What I Think About when I Talk About Painterly Portraits

For many years, I have been drawn to photographs that possess a painterly quality, mostly due to their unique blend of photographic realism and artistic expression. I love that a carefully chosen colour palette can make a photograph resemble a painting. Vibrant, harmonious colours or a limited colour scheme create a painterly atmosphere, sometimes mimicking the colour palettes of famous painters. In my opinion, the selection of colours, combined with specific lighting, produces outstanding results and captivating images. Obviously, the lighting is crucial in creating a painterly effect. Soft, diffused light or more dramatic, directional light can add depth and dimension to the image, similar to the way painters use light and shadow in their work. The interplay of light and shadow can create a three-dimensional effect and imbue the photograph with mood. With a carefully created lighting setup, you can achieve a dramatic chiaroscuro effect, characteristic of Caravaggio's paintings, as well as mastered by Rembrandt.

I also appreciate the storytelling aspect of painterly portraits. Captivating painterly photographs often tell a story or convey an emotion. They invite viewers to interpret the image and engage with it on a deeper level, similar to how viewers engage with a painting. By using props, fabrics, and clothing selection, you can create a narrative that goes beyond a simple representation of the subject. Importantly, all of this can be accomplished within a restricted budget. You don't have to spend a fortune to create a captivating storytelling photograph; quite the opposite, most of the portraits I have created utilised inexpensive props and budget-friendly additions.

The most important factors are imagination and creativity. Ultimately, what makes a painterly photograph captivating is your imagination and creativity. It's about finding a unique perspective, experimenting with techniques, and pushing the boundaries of photography to create something that transcends the medium and feels like a work of art.

Girl with Grapes. Rembrandt Cafe


My approach to creating painterly portraits is quite simple. Most of the time, I use a single light source, rarely adding a second one. To achieve soft light and gentle gradation, I advise using a large softbox. In my case, this would be a 33-inch (84 cm) silver umbrella with a diffuser. A large softbox produces soft and even lighting. Diffusion softens harsh shadows and minimises specular highlights, resulting in a flattering, smooth illumination of the subject. In this case, size really matters, and in my opinion, the larger your softbox is, the better. Large softboxes are particularly effective at producing a gentle gradation of light across the subject's face or other surfaces. This gradation, often referred to as "feathering," helps create dimension and depth in the image without harsh contrasts.

Two final elements that come into play are the angle of the light source and the distance from the subject. For my two projects, 'Black Tulips' and 'Rembrandt Cafe,' I aimed to mimic the atmosphere of Rembrandt portraits, and one of the most distinctive aspects of Rembrandt lighting is the formation of a small, triangular patch of light on the subject's cheek. This can be achieved by positioning the softbox at a specific angle relative to the subject's face. I usually position the light at a 45-degree angle. This means my softbox is positioned to the side of the subject and slightly above their eye level.

The distance between the light source and the subject is extremely important, I find. Distance affects the softness of the light and the quality of shadows. The closer the light source is to the subject, the softer the light will be. Conversely, the farther the light source is from the subject, the harder the light will be. This is because a closer light source creates more even and diffused illumination, while a farther light source produces more directional and concentrated light.

The distance also affects shadows. Closer light sources will create softer, less defined shadows, while a more distant light source will produce sharper and more pronounced shadows. The size and shape of shadows can impact the mood and style of the photograph, and it's up to you and your intended look how you position the softbox. In some cases, my intention was to achieve soft, gentle light, so I positioned the softbox quite close to the subject, no farther than 0.5 metres. When I wanted a more dramatic look with more defined shadows, I moved the softbox farther away.

As you can see in my photographs, most of the time I positioned the softbox to the camera's left. When I wanted to soften the shadows on the opposite side of the subject's face, I placed a white Styrofoam to the camera's right. Light bounces back from the Styrofoam, bringing out details on the subject's left side and making the shadows less dramatic.

The Crimson Rider. Black Tulips

Camera Settings

Working with strobes and flashes entails some limitations in camera settings, especially sync speed. Most cameras have a maximum sync speed at which they can work with strobes or external flash units. This is the fastest shutter speed at which the entire image sensor is exposed at once. Going beyond this sync speed can result in a partially blacked-out frame due to the camera shutter curtain blocking the sensor while it's still being illuminated by the strobe. To avoid this, you may need to shoot at or below the camera's sync speed, which, in my case, was 1/125. Additionally, I set the aperture to f/8.0 to keep the subject in focus and the ISO to 100 or 125. Most of the time, I used a 50mm lens.

Girl with a Can. Rembrandt Cafe.


Once you have taken care of the technical aspects of the shoot, it's time to focus on the storytelling aspect of the image. Captivating painterly photographs often tell a story or convey an emotion. They invite viewers to interpret the image and engage with it on a deeper level, similar to how viewers engage with a painting. I enjoy introducing contemporary elements into the frame, blending two realities: the spirit of old painting and entirely modern props or pieces of wardrobe. Some of my favourite examples include 'Crimson Rider' and 'Girl with a Can.' In 'Crimson Rider,' the subject wears a modern bathrobe over pyjamas, but his pose, vintage lacy collar, and lighting create a sense of dignity and old-fashioned elegance characteristic of old paintings. In contrast, 'Girl with a Can' has been stylized to resemble old paintings on multiple levels. Starting with the vintage bottle and jug on the table, clothing, and jewellery, everything transports you several centuries back, apart from the modern can of Coke, of course, which adds a dynamic touch to the photograph. In many projects, my intention was to blur the boundaries between photography and painting, paying homage to the artistry of the Old Masters while infusing it with a contemporary twist. With one of my projects, '2Q18,' I took the concept even further by creating a series of fictional adverts. Imagine a parallel timeline where everything looks almost the same as it did two hundred years ago. Fashion and art maintain the standards from the 17th and 18th centuries, and you might witness fashionable ladies in vintage outfits with lace sun umbrellas, sipping Coca-Cola in the park. This is the year 2Q18. I hope you enjoy the concept.

I encourage you to dip your toes into the world of old-fashioned images and have some fun creating painterly portraits yourself. Several times a year I run workshops in London showing not only studio setups but also sharing tips on post production and the workflow. Please feel free to get in touch if you want to hear more about it.

Projects mentioned in the article:

Black Tulips: https://www.see2believe.co.uk/black-tulips

Rembrandt Cafe: https://www.see2believe.co.uk/rembrandt-cafe

2Q18: https://www.see2believe.co.uk/2q18/