P073: Close, but no cigar

by Stefan Fletcher March. 14, 2015 2546 views

Stuck in the office on a rainy Saturday. Nothing new there, but I did want to take some time off and talk about failed portraits. It’s a truism that failure is more educational than success or, as Blake would have put it, “the tigers of fuck-up are wiser than the horses of Photoshop”.

In portraiture, which I consider the hardest and most rewarding photographic genre, you have to get everything right at the same time. Otherwise, it truly is a failure, but an instructive one.

What’s everything? Well, lighting, composition, pose, meaning (or intent) and that “wow” factor, where the subject reaches out to you. It’s not a question of physical beauty (although that helps); it’s more a special bond between humans that explains why we like looking at each other and brings us closer together.

In all of the above portraits, one or more of these factors is off. I haven’t included hopelessly out-of-focus shots or that decisive moment when the subject looks cross-eyed, nauseated or just goofy, because those are merely a combination of my ineptitude and/or bad luck (which isn’t instructive). But I have included at least one picture where the pose / lighting / whatever is correct, although the camera angle or aperture has wrecked the shot and deformed the subject in some peculiar way.

Digital makes learning free, but wasteful. I will shoot 300-odd shots in a typical session and hope to get 1% right. I can’t help thinking that film photographers have to learn to get it all right the hard (and the best) way. It's worth pointing out that Photoshop et al. can salvage quite a lot of these mistakes, but never very well. I haven't really tried with these, because the portrait becomes a different thing and loses its original meaning or intensity.

Feel free to comment on the mistakes. I will consider it a useful exercise and I hope you do too.

Couldn't make her stand out


DOF and missing the interaction

Excellent portrait of a guitar head

Background, missed the mother

No meaning

Irritating details around the subject (who didn't want to be photographed - and it shows)

Background, specifically that bloody painting and the wall recess

Lighting, meaning, no contact with the viewer

How to take a beautiful woman and detract from that beauty

Expression, lighting, intent, lots of minor irritations, but mostly lack of rapport between subject and photographer


Strangely contracted torso and forearms, although this model is perfectly proportioned. Also, a little too close to the subject, so slightly cross-eyed

The whole composition points to a rear end that looks like the back of a bus


The expression on the woman to the right of centre is priceless, but you have to look for it. Could have been a wonderful environmental portrait if that git hadn't walked into the foreground.

Nothing comes out, although everything should

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There are 11 comments , add yours!
Kenny H 5 years, 7 months ago

Curious...in shot 14, were you looking directly at her or down on her from above?

5 years, 7 months ago Edited
Mike Meliska 5 years, 7 months ago

Perfect lesson.

5 years, 7 months ago Edited
Antonio Gil 5 years, 7 months ago

Well, I can say I've learned a bit more today. thanks Stéfan.

5 years, 7 months ago Edited
Jacki 5 years, 7 months ago

LOL, remind me never to have you take my portrait! It's good to see ones shortcomings... I know too many people who "think" they take exceptional portraits ;)

5 years, 7 months ago Edited
Gillian Parsons 5 years, 7 months ago

Yes enjoyed the lesson.........will be studying this further.

5 years, 7 months ago Edited
Moira 5 years, 7 months ago

1st ,2nd ,12th, 16th and 17th are the ones I like best you caught some good expressions.

5 years, 7 months ago Edited
Larry Sample 5 years, 7 months ago

Excellent class! Thanks.

5 years, 7 months ago Edited
Olga Helys 5 years, 7 months ago

Les #12 et #16 sont mes préférés

5 years, 7 months ago Edited
Olga Helys 5 years, 7 months ago

Merci pour cette belle collection
Chaque photo est un bijou = du travail, du travail

5 years, 7 months ago Edited
Marilyn Grimble 5 years, 7 months ago

I just love the first one!

5 years, 7 months ago Edited
Vivienne Albiston 5 years, 7 months ago

I like the old and wrinkled portraits.specially no16

5 years, 7 months ago Edited
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