Exercise 3.10 A formal portrait

Exercise Brief: How would you make a formal portrait of someone, that tells the viewer about that person’s character, life, and interests but remains subtle and restrained? Making a ‘formal’ portrait is a ‘real world’ scenario for most photographers. It’s generally a full-length portrait of a person showing their whole figure deliberately posed to be the main subject of the composition. It won’t include excessive displays of emotion or activity. A formal portrait demands great care over the composition and the lighting. And you’ll need to make many exposures to capture a meaningful portrait from your subject. Wait for your subject to relax. Be alert to their nuances of facial expression and gesture and try to find a ‘real’ face, not a self-conscious or smiling or ‘this is how I want to be seen’ sort of face. By juxtaposing significant elements (props, setting, clothes) in the frame, you’re setting up a kind of ‘dialogue’ between them, in which a resonance should occur, but try to remain subtle. Before you start, research Thomas Struth’s portraits on the Tate website: http://www.tate.org.uk/ art/artworks?aid=2339&ws=date&wv=grid and Cecil Beaton’s work.

My approach:

Having looked at master photographers and gone through various portraitures since Part II, and now having gone through the reference photographers on the list, Thomas Struth, and Cecil Beaton, one thing that comes across is that portrait is a huge genre and the internet is flooded by some striking work by photographers through centuries.  I particularly loved Cecil Beaton’s work where he has created some work which will always be immortal in its feel –  the glamour, innocence, style to create an ethereal image all in one, was his signature style for a lot of his portraits of women.

Even before I looked at his work, I wanted to pay a lot of attention to this exercise and wanted to create a perfect formal portrait. Also, I wanted to have the perfect model for it. I was presented with an opportunity on a friend’s baby shower. She is in her 34th week of pregnancy and that’s when I thought that it was a perfect opportunity to plan something of this scale and the perfect present to her. She is very soft looking and seeing her always reminds me of this wispy character right out of a children’s book. Her innocence, along with her baby bump is what I wanted to capture in a setting that is reminiscent of “Alice in Wonderland” or “Babe in the woods” kind of a theme. A friend, who is a designer, helped me with the clothes and together we created several looks for her. We did a day-long shoot resulting in thousands of images that can be viewed in the contact sheets:

A formal Portrait

My model was hesitant as she had never posed in front of a camera, so making her comfortable and capture her essence without any forced or posed gestures was the key to this shoot. Her discomfort should not be reflected in the images. I attempted this shoot at a bar in New Delhi, which has a lot of outdoor spaces that were perfect for creating the look that I was wanting. The entire shoot is done outdoors and I have used an external light, skimmers, and reflectors to play with the sunlight. Though we experimented with several looks that are available to see in the contact sheets, here are four of my favorites that I feel worked well.

These are a few of my interpretations:



I tried to process these images into black and white to create a more classic feel, but it wasn’t doing justice to the overall look and theme so I have left it in color.


  1. http://www.thomasstruth32.com/smallsize/photographs/family_portraits_1/index.html
  2. http://www.thomasstruth32.com/smallsize/photographs/family_portraits_2/index.html
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jul/03/thomas-struth-interview-photography-whitechapel
  4. http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks?aid=2339&ws=date&wv=grid

  5. https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/exhibitions/20041/cecil-beaton-portraits.php
  6. https://www.vogue.com/article/cecil-beaton-portraits-and-profiles
  7. http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/exhibitions/cecilbeaton/queen_prince.aspx

7 Replies to “Exercise 3.10 A formal portrait”

  1. A beautiful model and great photography. I’m really glad that you kept the colour. The colours flatter her, particularly the red and the pink. Although the photo of her in the blue dress, where her hand is underneath her bump, will most likely be the photo she will always cherish.

    The first photo is the one that I like the most. You have the flowing movement of the dress, which also captures the shape of her leg, the props don’t look like props. They look natural as part of a restaurant scene, the light is crisp but gentle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Richard. That series of hers in the blue dress standing in the natural sunlight are my favourite too. We really worked hard with the props and to control the harsh sunlight so yes am pleased with the results too. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Archna, beautiful and vibrant portrait photography, I can only imagine these images in the stunning colours they are rather than monochrome. You’ve clearly used the skills from Part Two in lighting the scenes and the model to great effect. Well done! Andy

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Just wonderful. Lovely portraits and the setting perfect. You have clearly enabled your model to relax, and capture her calm, joyful and ‘expectant’ mood beautifully. Others have commented and I will not repeat but endorse! I just admire your photography so much. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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