Imperfections R us. Do we really make portraits by consciously following "success" formulas? How boring...

Little experiment. I'm putting up an image I like that I shot a while back. There's a lot "technically" wrong with the execution. The black tones are blocked up so much that you can't really see any separation between Lou's arm and the rest of her black sweater. Even the watchband soaks into the surrounding black. The highlight on her left cheek (to the right of the frame) is burned out. The contrast is high. Her posture is hunched over. She is not smiling a vapid, empty smile. Who in the last 20 years would pose someone with their chin resting on their hand? Why didn't I just take the watch off? Was it a mistake to leave the little shadow over on the bottom left hand of the frame? The background lighting is mottled and not smooth. The edges of the frame wouldn't be considered sharp on any planet. There's not enough separation in her hair. Who in the world thought the shadow to the right of her nose was appropriate? Etc.

And yet, it is one of my favorite portraits and, when shown as a print in my portfolio it is one of the ones clients reference as a style they'd like to pursue for their projects.

Is it a success or a failure? Would knowing which lens or camera it was taken with make any difference in your opinion? Would the original reason for us taking the image make a difference in your evaluation? Should it have been in color? Should it have been in a rectangle? Does the composition violate the "golden mean?" Have we followed or made a mockery of the rule of thirds?

Just curious to know what you think... If you have an opinion...


Victor Bloomfield said...

I like it a lot. The picture has mood and character, and I'm finding that "imperfections" often add something to a picture. In addition, I think that some part of my positive reaction (and I suspect yours) is to what we know about the person herself, from the other portraits you've shown us of a beautiful, intelligent, accomplished woman. This is obviously a portrait of Lou as a younger woman - pretty and self-possessed, though without some of the depth and maturity that appear later.

Lenya Ryzhik said...

Kirk, this is a very magnetic portrait, thank you for sharing it. Of course, it is a marvelous success, and you know it, your fake list of imperfections notwithstanding (throwing the lack of sharp edges into the list was a bit too much, I submit), though I am by no means qualified to judge it. I have one serious question, though, about your last imperfection. Why did you keep the shadow under her nose? It, obviously, lengthens the nose, but what does it add? You know how to control the light extremely well, so I do not believe it was not intentional. Do you feel it makes the portrait more natural, does it echo some other shape, why?

And please, keep posting more portraits. We all love Austin scenes but your portraits are often very special.

Thank you,

rexdeaver said...

Portraits are about faces. Everything else is, at best, a distraction. Which is why this portrait works so well.

Anonymous said...


The portrait reminds me of the dramatic style used in the 1940's and 50's. Check the work of Cornel Lucas (and others of that period). I like the strong lighting, dark shadows. Very eye catching. Too much attention these days (on the web)about technical perfection forgetting about what is eye catching and appealing.


Tommy Morgan said...

Those great imperfections make this such a great image, but then "what is perfection"

Anonymous said...

Eh, you could fix all that by scanning it in to Photoshop and carrying out a little extra post production...

But that might monkey with the intensity of the shot... And the black/white of the top/backdrop lends the face an almost graphic quality.

I like it.

And she has an enigmatic expression. I'm sure there was a painter who did that once too.


Joel Wolford said...

I really like this portrait....It looks real to me. I was so busy looking at her eyes, lips, the hand, and her expression, that I didn't even notice the "imperfections" until you pointed them out. For me, it's the same issue as noise in a photograph: If the subject is compelling, well-composed, and an exposure that conveys what you felt, then I don't usually pay attention to "imperfections". Sometimes they make a photo more interesting.


Howard said...

Chalk up a like from me. Seemingly, the so-called imperfections, technical mistakes serve a purpose. My attention is drawn to the ladies' eyes, which for me make the photo.

Hugh said...

Easy to remove the watch in Photoshop.

I'd be interested to see a version without the watch. I think the watch is probably an important part of the picture - adding a bit of visual tension.

I like the picture very much as it is.

Kirk Tuck said...

No. There is no version without the watch. The watch is an integral part of the image and of her personality in the moment. It's also a vital, repeating graphic element. No watch removal. Ever.

GNapp Studios said...

We all like you Kirk, you know that. You could put up a mule's face in this blog and we would all say it is a masterpiece.

If you want an unbiased opinion, submit it on a site where you can submit it anonymously.

Kirk Tuck said...

GNapp, I want to be really clear. I was not asking for a critique I was trying to make a point about how meaningless a lot of the things people think are important to a portrait really are. And how the art of a portrait trumps formulaic ideas of what is good. I have a built in critique source, they are called clients. When the phone stops ringing I know I"m doing something wrong.

atmtx said...

Emotional response is more important than rules.

Marino Mannarini said...

Kirk. Portraits are about connecting to people. People are precious BECAUSE of their imperfection. You wring and iron all imperfections out and you just kill them. Portraits then become simulacres. This is why yoir older photogtaphs are Portraits and the latest look more like simulacres. Sorry for saying so.

Chris Siebenmann said...

Thinking about Kirk's questions made me realize that I now default to assuming that almost everything in photographs is a conscious stylistic choice instead of an accident or an imperfection. The only question then is 'does the style work for me in this picture' and most of the time the answer is 'yes', or at least I see what the photographer was aiming for even if it doesn't necessarily resonate deeply with me.

(There are quibbles and hand-wavings possible in the corners of this attitude, of course, but generally they don't apply to the work of photographers who know what they're doing.)

Hugh said...

I thnk we are agreeing about the watch. :)

Anonymous said...

"Who in the last 20 years would pose someone with their chin resting on their hand?"

Make that 30 years. ;-)

"Is it a success or a failure?"

Depends on whom you ask. If you and the client/model like it, surely it's a success. The snobs and style polices among your peers don't really count that much, do they.

"Would knowing which lens or camera it was taken with make any difference in your opinion?"


"Would the original reason for us taking the image make a difference in your evaluation?"

Hmm, probably not, but fellow photographers are no doubt curious about such metadata.

"Should it have been in color?"

Although I'm somewhat curious to know what colour her eyes and hair are. But other than that, nope. The high contrast B/W works just fine.

"Should it have been in a rectangle? Does the composition violate the "golden mean?" Have we followed or made a mockery of the rule of thirds?"

I don't think so. The shape and the composition are pretty ok as it is, but perhaps a slight vignette might have looked nice, too. Maybe.

"There's a lot "technically" wrong with the execution."

Well, in today's standards and trends, maybe yes. It sort of has a kind of 'old school' 80's and 90's look to it, and it reminds me of the kind of simple portrait shots I was learning to make back in those days, when I was just a bright-eyed youngster. With or without the hand. Even the high contrast look reminds me of the Tri-X negatives printed on a certain Agfa paper in the darkroom.

But I don't think that's a flaw. In fact, I hope that kind of shots will make a comeback. Not as a new hip 'retro' fashion, but as an accepted style among the current 'norms.' It doesn't have to look like a 'standard' portrait made in this decade.

"it is one of the ones clients reference as a style they'd like to pursue for their projects."

No wonder. I bet women in particular like it, and would like to have one taken of them. It has that subtle mixture of classy pictorial portrait and beauty shot thing going on with it. It's showing the character of the subject in a subtly flattering manner without the obligatory smile. Which is exactly what many women want in their beauty shots. A young model like that can handle almost any lighting style pretty well, too.

I don't think that most of the clients you show it pay much attention to the subtleties of lighting and framing in the photo, though. I bet they'd like the same pose in slightly different lighting style, too.

Anyway, I made a mental note of trying to implement/replicate that look in a wider environmental portrait, combining that look with a location. Or something like that.
Thanks for the inspiration. ;)

John Meredith said...

Definitely a success, full of character and dram and still 'conversational', if you know what I am driving at.

Bill Danby said...

In photography, as in all the arts, the total has to be more than the sum of the parts. It works, I suppose, because the total wouldn't be affected by making any of the "corrections" you mention.

It hangs together well, but it's not a favourite of mine from the best of your work. What counts, however, is that you like it.

And, don't be shy about preferring the square format — it's not a "formula," it's a feature.

Corwin Black said...

It depends on how one views "good photo". In my perspective, it is a good photo.

For some it is technical perfection, or composition/light, for me its usually more about "feeling/emotion" that you get when you look on that photo.

Even famous photographs are sometimes not perfect from technical point of view. But they have usually something "extra" that little bit of intangible substance which makes good or great photo. Rarely is that "something" technical perfection..

Only problem is, that people sometimes swing to another side of things and say to themselves "we dont need technical perfection" and produce photos which are miserable from all points of view and then they try to sell it as "art" (and poor technical aspects are usually sold as artistic decision).

Burdette said...

Technically correct and aesthetically right are often not the same.

Old Gray Roy said...

To hell with technicalities, I like the photo.

James Weekes said...

I love it, but some of my favorite portraits, taken decades ago are black and white Diana shots under a skylight. Technical messes but close to my heart. If it works, it works.

amolitor said...

The rule of thirds should always be mocked roundly. It's a rotten idea invented in the 20th century to satisfy a growing desire to sinology and codify composition for photographers who were and are mostly nerds, not artists.

There is an older 'rule of thirds' which is about proportion, not placement. This isn't the one photographers are referring to, generally.

Michael Matthews said...

Tricky premise. Really, has there ever been a bad photo of Lou Lofton?

Paul said...

I think the portrait should usually be all about the face and who cares about watches, shadows and any perceived imperfections when this image is all about a beautiful face and interesting expression.
Most of my favourite portraits are taken on the street and I usually don't get to ask them to sit up straight, take the watch off and wait for me to take a few shots to get exposure spot on.