In this age of camera phones, Instagram, selfies and cheap, high quality DSLRs and mirrorless cameras surely anyone can be a portrait photographer so why would someone actually pay good money to hire a photographer to take their picture?
Here are some reasons based on my own experiences of both photographing people and watching other photographers at work.
Reason #1: A portrait photographer knows how to use a camera.
This may seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious. How can you be any kind of a photographer if you don’t know how to use your camera? Making portraits of people is all about not letting the camera interfere with the process of capturing that persons true character. I would assert you cannot do this if you are having to concentrate on making your camera work. There is probably no other genre of photography where letting the camera get in the way of creating a good image is so detrimental to the final product. As a landscape or architectural photographer you can always spend a bit of time getting things right with the camera. After all the landscape or building is not going to get fed up and walk off set! To be a successful portrait photographer you need to know your camera inside out (or at least the bits of it you will actually be using) so it becomes completely unobtrusive in the shoot. It also helps if the camera and lens are as small as possible which is why compact system cameras like the Olympus OM-D are so good.
As Keira Knightley says in this interview with the photographer Patrick Demarchelier: “I’ve noticed that the people who started on film still have the ability to see the person in front of them. Whereas for a lot of photographers who have only ever worked in digital, the relationship between the photographer and the person who they’re taking a picture of sort of doesn’t exist anymore. They’re looking at a computer screen as opposed to the person.”
Reason #2: A portrait photographer knows how to do post processing.
No matter how brilliant a photographer you are there is nearly always some scope for doing a bit of post processing (AKA “photoshopping”) of images. It may be something as simple as removing the odd spot or a bit of cropping to tighten the image or it maybe some full-blown compositing to create weird and wonderful special effects. It’s one thing to be able to use Instagram or its like to create ‘template effects’ but quite another to be in full control of professional post processing software like Lightroom and Photoshop to really create some stunning imagery. Make no mistake, as I am finding out, learning how to use software like this is no mean task and takes time and dedication. A good portrait photographer will know how to use such software to effectively post process images.
For some examples of some pretty stunning post processing and the creative input that goes into creating such images see my image with Jen Brook here.
Reason #3: A portrait photographer knows how to light and compose an image.
Lighting and composition are probably the two biggest things that separate a ‘photographer’ from a ‘Photographer’. Ming Thein says that light and composition are two of his four things every photographer should know. Understanding how to use light (any light that you have at your disposal) is the most valuable of all lessons. Knowing how to use light and compose an image that makes the best use of that light is even more valuable. Make no mistake, the only way you can get good at these two things is to practice as much as you can. You can read articles and attend workshops but nothing is going to enable you to understand how to light and compose an image of a person by actually doing it. You’ll make mistakes of course so probably need a patient friend or to hire a model for a few hours when practicing a new technique but this will pay dividends.
Here are the photographers Neil Buchan-Grant (holding the reflector) and Steve Gosling (in the blue shorts) practicing lighting and composing their shots at a workshop I went on in Venice last year which was led by these two great photographers.
Reason #4: A portrait photographer knows how to work with people.
When it comes down to it, making a really good portrait of someone can only happen if the photographer is empathetic with their subject. The greatest camera and lighting skills in the world will be of no use if there is no ‘connection’ between the image subject and image maker. Knowing how to put someone at ease in front of the camera, getting them to pose to the best effect and to deal with body parts that don’t know what to do or where to go is all part of this. Remember that not everyone you take a picture of is going to be a professional model who knows how to play to the camera and for the rest of us, who mainly hate having our picture taken, we need to be put at ease, told we are wonderful and made to actually enjoy the experience.
As an aspiring portrait photographer I think one of the most valuable things you can do is to sit for another experienced people photographer, who is good at their art, and see what they do to put you at ease. I did this (involuntarily I have to say) at a workshop I attended given by Trevor and Faye Yerbury last year and it was definitely a powerful lesson that I learned from that brief sitting. Even I, who definitely hates having his picture taken, was put at ease by Trevor. Something that was particularly impressive given this took place in front of the 20 or so other participants on the workshop.
Reason #5: A portrait photographer knows her subject.
If you read the background about any of the great portraits that have been taken over the years one thing that nearly always comes out* is that the photographer always does some research in advance to try and understand a bit more about their subject before they meet them. It helps if you can ask something about their interests or job to put them at ease, strike up a conversation and hopefully get a more relaxed picture.
One of the great things about the Internet and social media is that nearly everyone these days has a web presence which means you can find out something about them in advance. Even if this is not possible and they are a ‘web recluse’ you can still break the ice and ask them a bit about themselves. This may even help with what you do with them in the picture, maybe incorporating props or some aspect of their work as part of the image.
*One photographer who apparently never did this was Jane Bown, the Observers portrait photographer for over 40 years who, according to this article, “never posed her subjects or told them to smile. She never researched them and didn’t know when she set out what she wanted; she waited until she saw what she needed.”