Portrait Photography Isn't Your Thing

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It’s OK if Portrait Photography Isn’t Your Thing

We talked about a portrait photography shoot last week on Episode 67 and I told Lee that I was going to drag her into it. How did that turn out?

It’s not as bad as you may think, but there’s a reason for the title of this episode. Lee was happy to assist me during the shoot and we had a good time, but she also decided that portrait photography isn’t her thing.

Why not?

Portrait Photography Has Pressure

Typically, Lee likes to shoot things on her own. She has plenty of time to work the scene and isn’t under pressure from anyone.

Portrait photography is a bit different. You’re collaborating with other people. It’s the only kind of photography where you feel like you’re being judged or rated while you’re taking the photos, not just after you share them.

After all, you’re working with a subject at the minimum. Add a makeup artist and other people on the set who have a vested interest, and then you suddenly have a lot of pressure with that attention. It’s all on you as the portrait photographer.

You’re the one in charge, so you’re the one under pressure.

Portrait Photography Requires Time to Prepare and Tear Down

Very rarely do portrait photographers get to walk up, snap a few shots, and then call it a day.

Portrait photographers either have to setup in a studio or scout a location. Even on location, you likely have to bring some gear to light the scene.

Before you ever start to shoot the first frame, you need to have a vision of the end result. Then you have to share that with the model and everyone else on the team to avoid conflict on the set. When it’s all done, you have to make sure everything gets restored to its original condition before you can leave.

Essentially, you have to be more than a photographer. You have to be a producer, director and photographer. On really bad days, you may also need to be a therapist.

Things Go Wrong on Portrait Photography Shoots, But You Still Have to Deliver

You know what else is rare? Having everything work perfectly on a portrait session.

During my last shoot, I had a flash tube go bad on the key light just as we got started with our first look of the day. I pulled out a backup light a discovered the mounting hardware cracked. It wouldn’t connect with the bolt on the stand.

That left me with one strobe, which was working as my cross-light in the background. I switched the light modifier from a strip box to a beauty dish and we kept on shooting.

Anything can go wrong when you’re under pressure to deliver. Something usually does, but you need to prepare yourself to handle equipment failures and other problems so you can keep on shooting.

At the point you give up, or worse, aren’t prepared to handle a problem, you cease to be a photographer. As I said, everyone expects you to keep the show running.

The delivery doesn’t stop when the photo session is over. You still have to give your subject the results. I often like to create a contact sheet in Lightroom or use a Lightroom Web Gallery to let the subject see the shots. Once they select the images they like, then I have to go into post production and deliver a finished photo.

Portrait photography is a commitment.

I Still Love Portrait Photography

Despite the pressure and potential for problems, I still love portrait photography. It provides both a technical and creative challenge, but I think the collaboration is one of the most rewarding aspects of portrait photography.

Does that mean I want every other photographer to shoot portraits? Absolutely not. It isn’t for everyone and it’s OK to say if portrait photography isn’t your thing.

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William:   Hi, welcome toThank you very much for joining us on the Photo Flunky Show, episode sixty-eight.


For today’s topic we are going to be talking about a portrait photography home studio experience.


Hi. My name is William Beem.


Lee:         Hi! My name is Lee Beem.


William:   And on last week’s show I promised Lee that I was going to get her into portrait photography and over the weekend I did.


Lee:         Yes you did.


William:   Sort of anyways.  Before we get into details of that, let me let you know that show notes are going to be available at williambeem.com/episode68.  And of course you can find a transcript of the show there, lovingly created by Lee Beem, for free.


Lee:         Made specially for you!


William:   There are links to subscribe to the Photo Flunky Show in those show notes or if you want to go to photoflunky.com. You’ll find a player there that’s got this episode and all the other ones, plus links to subscribe.


I also want to tell you I’ve got a free ebook available for you. It’s called Creative Portraits. You can get it at williambeem.com/freebook or if you are traveling and you’ve just got your cell phone with you, go ahead and text the message CPBOOK to the number 33444.  You’ll get a message back asking for your email address.  Once you submit that it will go ahead and email the book off to you for free. There is no charge. It is about the creative side of portrait photography and you are welcome to share it with a friend.


Lee:         Yes, spread the love.


William:   Spread the love.


Also I want to welcome our studio audience today. Our dog, Milo, is lying in here sleeping. We are going to hope that he doesn’t do anything noisy.


Lee:         Is Milo noisy?


William:   He is when we leave him out there because he sees someone go by the front window and he barks. Here he seems to be quiet. And the other thing that we are wondering about is …. We’ve got two new puppies here and they are both sound asleep. They are cute and they are lovely when they are sleeping.


Lee:         They are lovely awake; they are just very tiring.




William:   Yes, but they might interrupt the show because they decide to wake up and start howling.


OK, so let’s talk about our portrait photography experience with the home studio.


It’s a very simple thing. My setup is a seamless backdrop in our living room. I bring in my studio lights and we had a lovely model. We did some catalog type shots so this was just basically a beauty dish on a white sweep and occasionally we had a cross light behind her and sometimes we had that.


This was one of those days that I thought I had everything set to just put it up and go.


Now a number of things went wrong, starting off with my light meter.  I tried to turn it on and it wouldn’t turn on. The battery was dead and I went to reach for my backup battery and realized my backup battery is the one that was dead inside the light meter. So I didn’t have my light meter for this shoot, which I really regret because I had a bit of trouble just dialing in the exposure.


Because I was using the beauty dish at home – I’ve never really used that here. And what I found out is when you put a beauty dish on a white sweep it just explodes light everywhere!  It was really just too bright for the space we had.


If we had a larger space I could have probably been able to place her further away from the backdrop so the light would not be able to get that far back. What I ended up having to do was, fortunately, Lee had a neutral density filter; And I did my studio shoot with the neutral density filter.


But that wasn’t the only thing that decided to go wrong for us.


I’ve got three strobes here and the flash tube on the primary one that was holding the beauty dish decided to die.


Lee:         Yes!


William:   We got a few shots out of it and this time it decided it’s not going to play anymore!  The modeling light worked just perfectly, but the flash tube decided to die.


I brought out my spare and it has suddenly decided to break the clamp that mounts it on the stud for the light stand.  So I ended up finishing the shoot with the one light that did work. I’ve got some repair work to do for myself, but it is a reminder. Don’t take anything for granted. Make sure you verify your gear, because when you have someone that’s traveling over to visit you and do a photo shoot, everything needs to work.


We got the shots. We got everything we needed and I’m very happy for that, but sometimes you just kind of have to roll with the punches. Honestly, even if all of the lights had gone dead, I still would have been able to pull out my speed lights and flashes and do the shoot with that.


Alright, so this was Lee’s first time as a photo assistant on a portrait photography shoot.  What’s your overall impression?  Because you said before you had absolutely no interest in portrait photography.


Lee:         OK, I had a lot of fun. I would happily be your assistant again. There is one thing that I am absolutely certain about now. I will never get into portrait photography!


William:   And that’s OK.


Lee:         That just sealed the deal for me. I looked at it as this is a whole lot of work for some shots.


Don’t get me wrong. Photography involves set-up and patience. I would rather sit somewhere with a drink in my hand and read a book waiting for the light to change than run around trying to set up and fidgeting with things.  It’s just not me. And maybe that comes down to patience.


I enjoyed it because I enjoyed the social aspect of it. So I loved interacting with the model. When you’ve got a fun model or there is fun stuff, that’s fine; and I probably would be happy to set up a studio for something like still lifes; like food photography or something like that. That might be different. But shooting people? I got a sense of the pressure, because it’s somebody else’s time as well as yours and you don’t want to be wasting their time.  And you want to deliver the best that you possibly can. I thought that would rob me of all the joy of taking photos. That kind of pressure is something that wouldn’t bring the best out in me.


William:   There certainly is pressure, particularly when you’ve got things going wrong like the flash tube that died on me. And you saw the model. She just rolled with it.


Lee:         She was wonderful.


William:   She was sweet, she was wonderful; I’ve worked with her a number of times before and it wasn’t a problem. So while I was taking the lights down and swapping things around, she had a chance to go change wardrobe or you guys could talk.  Basically it wasn’t a big deal. I just give the model a short break while change around the gear.


Lee:         Yes.


William:   But if you’re going to do a home studio, there are a few things that we learned.


One is obviously before you have a guest over, who is your model, or make-up artist or anybody else who is coming with it, then you’ve got to clean the house. You’ve got to have a place to go change. Which was, in our case, our daughter’s bathroom, so she had to clean the bathroom.


Lee:         She’s a teenager. I’m just going to leave it at that. Really, there is nothing else that can be said.


William:   No, that’s OK. But it was successful. The bathroom was nice and clean. The house was presentable and I had the white sweep up. But you’ve got to set up the light stands, you’ve got to put the roll of paper up there, bring it down, tape it down on the floor and even that is kind of a two person job sometimes, because the thing about white seamless paper if you’ve never worked with it before, is it’s on a roll. So you roll it down and the first thing it wants to do is roll back up.


Lee:         Yeah, you know those … I didn’t really find that – I didn’t think anything off that … I think my thing was I’ve watched and we’ve set up things for a home studio before and the one thing that is consistent is there is always something that you can’t find. And there is always something that was working when we tested it and it breaks or something happens during the shoot. Always. So far we haven’t broken that streak.


I don’t know if this is normal, because I haven’t been exposed to other portrait shoots. Maybe it’s because you have to keep setting up and taking it down. You don’t have a big studio.


William:   I think that’s the negative of a home studio or traveling. You have got to be very organized and do it on a regular basis to know where everything is and if it’s something you do occasionally, you kind of forget. Where did it go? Or somebody moved it from this place to that place and I found everything.  For me it wasn’t as stressful as the previous time that I’d done it.


Lee:         No, this was the least stressful set-up we’ve had by a long shot.


William:   And part of that was because I really simplified what lighting I was going to use. I had three lights and I was going to use three modifiers. So I had the strip box for the back. I started off with a beauty dish because I had a young model and beauty dishes really work very well on her.


Plus she wanted catalog style shots, so she wanted the white background. She was showing off some clothing and she needed some samples for an agency because she’s trying to become a sponsor for them. So it wasn’t that we were doing something for dark shadows or anything like that.  I’m still going to composite some of the images and do something with that, but she needed catalog style shots.


I never did go back and put on my third modifier, which was a 53 inch Octa Softbox. That’s because we were already in place and I didn’t want to ruin the rhythm that we had, since I had already been stopped when the flash tube went out on us.


Lee:         Yeah.  I think it went very smoothly though. I mean overall, there is nothing – when I say it’s not what I want to do, I just want to be clear that’s because this isn’t where my passion is. I did enjoy it and I would work as an assistant again, quite gladly.


Would I like this to be my day job? Not a chance!


William:   And you know what? That’s cool, because not everybody wants to do this. There is prepping the house before we got there and then there was setting up the studio equipment and then after it’s done, of course, taking everything down and packing it away because we don’t want to live with light modifiers inside the house!


But the other aspect of it, from an assistant point of view, obviously you were there and had the bounce card and we had the Lastolite Tri Grip and you were handling that, but you were also paying attention to the model for anything that might have gone on. Something that might not look great in the shot.


Lee:         Well, she had her hair at one stage swept over her one shoulder; which is a look that looks really good on her. Except that that was the shoulder where the logo was on her jacket.  So I kind of picked up on that. I think it does help to have an extra pair of eyes there for things that you don’t see when you look through a viewfinder.  I think you look for things like expression, pose, lighting … you can only see so many things simultaneously.


William:   That was one of the reasons I really appreciated having you there as an assistant, because I had mentioned to you ahead of time I want you to look for things, like if the hair is out of place or the clothing has an issue.  And you found a few things and we were able to correct them easily because, like you said, I’m standing back and looking through the viewfinder.  I don’t have quite the same view of it as if you’re standing there without a camera in front of your face.


Lee:         You really don’t.


William:   Her hair was on one side. It was covering the logo and she’s going to be or trying to be an ambassador for this product. Then it’s kind of important for the logos to show.


Lee:         Yes.


William:   And you brought that up. Flip your hair to the other side. She said, “Which looks better?”


I said, “Let’s shoot them both to find out which one works.”


Also there was an issue where she was doing a Jiu Jitsu Karate style outfit and her belt in the back wasn’t quite fine and you were able to help her out with that.



One of the things I appreciate about that is I know her.  As soon as she came in she gave me a nice big hug because we’ve worked together before.


Lee:         I know. She’s a sweetheart.


William:   I don’t want to be adjusting clothing on the models.


Lee:         Well I was the same. I didn’t put my hands on her. I kind of pointed first and she said you can do it. I was quite happy. I was kind of there to help, but I think that even a woman helping a woman out, I don’t touch people unless they indicate that they are comfortable for me to do so. I’m quite happy to show them what to fix, otherwise.


William:   Yes and the reason I brought that up is, I remember as I was starting out portrait photography I heard different advice from people. Some people said go ahead and make sure you touch your model to make sure you calm them down. I thought, no!  Strangers touching me does not make me feel any better.


Lee:         No! It really doesn’t!


William:   She and I were not strangers, but at the same time, I’ve got a healthy respect  for her and I don’t touch anybody if they haven’t said, “Would you please help me with this?”  But that’s why I was glad you were there because I would rather you go and adjust it and me be ready to shoot when you’re done.
Lee:         Well, it’s more practical than you having to put down your camera and find exactly where you were.


William:   Not only that, you are going to be better at it than I am.


Lee:         Oh, I don’t know! But anyways, we worked nicely together.


William:   What other thoughts did you have about the photoshoot?


Lee:         I think it was interesting to me to see.  She had certain shots that she wanted and you were just willing to roll with it. I think you wanted some for yourself, but you were happy to take from what she wanted. That worked really nicely. I thought it showed a nice relationship there. Obviously you have to build to that and you shot with her a number of times.


There were specific things that she wanted where she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted and I was watching her just kind of play her way into it, which is kind of nice.


William:   One of the reasons this worked out is this was a true trade.  I needed stuff for future blog posts, for a couple of book projects that I have in mind and she needed shots for a catalog. Neither one of us needed to have to go out and pay someone to do these things when we could give each other the same service.


I mean she can go out and charge other photographers to shoot her. I can go out and charge models to work for me or I can go out and hire models to work for me. But this was a nice trade. Like I said, someone I know, someone I trust and respect; I got the shots that I needed and I wanted to make sure that she got the shots that she needed. Because it doesn’t live up to a trade of somebody goes home empty handed.


Lee:         I also found it helpful that she had some kind of sense of how you’ve got certain angles on your face and with your body that are more flattering than others and she was quite tuned in to it. Because she posed a couple of times and said, “Hold on. I know this isn’t the best angle for me.”  And she moved.  And that is incredibly helpful, because ordinarily that would be up to the photographer to say it in a way that isn’t offensive.

She knew. I thought she just looked lovely, however she was, but she had an idea of what she wanted and she knew what worked and what didn’t work, which really helped, I think.


William:   It did help very much.  And that’s why after we did a few shots of each position that we wanted to do, I went up and showed her what we were getting. So she could see and get feedback from that and then adjust herself. There were a number of times where we said OK let’s shoot that again, because we came close on this but it wasn’t quite right. Either maybe I made a mistake and her hand, as she was moving around, got out of frame – and I don’t want to cut off people’s appendages!


Lee:         No, that isn’t cool. Amputations!


William:   No, it’s bad.  The other part of it was she needed the feedback. She needed to see what she was doing so she could assess and say to herself, I know what I need and I came close here. Let’s shoot it again. And I think I probably told her that more times than she asked for it. Because I wanted to make sure she got what she was looking for. That’s the working relationship.  It is give and take.


One other thing at the end of it. I mentioned that we’ve got new puppies and we didn’t have both of them at the time, but there was one there. Lola. She is a black Lab Retriever.


Lee:         She is so sweet.


William:   Our model just absolutely loves puppies. I mean, who doesn’t love puppies? We got a few shots with the model and the puppy. And then at the end when the photobombing puppy decided to come out, she grabbed hold of the white sweep on the floor and just tore the whole thing to shreds.


Lee:         She just grabbed the end of the paper roll and ran.


William:   Which is the last thing that went wrong and I really wanted to take another photo of the set-up. When I wrote that article about What Is Portrait Photography and I’ve got an iPhone shot of my home studio set-up. It’s grainy. It’s an iPhone shot. I really wanted to replace that with something that was better quality. But no! Thank you, Lola, for tearing up and just shredding everything.


Lee:         She just wants to let you know she’s part of the family; the entertainment portion.


William:   So we now have a photography dog. Milo doesn’t do anything like that.


Lee:         No, Milo just kind of stares at you.


William:   Milo is Milo. Alright, well thank you for taking time to listen to us ramble about our pets.


Lee:         We should do a pet photography podcast.


William:   You never know. We’ve been trying to do some shots of the puppies so we may do that on a future podcast.


Lee:         And this won’t be advice. All we have so far is how not to do it.


William:         Thank you for listening to the Photo Flunky Show.  And thank you Milo, for not barking during the episode. Show notes are going to be available at williambeem.com/episode68 where you can find a transcript of the show for free.  We would love it if you would subscribe to the podcast. We’ve got links available for iTunes, Google Play Music and others. Just go to at photoflunky.com  or the show notes and you’ll find the links there.  And finally, don’t’ forget to claim your free copy of Creative Portraits at williambeem.com/freebook. Or text the phrase CPBOOK to 33444.


Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.

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