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A Reflection On Portraits Through The Seasons

April 05, 2017

At the beginning of 2017 I took a moment to reflect back through some of my work from over the last couple of years and noticed how the beautiful British seasons featured boldly throughout many of the portraits I'd taken. Between wedding shoots I am lucky enough to photograph people in all stages of life from newly engaged couples to expectant mothers, right through to large family groups (with every age and stage in-between)! The diversity in nature and unique backdrops offered by a variety of locations such as woodlands, beaches, and vast distant landscapes, alongside our ever-changeable english climate mean I always have loads of great variables to play with. Clients often ask me, "Where should we have our portraits taken and which is the best time of year?" Great questions. Personally I think every season can offer wonderful and differing opportunities that ensure a unique story is told through the images, and this I think is personal for every client. Not only the season but the time of day with it's shifting light opportunities plays a part when planning a portrait shoot, even the decor in a client's home can be a factor that can determine what kind of images will be hung on the wall! 


Woodland locations are always a fantastic choice for portraits no matter the time of year as they offer so much variety. In the summer months when the light is often harsher, deep shadows and also bright highlights are often created as a bounty of light radiates down from high in the sky. Even under relative shade created by a canopy of leaves, the vivid lush greens of the dense foliage at this time of year provides strong and striking colour and the sense of life and lushness. In this image of a brother and sister I loved the green background against the red of their hair colour! It is worth even considering the smallest of details such as this to ensure your subject is shown at their best and that the background is as complimentary to subjects as possible.


Autumn is the most popular time of year for the woodland shoot because of the beautiful orangey gold ombre of changing leaf colours found on the trees but also carpeting the ground. In a kind of 'eye-spy' fashion, shooting through little 'windows' in the leaves is an effective way to frame a subject, not only maximising the leaf colour in the shot which enhances that seasonal tone, but also for bringing focus to the subject whilst still using the natural environment. The blurring of the foreground detail (in this case the leafy frame) helps the eye go towards the areas which are in focus first, adding dimension and interest to the shot.


In any season I may choose to position my subjects on a path which can work brilliantly for leading the eye through an image, therefore bringing more attention to the subjects. Streams or rivers can work similarly, guiding your view through a busy woodland scene. Even finding a clearing amidst a background full of detail can just bring that focus to what is most important in the shot and provide a little natural 'spotlight' where needed, also giving a lovely sense of depth to the image.


'Props' such as fallen branches and tree trunks are very useful natural elements around which I can pose people and if taking a image close up the detail in the bark of the tree can offer wonderful natural texture, light and shade to the picture. If I am photographing children, finding little natural props such as sticks or flowers can encourage a sense of play. Often the interaction with nature helps the child relax in the outdoor environment, enabling a happier demeanour and more natural shot. 


In the winter months the dark bare skeletons of tall trees through which the low warm sun can glow makes for a magical scene giving us warms tones despite the cold temperatures. This can also create lovely long shadows and is ideal for creating stunning silhouettes. Shooting from a slightly lower angle can emphasise the tree height whilst avoiding cropping the pretty leafy detail from the tree tops. This will also allow for opportunities to use the sun in proximity to the subject. In the below image we see the sun bursting through between a couple in an embrace. This is not only a beautiful way to use the light but also could serve as a powerful metaphor as you can interpret the light as a physical 'spark' between them. These little photography techniques help to add meaning and narrative to the image, ensuring that personal story is being told. 


The beach is one of my favourite locations in life and living on the south coast I am lucky enough to have various beaches including the beautiful West Wittering a pebble's throw from my studio!  Many people imagine that the hottest most blue-sky day is the most ideal for portrait shoots on the beach but I would vouch for this not necessarily being the case! The brightness of light can end up being quite unflattering, casting harsh shadows everywhere and with everyone squinting to avoid direct sunlight blindness!  So a sunset or sunrise for me provide a better and more magical option offering the perfect light and  tones by which to capture those beach images in the most favourable way. Whilst subject's faces can be flash lit with the sunset in the background, creating a silhouette is often a more striking way to set a mood, bringing emotion and creating a sense of drama in the image. As the subjects will literally stand out amongst others simply due to the contrasts of the black outline against a stunning pastel skies, we are also left imagining the moment and filling in the missing detail in our minds that we are not shown.


In its rawness the beach has natural props which will enhance the portrait when used with thought and intention. I never ask clients to bring things such as buckets and spades, parasols and the likes, as I enjoy using the environment and all it has to offer with its textures of sand, pebbles, glistening water, white foamy breakers, beach huts, driftwood and so on. Simply capturing a sunburst from above the beach hut in the image below creates an amazing effect turning an otherwise simple beach image into a rather magical one. As the sun appears to peek over the top of the hut and diffracts beautiful rays of light down towards the subjects, a feeling of warmth and nostalgia is created.


Often I will use the beach's timber groynes on which to balance my subjects, adding height and shape to the image. Forming the subjects into a triangular shape is a useful technique helping to lead our eye up and around the image (as with the photograph below), which actually offers many layers of meaning. In this couple's engagement photo we see the man and son are connecting with eye contact drawing our eye from the son's face up to his dad's. Meanwhile the woman literally leans on her fiancé, also offering us a metaphorical message about her relationship to him. The triangular formation helps give us the sense of stability and evokes strong feelings of connection, with each person being an essential part of this strong triangular shape. 


When working with several subjects at once, using a triangular composition can also be useful in bringing this connection which could be otherwise lost if the subjects are too disparate and randomly placed. The weathered wooden sea breakers here provided a wonderful backdrop full of texture and beachy colour tones. Our eye is drawn around all the children in turn starting with the youngest, leading up via the eldest and back down. With this almost cyclical formation we don't miss a face when glancing over the image and our assumption regarding the closeness of these children is cemented in our minds.


When you have chosen a beach shoot but arrive in the middle of summer on an unexpected overcast day, all is not lost. Shadows, highlights and squinting subjects are no longer an issue and the detail that can be captured in this whiter light can be amazing, offering more opportunity to capture more detail, subtle pastel shades and soft cool tones which is a refreshing perspective on a summer's day.


Our British crop fields give us a lot of choice in backdrops from spring through to the end of summer. From mid-April the vibrant yellow rapeseed fields provide the brightest of yellows and greens and when against a clear blue sky the colours can be astonishing. The image below also shows how the outfit of the subject was well chosen to compliment her environment and this is another important consideration when planning a portrait shoot.

White blues and pastels tend to work well in beach settings, and where the background colour is likely to be very strong such as in the bluebell woods or lavender fields. It would be a shame for the amazing carpet of pretty flowers to be in battle with a stark clothing choice of the subject and so I usually recommend when it comes to clothing that simple and subtle is best. Where the background may be less busy and of only one or two shades of colour, an outfit can occasionally afford to be a little bit bolder without overpowering the natural setting.


Children love playing in the golden cornfields at the end of the English summer which is one reason I love to photograph little ones, scuttling around in the pathways between the crops. Whilst portraits are often posed to capture the subject at their best, sometimes the candid style of photography can work really well in helping the subject to relax and be themselves more than if they were intentionally positioned. Candid shots really tell a story and capture life in a context, adding energy to a picture and often capturing the little micro-expressions that make a subject truly 'them'!


With any style of photography, the leading lines offered by the pathways in crop fields are very effective in leading the eye to the subjects and giving us a sense of depth and even the impression of infinity. Many man-made things can have the same impact and so it's not just fields that this can be useful; for instance roads, fences and lines of lamp posts can all create perspective helping to lead us from the foreground to the background. If choosing an urban location for a portrait shoot, these lines are easy to find and very effective in bringing focus to the subject, often making for a very strong image.


Often clients will want to be photographed in places of meaning and sometimes these locations can be awe-inspiring! The image below was taken on the couple's engagement shoot which they chose to have at the top of a hill called the Trundle, overlooking Chichester in West Sussex. The couple had got engaged at that spot and so it seemed the obvious place to photograph them in the run up to their wedding and a memorable place that should be treasured in pictures.

Everything came into play when arranging this shoot as we needed to consider the time of year and ensure that seasonally it looked a little different from how the wedding pictures were likely to look. Also,  we needed the sun to be in the best place to capture that blue sky and the magnificent pillowy clouds. The patchwork of colours in the fields against the aqua sky and the colours of outfits chosen, blended seamlessly with the watercolour painting of a backdrop behind them. The use of the triangle rule in positioning the subjects gives it a strength that reflects them as a couple and vast landscape behind offers a metaphorical message of, 'the world is at our feet'. 


So having looked back through these images reminds me that there are many factors to consider when photographing portraits not just from a technical photography point of view, but from the client's interest also. Getting the preparatory decisions right can be the difference between having just a 'nice' photograph to hang on the wall, or something with meaning, energy, feeling and mood; an image to be proud of that evokes feeling and memories. Portraits should compliment the subjects, showing them in their true and best light as well as being perfect for the wall and the home that the picture is hung. Time of year, time of day, colour, shape, light, texture…it all matters and affects what will be captured. People are precious and memories are for keeps, and if you are planning on a portrait shoot soon I hope you found the pointers in this blog useful!

Love Kelly x

Kelly Hearn A.B.I.P.P - A.M.P.A