Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

Mihaela Noroc grew up surrounded by her father’s paintings full of colors, which she successfully brings into her portraits as well. She has traveled over fifty countries of the world including Tibet, South Korea, the Amazon rainforest, and several war zones. In her first book, The Atlas of Beauty, she has let us peek into the lives of over 500 women through visually precise photographs and short narratives, and she is still continuing in her work.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

I approach women I want to photograph on the street. I explain what my project is about. Sometimes I get yes as an answer, sometimes I get no, that really depends on the country I’m in, she says in The Atlas of Beauty. Now let’s take a look at what we as photographers can learn from her portraits.

A Safe and Friendly Atmosphere

In her pictures, she depicts women’s authentic and natural expressions without artifice. Most of them are from the street, where she addresses the woman she picks, and asks her for a photo. Sometimes she must also ask for permission from the woman’s husband, brother, or father. She comforts some of the women, telling them they need not be thinner, wear make up and prettier clothes to be beautiful, other times she only has a few minutes before a woman will miss her plane, her theater practice, or her hair curling appointment. 

A smile and understanding for a woman’s worries play a significant role, along with an interest in her story—even just a question on where she’s headed, where she’s from, or how she’s doing can be enough to reveal a piece of her life, her culture, and her thinking.

“I come up to a woman who I want to photograph on the street. I explain to her what my project is about. Sometimes she says yes, sometimes no; it even depends on what country I’m in,” Mihaela once explained in an interview for the BBC.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Milan, Italy. „In terms of fashion, Milan is one of the most important cities in the world. Beautiful women from all over the planet come here to work as models. But there are thousands of other beautiful women in the city and their beauty usually goes unnoticed.In the beginning, Laile didn’t want me to photograph her because she said she’s not beautiful enough. I hope this post and your comments will make her realise how beautiful she is.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

A Gaze Straight Into the Lens

It is indeed the woman’s gaze straight into the lens that bind us to Mihaela’s subject, and thanks to this, the picture hits us somewhere in the chest. We won’t find a single photo among the work of Mihaela Noroc in which a woman’s eyes are turned down or out into the distance. For the millionth time in human history, she is confirming that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. Thanks to her direct gaze, the woman also looks confident, which may not always be easy in many parts of the world.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Medellin, Colombia.„Medellin is a city with a tumultuous past, it is the place that Pablo Escobar used to call home and from where he used to run his entire mob network. Its inhabitants had lived under continuous terror for many years. After I arrived there, I discovered some of the most interesting feminine faces. I tried to tell them about my project, but they wouldn’t even stop. They would walk by in a hurry without even looking at me. After a while, someone explained to me that they were afraid to allow me to photograph them because they did not know me personally and didn’t know who I really was. It was with much difficulty that I finally photographed Estefania.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Colors That Perfectly Complement Each Other

Similarly as in the work of reporter Steve McCurry, precise work with color compositions is characteristic for the portraits of Mihaela Noroc as well. While analogous colors evoke harmony, contrasting or complementary colors are much more striking and add dynamism to a picture.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

The art is balancing the colors and suitably combining them. A color wheel will help out beginners here. Complementary colors are located opposite each other (for example blue and red), while analogous colors are next to each other (for example blue and purple). One very simple and effective solution for highlighting your subject is to find a contrasting background for it.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Maramureș, Romania. „I went to Maramureș to look for old traditions that are still present. And I found many. I photographed her after she had been caroling all night with other young people from the village, dressed in traditional clothes. This is what they do on Christmas night. The local people go from one house to the next, from dusk till dawn, to make good wishes and join their welcoming hosts for culinary feasts.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Pokhara, Nepal. „It was a Sunday in 2015 and just like every weekend, many people from Pokhara, Nepal were spending their time around the splendid Phewa lake.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. „While traveling in India, almost two years ago, I noticed that trains are the country’s vital circulatory system. They transport more than twenty million people every day. Just imagine twenty million fascinating stories!“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Naples, southern Italy. „Serena makes these little horns which are popular amulets of good luck in Naples and other parts of Southern Italy. They are called ‚Cornicelli‘ in Italian and have ancient origins. ‚This small workshop was opened by my parents. Now me and my sister continue the tradition. I make the horns here and she sells them downstairs, where we have a store.‘“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. „In the villages and small towns of Guatemala most of the Mayan women wear splendid traditional outfits.The proud descendants of the Maya Civilization have a great sense of colours and a strong desire to keep their culture alive.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Natural Light

Those sparkles in her eyes, that’s not a softbox or an external flash. In all of Mihaela’s photos, and not only for this article, you can observe how it’s possible to work with natural light. In the photograph below, the photographer dispersed sharp noonday sun with the treetops, preventing it from creating dark shadows. A cloudy sky can also be a natural diffuser; it is ideal for shooting portraits—the light is evenly diffused along the subject’s whole face.

„Během fotografování používám vždy přirozené světlo. Snažím se vytvořit pocit pohodlnosti a zachytit magický okamžik, kdy se žena otevře a kdy se mohu ponořit do jejích očí a zachytit její vnitřní krásu,“ popisuje Mihaela Noroc.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Calcutta, India. „I spent The Woman’s Day exploring the streets of Kolkata, India, known also as the ‚City of Joy‘. And this is so true! Despite all the struggles and challenges, most of the women here welcomed me with a big smile on their face. By chance I was able to photograph this lovely group of ladies from a low angle. And I think this perfectly showcases their power, their strength. Life has many shadows, like this photo, but let’s not forget the light, the joy. It’s always there. Let’s feel it and let’s also offer it to those who are less fortunate.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Separate the Subject From Their Background

A cluster of people, motion, colors, and faces—the usual visual city shootout. If you can’t convince your subject to duck into a back alley or some similar serener place with you, you’ll have to make do with what you have. The simplest way to get rid of distracting elements is to use a lens with a long focal length and set a low f-stop such as f/2.8. This gives you a very low depth of focus that isolates your subject from their background. And so your subject will be what draws in the audience’s eyes. 

But don’t forget the color wheel and contrasting colors, and make sure they don’t distract your audience—are they looking at your subject’s face, or trying to figure out if that striking red spot in the background is an Indian turban or a traffic sign? Also, watch out: in group portraits, you’ll need to use a higher f-stop such as f/8, especially if they’re standing in rows.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Pyongyang, North Korea. Rarely have I seen such a concentration of uniforms; they are everywhere in this society. This woman was a guide at a military museum. The Atlas of Beauty.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Bucharest, Romania. „I sometimes feel that the photos of mothers with their children tell so much and a longer caption would only spoil the charm. So I will only say that I photographed Carmen, who is Romanian, and her daughters, Ranya and Zara, who also have Middle Eastern roots, in Bucharest, Romania.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Calcutta, India. „That’s an expression. Arpita and her son, in Kolkata, India, four months ago.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Work With the Context

A series of faces with a dreamily blurred background would eventually put even a slot to sleep. With the use of a wide-angle lens or a high f-stop, you can get more out of your subject’s living environment into the picture. The street’s shimmering tumult, architecture made for desert cities or sci-fi cities, hand-woven carpets on the walls—all this helps the viewer to fill in the details of the subject’s daily life and their culture.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Cuenca, Ecuador. „A moment of tenderness at a food market.“

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Mexico City, Mexico. „Captain Berenice Torres is a helicopter pilot for the Mexican Federal Police. This brave woman, who is also a mother, is part of a special forces unit to fight drug cartels, or to rescue people from natural disasters. When she talks about her work, the passion in her eyes is impressive.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Amazonian forest, Ecuador. „More and more tribes of Amazonia are starting to adopt modern clothes for everyday life. But they are still keeping their traditional clothes for important events. I photographed this young woman in her wedding outfit.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

The Convergence of Lines

Another tip for visually directing attention directly towards your subject is to let lines that naturally appear in space lead towards them. Bridges, houses, paths, flowerbeds, it doesn’t matter what.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. „Living proof of the diversity of the Americas, this young Mexican has African, Indigenous, and European roots. Nadia was studying in Oaxaca, Mexico, when I met her last year.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. „Grace and strength wonderfully coexist in most Indian women that I met. I took this photo in the colourful city of Jodhpur, in 2015. After four years of continuous work, I’ve dedicated most of 2017 to create and promote The Atlas of Beauty Book and I’m very grateful that so many of you decided to purchase it. In 2018 I will be back on the road because there is much more diversity waiting to be discovered.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

A Tip for a Basic Pose That Suits Everyone

This woman’s confidence shines from not only her gaze and her raised chin, but from her posture as well. I don’t know if Mihaela told her subjects how they should stand, but in her portraits we can observe the use of one basic pose: a diagonal shoulder line. 

What’s the trick? It’s simple—ask your subject to stand slightly aside from the lens, thus bringing their weight onto one leg, and turn their head back towards you. This enriches the portrait with a few pleasing lines, and you have the makings of a good photo.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Nasir-ol-molk, Shiraz, Iran. „Each morning, one finds a spectacle of lights in the Nasir-Al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz. That is where I photographed this young lady from Iran, wearing a traditional Persian dress.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Reykjavík, Iceland. The Atlas of Beauty.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Tehran, Iran. „Mahsa is a graphic designer and is proud of the fact that from the time she turned eighteen, she has been financially independent. Her name means “like a moon” in Persian. When she was an adolescent, her father insisted that she study to become a doctor, but Mahsa was more interested in the arts and she chose to become a graphic designer. She is proud that from the time she turned eighteen, she has been financially independent, and soon plans to open her own firm.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Engage Their Hands

For full-body and three-quarters shots, make sure your subject is doing something with their hands. The Atlas of Beauty is a well of inspiration: the women have their hands posed classically on their chests, at their waists, or in their laps, or sometimes are propping up their heads with them. But you’ll also find them clasping scarves, dresses, and hoods, holding books, mussels, vegetables, handlebars, burying their fingers in horses’ manes, and—imagine that!—they always look completely natural while they’re doing it.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Kiev. Ukraine. „Grace was born from an Ukrainian mother and an Indian father. She grew up in Ukraine and now studies journalism in Canada. ‚I feel more like a member of Mother Earth than a particular country.‘“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Abyaneh, Iran. „I met this lovely lady a few months ago in a picturesque Iranian village called Abyaneh. We couldn’t communicate too much, because of the language barrier, but sometimes words are simply not needed.“ The Atlas of Beauty.

Mihaela Noroc: 10 Things Her Portrait Photography Can Teach You

© Mihaela Noroc. Buenos Aires, Argentina. „Please take the photo quick. I’m late at the hairdresser.“ Maria, 95. The Atlas of Beauty.

Seek Sense in Photography

Mihaela Noroc has found something rare: a mission. Through her works, she tries to show the world in all its richness and variety. She seeks inner beauty, not outer beauty. She wants to show what we have in common as humans, what connects us. The women in his photographs are interesting in themselves, but it is the series juxtaposing them with other portraits that makes them larger than life. 

“In the end, we are all part of one beautiful family,” Mihaela says, thus indirectly referring to Edward Steichen’s no less ambitious project The Family of Man, created just after the second world war.

But easing back on the sentimentality a bit, can you guess what Mihaela has to recommend to photographers who want to walk in her footsteps? A purchase of a good pair of boots. Work such as hers demands a great deal of walking and discovering.

Last updated 26. March 2020

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Author: Ester Dobiášová

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