While it seems like this came easy to me and I was handed an opportunity on a silver platter, I can assure you that it couldn’t have been harder. Just getting the chance to meet the likes of David Warner, Iain Glenn and Sir Ian McKellen, let alone photograph them, required an immense amount of letter writing – so much that, to this day, I’m barely able to even look at a pen. You have to be ready for a slow, arduous trek when you first start out as a photographer. Don’t expect to walk straight into a deal with Paramount Pictures the day you buy your first Nikon.
The fact of the matter is that photography has become an overly saturated market, which is harder than ever to break into. There are many more photographers than jobs and you have to be able to take a lot of knock backs before you start hearing the word ‘yes’. Not only do you have to be patient in your sittings, the same applies for your everyday life. You have to be able to adapt, create your own style of work, and add value to what you do. If the next part of your strategy is to be anything, make sure it is this: establish a thorough portfolio. Work with complete strangers to hone your technique and learn about people. Use this time on the first rung to figure out how to direct and gain real confidence in your work.
However, one thing is key – never sell yourself cheaply just for the sake of the portfolio. By undercutting the price or accepting commissions for any less than you or the job are worth, you will find that you can go over budget and even into your own pocket. I discovered this the hard way. When I first started out, I was afraid to say no to clients or ask for more fund and I would regularly quote lower prices than the job was worth. You have to be economic and business-like, this is your livelihood.
Persevere and you will reap the dividends at some point – I wasn’t able to coax the likes of Sir Patrick Stewart into a studio until my ninth year as a photographer. The road is long but entirely satisfying once you pick up speed.
While you travel that road you should, in essence, hate your own work, which sounds very self-deprecating. Alas it’s true, an artist’s work should become something they look upon with a critical eye. I have had clients literally rip my work to shreds in front of my very eyes on occasion, but, being a photographer, you need to have an iron chin and be able to take the (sometimes) constructive criticism. You must always be willing to learn and develop. This will help you feel less anxious when dealing with clients. Many photographers are worried they won’t be able to fulfill a brief, or they won’t be able to capture the perfect portrait. It all comes down to being critical, practicing and honing your techniques.
To stop yourself going mad when you start out, set small goals that you can reach during the year. Know that every booked session and sale is an accomplishment towards your end goal. Your clients had several options to choose from and they chose you, so smile about it! It’s an even greater satisfaction when those customers become repeat clients, and when those same clients refer my studio to their friends, I take great honour knowing that someone has spoken highly of my services. Take a few minutes every day to enjoy the positive things that happen in your business. Sometimes it is the little things that give you the boost to get through the day and help you realise the bigger picture. Set yourself projects that are close to your heart. With my exhibition Northerners, I was creating a body of portraiture that I was passionate about, but also one that showed off my skills and creative ability as a photographer. To develop your portfolio in such a way may mean paying someone else to sit as a model for you or giving your time and energy for free in order to achieve that one frame – but only if you can afford to, or the job requires it.
Everything I’m telling you now is crucial to building a foundation from which you can flourish. Follow these tips and you’ll gain a deserved confidence in your work, style and people skills. If anything, it will teach patience – something you will need in abundance.
Patience is a virtue, especially when you are a portrait photographer who deals with the general public. Everyone has their own idea of themselves without having much of an idea about the finer details of portraiture. In this sense, the world has lost some respect for photography as a medium. Many clients will contact you for commission saying they ‘only need’ one or two pictures. In reality, the amount of effort and equipment required to create those perfect photos is unfathomable to the average person. That makes it your job to explain and add value to your work.
If anything confuses me in photography, it is that my attention to detail is essential yet so many clients ask if they can be airbrushed. We live in a world people shun uniqueness and aspire to be the celebrity face on the front of a magazine. I implore all of my clients to keep the detail in their finished images, every line, nook and blemish, they’re all things that define us as individuals. It perplexes me that anybody would want to look flawless, when in actual fact, our imperfections make us who we are. We find ourselves in the midst of a generation who want to disguise their natural beauty.
Yet no matter what age, gender or body shape, every human being is beautiful. If studying the Renaissance artist Holbein has taught me anything, it is to always capture the imperfections. As a painter, he had the ability to make somebody look stunningly flawless – but he didn’t. His paintings are all peppered with bad facial hair, scars and spots. We only ever saw Holbein cave in to pressure and fakery when he was prompted by King Henry VIII to make him look like a giant. He originally painted him as the frail old man he wanted you to forget.
This ode to reality forces you to consider several different styles of portraiture. Learning how to apply low-key and high-key lighting, and using varying forms of directional technique can majorly affect how your portraits will turn out. I have worked with so many people from all walks of life. I’ve had to dig deep into my memory banks and pull out all the stops at times, just to convey a particular message I see in their face.
It’s incredible to think that we as humans are one of the few self-aware species on the planet. We are the only ones with any reliable means of reproducing our own and other people’s likeness. It’s a thought that swims round my head as I flick through my portfolio. Even now, after ten years in the game, I find it astonishing that as photographer I have the opportunity to replicate what it is that makes us unique as a species and as an individual. Between this self-awareness and a natural need for social communication, it is imperative to find a style of portrait that lets the observer draw their own conclusions based on their own experience. As a photographer, you have to allow the viewer to make their own assumptions. Your work can suggest something, but there shouldn’t be anything concrete that forces you to think a particular thought. In this sense, we must allow the observer to interact with a portrait, as if they would the real thing.
Perhaps then, this is where the skill of the great portrait artists – whether photographic or otherwise – comes into play. The subject can only consciously present one side of their personality. But being a good artist is one thing and being a good observer is another. You must first allow your subject to decide what aspect of themselves they would like to convey, and then, through careful direction convince them to display them, and thus, we find ourselves returning to the idea of making your subject comfortable, learning about them, who they are and what they are about.
Bear in mind, it doesn’t matter which aspects of personality you represent; it all depends on the person in front of the lens. There are many reasons to limit what is shown in a formal portrait. A military general may not want you to hint at signs of emotional weakness, whereas the opposite would be true of a hospice worker.
Even if the subject chooses to only show one side of their personally, the absence of some behaviours or emotions is equally telling. They say the great comedians are usually depressed: it makes sense that one extreme of emotion must be balanced somewhere by the other. We photographers must therefore understand psychology to some degree to be good portraitists.
Some believe that a good portrait captures the soul of a person. I have no idea how much of this is derived from primitive superstition, or if it’s merely a figure of speech – but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced there’s some truth to it. Fortunately, our subjects are not literally captured in an image, but they should be in more than a simple metaphorical sense. A good portrait should really feel as though it’s communicating something about the subject – or perhaps to go a step further – the audience should feel as though they are communicating directly with the subject themselves. This is why the most accurate or emotionally intimate portraits are made by those who have a relationship with the subject beyond the transactional. It’s very difficult to understand enough about somebody’s personality in the span of time it takes to conduct a sitting – it’s an arduous task, at least subconsciously, to figure out what traits characterise an individual’s personality, and even more so to show them.
Perhaps this is the reason behind the modern obsession with selfies. As a social species, we care what the world thinks and go to extraordinary measures so that the side presented is the one we approve. I wouldn’t call it narcissism, so much as personal PR and managed communications. It boils down to our awareness of our own image. Being aware of oneself, feeling the need to change to be accepted, and then being able to accept one’s image without changing are very different states of personal development. Yet to a professional photographer, the idea of a selfie stick is abhorrent and no substitute for the narrow angle of view and a good light source. How can you trust yourself to take a picture that truly reflects who you are, when you’re really just taking a picture that society will deem acceptable?
Perhaps this is why the internet has seen a saturation of images: none of them feel quite right aesthetically, but the creators don’t care and are unwilling to find out exactly why. Don’t get me wrong, making a representative self-portrait is one of the most difficult things a photographer can do. You must first decide exactly what it is about yourself that you want to show, how you’re going to express it, and then all of the compositional and executional challenges. I sometimes dabble in self-portraiture myself, usually when I need an image for something and I am convinced that it would be easier for me to do it rather than seek out another photographer. Even then, this only happens when I want a picture to show something no other picture has done before. Notice we are once again back at the relationship between photographer and subject – even if they happen to be one and the same.
Your work can almost be described as a mirror image of the feelings and emotions you are trying to convey, a digital imprint of your own yearning and passion. It would be easy to define a portrait as simply a picture of somebody else, but then that would be false. Portraiture is a truly collaborative effort that requires concentration, connection and a proper strategy. It is the culmination of years of inspiration and a lifetime of experience; a medium capable of cementing the subtle nuances of a person’s face, homing in on their benevolence and their trauma. Taking a photograph is easy, but dedicating your life to finding the inner beauty in every person you meet – that makes you a true professional portrait artist.