I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London today. I was impressed with the thought and skill that had gone into the painted portraits. Due to a number of factors I was less impressed with the photographic portraits. Analysing it all I came away inspired, but definitely not by the photographs!

Why The Portrait Paintings Where Better

I sat in a corner and from that viewpoint could see a line of paintings and a line of photographs. The key differences where striking due to how obvious they where.

The most obvious was lighting owing to how well the painted portraits were lit compared to the photographic portraits. Comparing the two I was blown away by how well the painters used light. They were lit beautifully creating a realistic third dimensional modelling effect.

The painters beat the photographers hands down in this regard. Their use of light was literally mind blowing. I was very impressed due to the quality of the light, soft edged with a touch of contrast. The photographs looked flat in comparison due to a lack of light and shade. When I considered that photographers had access to flash and secondly the painters did not, its humbling. These guys really had to work had for their light purely due to the level of available technology.

The second most obvious thing was how considered the posing and setup was. Modern tastes have definitely changed because many of the poses felt trite and false yet so much thought had gone into them.

Talking to my wife I realised that what made the painting medium so successful is how inconvenient it is. It takes hundredths of a second to photograph a portrait but hours to days to paint one. You simply would not invest that much time in painting a portrait unless it was setup correctly. By comparison a photograph is almost disposable, if the first does not work we can always take another.

But Photographic Portraits are More Realistic!

Photographs are most definitely more realistic than painted portraits. The accuracy and level of detail is down to individual hairs with modern equipment which is far greater than painters can achieve. That is indisputable, particularly when you consider time and commercial pressures. Can you imagine school painted portraits rather than photographed?

Realism and accuracy does not mean a better portrait, as a matter of fact it can mean the opposite. There is a whole industry built around retouching and digital filters to ‘enhance’ a portrait. Retouching of portraits gets a lot of column space and most of the images in mainstream media are retouched to some extent.

What I Will Take Away For My Own Portraits

We should still take our que from the masters in photographic portraiture because they knew what they were doing. There is time in portraiture to  setup the portraits properly and that will separate it from a snap. We have access to light and ways of modifying the light beyond those old painters dreams. We should learn to use that light as well as the painters did.

The final point is that just because we can take a portrait quickly, does not mean that we have to.

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