An idea is current among many people that an extensive outfit is necessary for the production of really good portraits and also that the most perfect and most expensive apparatus should be used for that purpose. It is a fact, however, that there is scarcely any art wherein the result depends less upon the actual tools employed, and more upon the intelligence and proper use of them, than in photography.
Costly appliances alone can never guarantee good results. In no work does the condition of success lie with the operator in a greater measure than in photography. A strong individuality coupled with a sense of the beautiful is very nearly if not quite as great a factor in photography as in painting or any other of the graphic arts. In addition, the photographer, certainly the portrait photographer, must have a quick decision and a thorough technical knowledge, and he will then obtain good pictures with the simplest materials.
For a beginner desirous of making a start the half-plate size is to be recommended. The picture which it enables one to secure is large enough to produce a satisfactory effect when suitably mounted. It is also a very convenient size for travelling, and negatives of that size can, if necessary, be enlarged. The camera should have at least a double extension, to allow of the use of long-focus lenses. The front of the camera carrying the lens should be quite rigid, because the longer the focus of the lens, provided the aperture remains the same, the heavier the lens becomes.
The front should also have a rise and fall and, if possible, a side movement; and either the focussing screen or the lens front should have a swing movement.
The point which most beginners probably consider to be the most important is that of the lens. Undoubtedly it is an important factor, but not nearly as important as is commonly believed. Modern rapid lenses of the anastigmatic type may be described as quite universal instruments, their main characteristic being the power they possess to draw with extraordinary accuracy. Strange as it may appear to the beginner, it is a fact that this remarkable power of definition may detract greatly from the artistic value of the portrait. It follows therefore that a lens possessing great depth of definition at full aperture should be avoided when we are bent on pictorial portraiture, since it is impossible to separate that portion of the picture which is to concentrate the interest from the background - this latter being merely an accessory to the main idea - the portrait, or the figure. Another reason against their use is, of course, that the background would be rendered almost as sharp as the portrait itself, whereas it should be kept subdued and without obtrusive details.
We must have the power to distribute the definition or the accent at will, and this is only possible with lenses which have not a great depth at full aperture. To this class belong the Goerz double anastigmat B., Voigtlander Heliar, Zeiss Unar, and some other well-known makes. They are of a slightly different type from the modern anastigmat before mentioned, and work at an aperture of about f/4.5. Under good lighting conditions, and provided the sitter can remain still for the longer exposure necessitated, the use of less rapid and far less expensive lenses may be recommended.
Many workers use, with success, the simple uncorrected lens. The soft definition given by its combination is so pleasing in effect as largely to counterbalance the defect of slowness. A cheap portrait lens can be made by taking a R. R. lens and using the front half only, thus obtaining a so-called "landscape" lens, giving soft drawing with a moderate depth of focus. Of course, when dealing with nervous persons or children, or if the light is poor, it is essential to employ the rapid lens. According to the conditions present there will always be a difference of opinion as to the relative merits of the single lens and the more powerful corrected lenses of modern type. But a really good double cemented lens, combining great rapidity with moderate depth and soft drawing, does not, as yet, exist, although with at least one well-known type it is possible to partially unscrew, and by thus separating the condition of the back combination obtain a soft and much more artistic result.
An important and much disputed point is the focal length of the lenses. Roughly speaking the focal length should not be shorter than the diagonal of the plate to be used, and even then, with such a short focal length as this represents, it will be necessary, should it be desired to take a large-scale portrait, to bring the camera so near to the sitter that the peculiarities of faulty perspective will appear in the picture. We need not in this place discuss what those peculiarities are, or explain the reason for their existence. Suffice it to try an example to prove that, though the position may have appeared quite natural to the photographer, the drawing will be so ridiculously exaggerated as to destroy any chance of a satisfactory rendering. At the same time it should be pointed out that the peculiar perspective is only due to the wrong use of the lens, and not to any faulty quality inherent in it. It is produced simply by the lack of distance between the camera and the sitter, in relation to the scale of the portrait. Of course, if the idea is to enlarge the subsequent result, it is quite possible to use a lens of quite a short focus, but where, as will be mostly the case, the resulting negative is intended to be used direct, a lens of not less than double the diagonal of the plate should be used and this will be the length for head and shoulders and half-length portraits; for large heads the focal length of the lens should be even longer than this.