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Portrait Photography – Objectives and Outcomes

The word photography comes from Ancient Greek and translates literally as light writing. And that’s what we do as creative photographers: we right with light. How many poor photographs do we produce? One of the reasons they are unsuccessful is that they lack a sense of light. It’s like trying to paint a picture without paint. Talk about minimalist art!

We cannot under emphasise the importance of light to our existence. Without light there would be no photography and, what’s more, very little to photograph.

Most people thing that great photographs are made by those who possess some special secret or tool. Invariable they ask, “what filter did you use” or “what camera or lens did you take that shot with”. The reality is that, rather than a special secret or tool, the photographer has, over time, attuned themselves to light and developed an ability to utilise that light in their images. We all need to continually be working towards achieving a better visualisation of light: its colour, quality, direction and intensity, and how it will affect the resulting image. That way much of what is perceived, at the time the camera’s shutter is tripped, will be realised through our photographs.

Black and White Studio Portrait

Copyright All Rights Reserved, Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography

When preparing for a portrait shoot, whether commissioned or personal, its good to consider what it is you are actually hoping to achieve. Professional portrait photographers aren’t just commissioned to produce a record of an important day or time in the life of their customer. That’s Uncle Harry’s job. More is expected from the professional photographer. They’ll be expecting you to produce images that somehow transcend the paper they’re printed on and communicate the expressive nature of the relationship they’d like to think exists between individual group members. There’s a lot of psychology involved in this type of photography. Mothers, as they are almost always the ones who determine when its time for a family portrait, are your primary customers. We can generalise the needs of the average mother as follows:

  •       A pleasing likeness of each member of the family group
  •       Images that confirm to her, and whoever else sees the final prints, that her children are         happy and that their family is a tight knit, loving unit

Successful portrait photographers understand that it’s important to the mother that the event be enjoyable for all members of the group. The trick is to make it an event, something to look forward to like dinner in a great restaurant, a wedding or weekend away. As a generalisation men are less excited, and probably dread the dressing up that accompanies the event. Men likely put the date into their diary and deal with it on the day, while women (great multi-taskers) will be thinking and working towards the event for weeks. In the case of their own wedding that timeline is extended to many months.

I think that it’s important to note that, without mothers, there probably would be no portrait photography, outside of photojournalism and passport/security photos. So, to the guys in particular, please remember whom you customer is, the importance of the event (the actual photography session) and the significance and meaning associated with the final result.

Now let’s hope you won’t be undertaking a paid assignment without a considerable amount of confidence in your own abilities as a photographer to produce a well composed, appropriately exposed and sharp image. It’s not possibly to build a sense of rapport with your subject unless you have gained some sense of mastery over such basic technical concerns. Once you have, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  •      What purpose does the image serve (publicity, personal, traditional portrait, folio, etc)?
  •      What feelings or emotions do you and your customers want conveyed through your images?
  •      How do you expect to achieve this result? Consideration needs to be given to subject posing, expression, clothing and placement within the frame.

This basic knowledge will allow you to choose appropriate locations, lighting, lens focal length, DOF, backgrounds, props, composition and design. The final outcome will also involve decisions as to print size and surface, framing options and color versus black and white.

It also helps to make a list of the shots you need to make on the day of the shoot. For the professional portrait photographer this list should be based, at least as much on what they sell, as what the customer thinks they want. While the shoot can evolve in a fairly organic and intuitive manner, you need to get the shots your customer expects you to make as well as the ones experience tells you they are likely to purchase.

Experience will help the photographer visualise the final print at the time the camera’s shutter is tripped. And that can provide you with a very satisfying and rewarding experience.


© All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy,  Blue Sky Photography


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