches his subject to get a larger scale of pictures and consequently gets a degree of distortion which increases as he gets nearer his subject. But by using a lens of longer focus a larger scale picture is obtained without going so near the sitter, and consequently without apparent distortion or proportion. If the reader has a long bellows camera and short focus lens of the doublet type he can make all this clear to himself in a few minutes by a homely experiment.
Take any object, a vase, book, etc, about the size of an adult head, say 9 inches or so long. Set up the camera at 10 feet and focus the object with the 55-inch focus lens. With a strip of paper applied to the ground glass tick off with a pencil the length of image of the selected object. Now remove one portion of the lens, i.e. either the back or front half, re-focus without changing the position of object or camera, and again measure the ground glass image. It is one thing to know that such and such " must," " will," "ought" to be so-and-so, and another thing to know from actual personally made experiment that it is so. Therefore this experiment should be made by every beginner in portraiture.
Choice of a lens naturally follows from what has just been said. The reader may be contemplating the purchase of a lens especially for this purpose, and asks for guidance on (1) focal length; (2) type of lens.
This must partly depend on whether he is " going in" for head and shoulders only or full length figures as well. The larger the scale the longer the focus from a given standpoint. Therefore a longer focus will be more useful for head and shoulders than for standing figures. Again, he must bear in mind the size of the room. A long focus lens means that we need to get well away from our sitter, or we may not be able to get in as much of our subject as we wish to include. For outdoor work this consideration will not often trouble us. For half-length figures a focal length of double the length of the side of the plate will be found useful. Thus for a 4x3 picture the focal length may be from 6 to 8 inches.