Going PRO – Becoming a Professional Portrait Photographer (Part 01)

After a ten year career as a photographer, you learn a few things about the medium. What is Rembrandt lighting? How do you use flash? Of course, I didn’t always know the answer to these questions, I was once a boy with nothing more than a fleeting interest in cameras and portraits.

Looking back through countless photoshoots and sittings, it’s amazing how far you can come with the right attitude and willingness to learn the craft. When you’re passionate and serious about professional photography, you realise there is a subtle art to everything we do.

In this post, you will see some of my portraits – from acclaimed thespians such as Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, to portraits of politicians, military officers, entertainers and the average person you would pass on the street. In portraiture photography, it’s my job to pay attention to the minute details that make a person special, the lines and contours that make them beautiful and textured in their own individual way.

Sir Ian McKellen, Rory Lewis Photographer Hasselblad H3D-39 100mm F2.2 Fixed Prime
Sir Ian McKellen, Rory Lewis Photographer Hasselblad H3D-39 100mm F2.2 Fixed Prime

Just as every subject is unique, so is every photoshoot. Which leads me to my first point – as a photographer it is imperative that you are as resourceful and diligent. Simply do as Scar advises in The Lion King and ‘be prepared’ for the unexpected! You need to be adaptive to any given situation. The trick is using what you have at the time, and most importantly, applying inventive direction to create the image that’s been lingering in your head.

This brings me to my most crucial lesson: go into professional portraiture with a strategy – strategy being the keyword here. Go ahead, write it at the top of a pad of paper with a big pen and underline it again and again. STRA-TE-GY. To eliminate, or at least lessen, the risk of any mishaps or unexpected occurrences, you need to have a game plan. A tried-and-tested routine that works best for you and gets the job done. That’s the golden rule of portraiture, and one that has kept my services in demand for the better part of my tenure as a photographer.

My strategy, as should yours, always starts before I’ve even set up the camera and lighting. Before any portrait sitting, I take the time to do my homework. I sit at my computer well into the early hours of the morning researching my clients, trying to find out what interests them and what they’re about as a person. Imagine my wife’s reaction when she checks my internet history only to find that I’ve been searching for Craig Charles’ favourite type of jam! Nevertheless, this process serves as primer for the actual day of the photoshoot. You want to be able to break the ice and make the sitter as comfortable as possible. Reeling off a mass of information about their career won’t stand you in good stead, and will probably make you seem a bit creepy. I always try to make sure I’m as personable and natural as possible. I never put a client on top of a pedestal and worship at their feet. I treat everybody with the respect they deserve as human beings, no matter how hard my inner fanboy wants to scream when William Shatner walks into the room! Keep it light and breezy. The more comfortable the sitter, the more they will share and the better the images will turn out. I’ve found that taking the time to have a cup of coffee with a client and a chat about my particular vision for the session really helps relax the atmosphere.

Rory Lewis Photographer

If that doesn’t sound terribly important, then heed my next warning. In this business, without a stellar reputation, you are nothing. Word gets around if you’re difficult to work with, so you are better off being known as somebody who is creative and respected. Photography is all about trust. Your clients trust you to make them look good, just as a patient trusts a doctor to make sure they don’t get sick. In a world where so much photography we see is taken by paparazzi who prey on a person’s status for money, trust is key and it all starts with building a rapport.

One topic that always seems to come up during this conversation is why I became a photographer. Which fits well with my next piece of advice – a key part of anybody’s strategy is to always be mindful of your roots. Take a minute and think back to what it was that really inspired you as an artist. What gets your creative juices pumping like nothing else? Ever since the inaugural moments of my career, I have sought inspiration by drawing intricate connections between many mediums. I’m influenced by a number of sources; from the days I spent reveling in the German Expressionist films Metropolis and Nosferatu; to the space operas and dystopias of the sci-fi genre. I have admired the great portrait photographers Cecil Beaton and Yosef Karsh and swam in the oceans of history with Holbein and Rembrandt, all to find the right style for my own portraiture. As a rule, I try not to bring physical evidence of influence into my shoots. I don’t rip out magazine articles or bring print-outs of different poses or expressions. I find this contaminates the photoshoot with ideas other than my own. I try not to envision the specifics of a sitting before it actually begins. By figuring out what inspires you, you can create and adapt your own skills to the style of portrait you wish to create.

I mention names like Holbein because of my keen interest in historical events, particularly the Renaissance. Departing from our topic slightly, it seems apt to revisit the masters of the art form. After all, this is where it started for me, as a history student at King’s College London. It was here where I began to take notice of portraiture during the Renaissance as a medium that was going through drastic changes. Predominantly portraying royals, nobles, and religious figures, artists moved to concentrate on the status and personality of the sitter in a way they had never done before. Historical icons like Henry VIII and Napoleon were certainly aware of this, and took advantage of the changing shape of portraiture to enhance themselves in the world’s ever-watchful eye.

In my photography workshops and courses, I always try to play history teacher and talk about the love I hold for the Renaissance, but it seems that I’m always diverted towards another topic. I guess not everybody gets as excited about the Tudors as I do! People often ask about lighting techniques, and though they are wholly justified, I feel as if they’re jumping the gun. It is easy in an age ruled by technology to be seduced by the technical aspects of photography, but the equipment does not necessarily make the artist. You can boast about your fancy camera all you want, but for me, it’s all about using what you have at your disposal. Yes, your kit becomes more and more important as your career grows, but I hark back to my previous point about being prepared. If your lighting modifier breaks and you don’t know how to deal with it – you’re up the creek without a paddle. I’ve worked under every circumstance imaginable. Bulbs have blown, cameras have died and backdrops have decided that today is the day they do not want to stand up straight. A passionate portrait artist will have enough about them to wade through a sticky situation and come through in one piece.

This will help you keep your cool if and when you start shooting people of a particular status. For example, my first major celebrity photoshoot was my hardest but also the one I am least likely to forget. Working with David Warner had me on tenterhooks the entire time. David told me that he had a strong aversion to having his picture taken – the last time he’d sat for a portraiture was in 1965! When you’re trying to rid yourself of pressure, this is the last thing you need to hear – especially when the last person to take a portrait of him was one of my heroes, Cecil Beaton. Being so familiar with his work, I was undoubtedly intimidated and almost forgot my own advice. How could I possibly keep my cool in this situation? I needn’t have worried because David is a very natural, down-to-earth guy, but it took me a little while to realise that he’s flesh and blood just like any other human being. He was a phenomenal sitter throughout the whole process and a treat to work with, but the one thing I took away from the experience, was the credibility it would finally give me as a professional. By creating my own dynamic portfolio of iconic actors, I managed to add some weight to my name in portraiture circles. Others may do this by winning a competition expanding their qualifications, it really depends on the photographer. Every road is different.

Whether your subject is a world famous actor, or just your average person, you must let them guide the session with their personality, appearance, idiosyncrasies and expressions. You must allow them to share their thoughts and ideas and really let them be their own selves. When you draw inspiration directly from your subject you will create a one-of-a-kind portrait that happens to be more personal, imbuing your body of work with examples that are more varied than say your run-of-the-mill passport photo. Don’t go into this business like a robot who can only perform certain functions. You must be organic and fluid with the camera in order to catch those inner qualities.

Ian Glenn

Being stealthy is important. I try and watch for moments of real emotion, sometimes I will capture them without warning. As quick as a flash, my finger hits the shutter and a real human moment is preserved in the frame forever. This has worked well in many portrait sessions. For instance, my shot of Iain Glen, was taken at the precise moment Iain was adjusting his hand position. CLICK! I caught exactly what I wanted to – even though I realized that was what I’d been hoping for a split second earlier.

Sir-ian-McKellen Rory Lewis

Similarly with Sir Ian McKellen, I asked him a question just as I was about to click the shutter. As he pondered for a moment, the animation of his expression and pose really made for a wonderful frame that showcases both his wisdom and character.

I have found there is a brief moment, the flash of a shooting star in a cloudy sky, when a person’s soul and spirit becomes etched across their face. If you can reflect this in the frames you produce, you can call yourself a portraitist. Genuine emotion can pop out at any time. Be watchful and be prepared to click your shutter.

To Be Continued…

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