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How to Make a Unique Portrait in the City at Night

What makes a portrait into a portrait ?

Making a portrait is like baking a cake in a way, you need to mix the right ingredients, evenly set it in a tray and add some personal touches. Once the cake is in the oven there is no way back, a bit like pressing the shutter release, then the portrait is done.

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Any portrait, will always include a person, a background, and a key light that will allow the subject’s face and soul to come through in the picture. The subject, background and light are the ingredients, and your frame is the baking tray. Let’s hit the streets and bake the perfect portrait cake!

The city, especially after sundown, has a vast variety of portrait ingredients to be found. Take your portrait subject with you, and go for a walk in the urban studio to look for frames, backgrounds, and light.

The key to success, as always, lies in your eyes, so start looking at the city through a portrait lens, and look for balanced compositions that will frame a good portrait. Try to use what can be found on the streets, but if that’s not possible, a simple off-camera flash with white umbrella can complete the setup for the urban studio.
We took a walk in the city and looked for portraits to be made. Here is what I and my model found.

Bright store in a dark corner

The dynamic composition shown here creates the needed interest that focuses viewer’s attention on the model’s facial features and eyes, therefore communicating the personality of the model. This is done by having soft gentle light coming from the left and adding a red bokeh circle in the background. An invisible triangle between the model’s lips, eyes, and the red circle is directing the energy back to her eyes.

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As you can see here, the setup for this portrait wasn’t a big soft-box in the studio, but instead was a messy drug store at night, in a busy street corner in Jerusalem. The store’s fluorescent lights provided an even and soft light source, while the much needed red circle in the background came from the traffic light behind the model (shown in green in the photo below).

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Hotel enigma

A classic hotel building, with some human presence, helped create an enigmatic atmosphere for this portrait, the background here being part of the story. The key light on the subject came from an off-camera flash positioned at 90 degrees. The dark frame for this composition was made by photographing through a metal railing between the camera and the subject, as you can see in the next photo. This setup helped create depth, that continues with the blurry figures on the street and inside the building.

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The whole setup can be seen below. The flash was positioned about four feet from the model, with the output set to manual at 1/32 power, in order to match the amount of light coming from the background.

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Layer store

Layers are not only to be found in photo editing programs, they are everywhere, all over the city. A corner store with windows on both sides made it possible to compose a complicated composition, that gives the eye something to explore. When doing so, you need to make sure that the viewer’s eye ends up looking at the subject, so it can still be a portrait. Dividing the frame into three, using the vertical lines on the store’s window, and positioning the subject in the right third of the frame, kept the focus on the subject in this case.

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The main light here also came from the off-camera flash setup, as you can see in the next image. The photo was taken through the window on the left side of the store.

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Equipment

Any camera with a decent portrait lens and manual exposure control can do the work, most of it is hidden in the lens.

A classic portrait lens is between the 85 mm and 105 mm focal lengths on a full frame camera, or their equivalents on any other sensor size. Those focal lengths will give you the perfect camera to subject distance of about six feet, and will produce a moderate compressed perspective, that is distortion free. Typical portrait lenses have a large aperture of f/2 or wider, which allows more light to go through, and therefore are perfect for working with what the city has to offer at night, and will deliver a shallow depth of field when needed.

Off-camera flash can be any speedlight with manual control and radio slave system. Here is the list of equipment I used for this session:

So if you want to try something a little different get a willing subject (model), grab a flash, and head out into the city at night to make some unique portraits.

Please share your questions and results in the comments below.

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Ouria Tadmor
Ouria Tadmor

‘s art and message to the world is street photography. He uses his art to deliver the message of tolerance and acceptance, by teaching it to other photographers. Ouria lives in, and is inspired by the city of Jerusalem, where he also works as a photojournalist and teaches in several art schools. Read more about Ouria’s work on his website or Facebook group.