Portrait Photography Resources

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I’m Creating Portrait Photography Resources for You

Thank you for listening to this episode of The Photo Flunky Show.

I’m creating some portrait photography resources on the web site. We’re discussing why I’m taking on an ambitious project like this one, how it will unfold, and what I hope happens as a result.

Quite simply, I realized that I couldn’t find a resource that acted as a gateway to specific articles on portrait photography. Something that ties all the concepts together is important so we understand these ideas, techniques and recipes in context with one another.

As part of the discussion, Lee and I talk about some of the non-technical elements that make up a portrait photography session, and why they’re important.

My portrait photography resources will certainly include a lot of technical concepts and resources, but there’s much more to portrait photography than technicalities.

We get into concepts like how to choose a model and make the person feel comfortable on the set. Another thing we discuss is the joy that a portrait can bring to someone when it’s done well.

For those reasons and more, I thought it was important to create a resource for portrait photographers. The article below just scratches the surface. It will be a work in progress, supported by specific articles to dive deeper into the topics mentioned inside.

Related Links

What is Portrait Photography?


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

Today I’m talking about an ambitious project that I’m starting up and that is creating a portrait photography resource. Stick around, listen to the whole thing. There will be a quiz at the end.

William:   Hi. My name is William Beem.

Lee:         Hi! My name is Lee Beem.

William:   And like I said, today I’m going to be talking about a blog post I started. It’s a very long one. It’s about creating a portrait photography resource.  As usual, before I get to that, let me tell that show notes are going to be available at williambeem.com/episode67.  And of course you can find a transcript of the show there for free.

There are links to subscribe on that page, or you can go to photoflunky.com. There is a player there for this episode and all of our past episodes and there are links to subscribe there.

Also, I have got a free ebook available for you. If you enjoy portrait photography, this is called Creative Portraits.  It is not about the technical side, but is more about the creative and emotional and visual side of portrait photography.

You can get it for free. You can share it with a friend. Just go to williambeem.com/freebook or if you are on the road and you’re mobile right now and you’d like to make sure that you get it before you forget about it, you can text the phrase CPBOOK to the number 33444.

It will send you a text message back asking for your email address.  Put that in and it will shoot the book right off to your email.

Let me get down to this. I am creating a portrait photography resource and by that I’m looking almost to have an ultimate guide; something from beginning to end that covers portrait photography information. Everything from the technical side to the creative side to any side that you can imagine. It’s not all there yet, but it’s going to be a work in progress. I’ve got a quick shortcut to the article that’s there right now and that is williambeem.com/portraitphotography

Lee:         What made you decide to create this resource? I mean you’ve enjoyed portrait photography since I’ve known you; I’ve been looking at photos that you’ve taken in your portrait portfolio.  Why now and why create such an extensive resource?

William:   Well, it’s not complete yet. This is going to be a work in progress, but the reason I’m creating it is because no-one else has, that I can find.  I go out on Google and I can search for specific topics of portrait photography and I started off with an article: What Is Portrait Photography?

Because it’s kind of like there are many types of photos with people in them and are they all portraits? I started thinking, you know what? There is a lot to this; a lot more than just answering that question, which at the end of it, I do give you an answer, or at least what I believe the answer is. As I’ve thought about it, I really believe my answer is the right one. Otherwise I wouldn’t have written it.

Lee:         Of course it’s the right one! Is there any other?

William:   Not for me. But really it’s because no-one else has created an ultimate compendium of a very detailed article of what portrait photography is, what the elements are and why we do it.  That is the beginning.

Underneath that I’m going to have a number of articles that delve deeper into each of the topics. So in other words if you come along and you’re reading the article and I talk about a technique, then there should be a hyperlink there that discusses the technique in detail. So you might know what it is when you’re reading this article. You see it in context of portrait photography. But if you want to know how to do it, why to do it or when to do it, that’s where the other articles will come in and support this.

Lee:         That was my next question. I was wondering if this was also going to incorporate a how-to. How did you stumble across whatever the problem is and are you going to document your journey to figuring out the answers and what’s helped you in overcoming whatever the challenge is for that particular area?

William:   That really is why I want this guide.  We’ve all done this. We’ve gone to Google and searched for specific things and we come across articles. Some are very high level, which are ultimately useless.  Some are very specific, which is great if you have that problem, but if they don’t touch on your problem in context, then they may or may not be useful to you.

I want to build a place where people can go and say, “This is going to be a portrait photography Bible,” for lack of a better phrase. And then inside of that there will be chapters and sections on different topics.

So for example, if you want to know about lighting, there will be a section for that and then deeper articles underneath that. If you want to know about post processing there will be a section for that and deeper articles.

If you want to go specific about color grading, there are going to be articles on that.  Portrait photography is more than just the technical side. There is also the creative side, the visual side, the emotional side and why we do it.

When you get down to taking a portrait of somebody .... I saw something from a friend of mine; Tony Drum and he put this on Facebook today. He was talking about the great feeling you get when you hand a large, framed portrait to a family who has never had a family portrait before.

Lee:         See, that’s something special. I’ve never had that experience, but I have given a large canvas of a photo I’d taken that was maybe not great, but had a lot of meaning to the family.

William:   And that’s why I think portrait photography is perhaps the most important genre of photography that we do. It’s something that you have to do collaboratively. It’s not something where you walk off in the woods by yourself with a tripod, take a picture of something pretty and then come back if you’re not eaten by a bear or an alligator or whatever is out there.

I’ve seen beautiful landscape photos. I really appreciate them. I try to do my best when I go out to take a landscape photo, but the ones that touch us the most are the ones that have other people inside of them.

Lee:         Oh, yeah. For me it’s all about the people. And I’m not a portrait photographer. I’ve never thought of myself as a portrait photographer, because I don’t do these studio shots. I don’t set things up. I don’t do anything that I see as formal portrait photography. Mine are snapshots.

William:   Don’t worry. I’m going to drag you into this, little by little.

Lee:         OK. Go for it.

William:   As a matter of fact we are recording this on Sunday and I’ve got a portrait shoot on Monday with a model that I know in the area. She is coming over here and I’m going to drag you into assisting.

Lee:         The flunky becomes the rookie.

William:   Exactly. You’ve got to start and get your hands dirty. You may not like it. It may not be for everybody. There is nothing that says every photographer must be a portrait photographer. But you know what? Every photographer probably gets asked to take pictures of somebody.

We go out and Orlando is a tourist area. If we go in a tourist area there are always going to be a family that says, “You’ve got a nice camera. Could you take our photo for us?”  Even if they don’t mention the fact that we’ve got a nice camera with us (the code that everybody has for someone with a DSLR). It’s not even that.

When I went out to vote in the election cycle this year – don’t worry, I’m not going to get political – when I came out of voting there was a family there and they were all excited and happy. They were all going to go in and vote and they wanted to have that little memory captured. They just came up to me. I didn’t have a camera with me. They said, “Excuse me, please would you take a photo of us?”

And I said yes.  Of course.  That’s where the portrait photography stuff kicked in. I didn’t just hold it up and take a snapshot and hand it back to them.  Here. I’ve documented you!  I made sure the composition was right. I made sure the background wasn’t going to compete with the people in it and I made sure I took a couple of photographs in case somebody was looking to the side or missed that. There are all those things because you want to capture something and give it to them and their reaction was, wow!  That’s wonderful. Thank you!

It wasn’t just and OK, thanks for helping us out. They were really pleased with what I was able to give them just from their smartphone.

Lee:         See, that’s rewarding.  And I guess portrait photography you never think about this way, but that includes taking a photo for somebody else with their camera or their phone.

We had that in the grocery store once. There was one of the representatives for a company where they do the samples, set up on the table. We walked by and the lady just happened to pick us and said, “Would you mind taking a photo? I have to prove that I was here.”

I took a bunch of photos for her and moved around the table and took it from different angles and she was just really pleased.

William:   Absolutely. All she needed was something to document the fact that she was there. But if you give her a nice photo and she looks good in it, and the same thing with anybody else.  If they feel good about the way they look, that’s what portrait photography, I think, is really about.

Lee:         Well, I was also kind of hoping. I mean I didn’t know anything about what she was doing, but you sort of think maybe if she had a chance to be featured somewhere for what she’d done because she had a nice picture of it, if I could help her do that .... I kind of like the fact that she had no idea who I was. It means if she got something it was really done to make somebody’s day, potentially.

William:   And you know, look at the flip side of that. You take a bad portrait of somebody and it makes them feel horrible.

Lee:         Yeah, we’ve had some people take some really horrible photos of us.

William:   Well, I remember this and I’m not going to call them out, but I remember going to a photo studio of someone I know. He was very generous, very eager and he was telling me what to do and pose and I looked at my photo that he took and tried to smile and be nice to him, because I really did appreciate the effort, but I really was not happy. And generally I am not a photogenic person, but I really didn’t like the way he posed me. I thought I could do better than this myself.

Lee:         Was that because it wasn’t you? Sometimes the pose doesn’t reflect your personality. I mean somebody having me sitting looking all shy with crossed arms or something and being reserved.  That is not my personality. And sometimes you need to just let them know that.

I think you can solve some of that by talking to your subject just for thirty seconds before so you get a feel for the way that they present themselves.  And if you are paying attention, I think you can pick up some clues.

William:   I think you’re right, because when I looked at the result it wasn’t the way I would normally sit. It wasn’t the way I would look and I am already a heavy person. It made me look heavier.

Now he was very happy with the lighting and the fact that he got my glasses without glare on them and a lot of technical things. When I looked at it I thought, I don’t want this portrait. I’m not going to show this to anybody.

Lee:         Your face isn’t a technicality.

William:   No and portrait photography you need to understand the technical aspects to capture the portrait, but the photography itself isn’t about the technical issues. It’s about how you are making someone feel and how you are showing them in the photo. I know very well that the pose he gave me is something he pulled out of a box of tricks that he has and it’s like I’ll just use the same pose for everyone else because I’ve been told it’s flattering.

Lee:         Yeah.

William:   It wasn’t flattering to me. It worked out that way.

Now you have had portraits taken before, so what have your experiences been like?

Lee:         I’ve had a number of portraits taken. My family were very big on having at least one very large, framed or canvas portrait up in the house. There were always more than that.  And we’ve done some family portraits together. I have also done some together with Tové, which we did at Disney. We had a private portrait session at the resorts, which we did more than once because we really enjoyed it. Now these were not retouched photos. These were not enhanced to make us look good and also, I will add that I very specifically chose my time of day according to the season with the lighting in mind and the location in mind.

So I did a bit of homework on that as well. however, we were really happy. And I think what made the photos a success was that in each case the photographer was just so relaxed and they drew our personalities out. They started chatting away with us and getting to know us as we walked through and just in between they would say, “Do you want to stand there?”

William:   That’s a very big part of portrait photography.  You have to make your subject comfortable and most photographers – I was just watching this on Kelby One with Peter Hurley and one of his courses there  because he does head shots all the time – he says that most photographers will tell people to relax. What’s the thing that’s going to go through your subject’s mind when you them to relax?

Lee:         I think one of the key things I didn’t think of in the moment is with each of these sessions, it flowed.  And once you get a flow started, you ease into it. You kind of find your groove in that flow. So it wasn’t a stop, start, stand, pose. It was just that we kept moving. Right, we are just going to stand here. Do you want to have a look? Have you seen that over there?  Do you like the beach? They were just getting photos. And these were different photographers every time, but they had a way of making us feel comfortable and I am not comfortable being out in front of a camera lens.

William:   No, neither am I. But you know what? When we had our wedding photos I was actually pretty comfortable during that. For me.

Lee:         You know, I didn’t care about anything. All I cared about was I have my man!  So yeah, that was probably the one time in my life that it never occurred to me to feel camera shy.

William:   Maybe that’s why I was comfortable, too. We obviously were both happy after the ceremony.

Lee:         We’re still happy, by the way!

William:   Yes we are.  We really liked what the photographer did for us and there were nice, lovely wedding photos and I’m sure that when you are going to be shooting, if you are doing wedding photos, you’ve got to make sure the bride and groom feel comfortable; and everybody else in the group. It’s a party atmosphere for a lot of people.

Not all portraits are going to be at a party or something like that and the question is, how do you make people feel comfortable?  Because their experience taking the photos is going to show up in the result of taking the photos.

Lee:         I think one of the secrets, would you say, is finding ... you want to be sincere  - I don’t want to call it flattery – but if you’re bringing out somebody’s good point, don’t just make stuff up.  Everybody has so many good attributes and features. Focus on those. Find them, and I think you can practise to spot people’s best features or best aspects. Bring those out.  And focus on them.

William:   One of the things I’m looking for, if I’m doing a portrait session, is I’m looking for some expression and some conveyance of emotion.  Some models are very good at doing this and they don’t really need direction where you tell them OK, move your left corner of your lip up three quarters of an inch and then turn your head this way. That doesn’t work.

But if you look at them and say, “Oh those are nice shoes. Did you get them over at 7 Eleven?” or something. If they are really nice shoes, you can tell if someone is proud of whatever they’ve got and they are going to give you a look of shock and expression.  Maybe you don’t want that photo of shock or expression, but as soon as they kind of see that you are laughing and joking, it usually works and relaxes them.

And then once they’re relaxed and they’ve got a little bit of a smile, you can grab that shot. But it’s not even that it gets you the shot from that comment. You just want to make a light hearted kind of environment for that portrait session. Not every portrait needs a smile. Sometimes you need someone who is looking serious and tough.  If you’re doing sports portraits you get some big line backer in his uniform holding the ball.

Lee:         You don’t want a cheesy smile, right?

William:   Well, you know, it depends on the person’s personality. If this is someone who is cracking up and joking while he’s playing football, he may just crack a big smile at you and say, “Yeah. I’m going to run over you.” And give you that kind of look.  What you want to do is you want to draw the personality out of your subject.

Lee:         So if you’re shooting with a model, how do you choose your model? Because at some point you have to shoot with somebody for the first time. Do you meet them first, or how do you pick somebody?

William:   There are a number of ways. I mean locally we had some meet and greets and I went out and photographed models there. There is a resource called Model Mayhem and there are a couple of others. There are plenty of model and photographer communities on Facebook; not just for particular topics and genres, but they are also area specific. So I’ll follow a group for model photography that may be worldwide and I’ll follow one that’s Florida Models and another one is Orlando Models. I just go on there and meet people and there are people that want to photograph all the time.

Picking a model really depends upon what you’re after.  It is perfectly fine to pick someone when you need some practising work and you’re going to trade both of your time and experience.

The shoot that I’m doing tomorrow is a model who is a professional model as well as she’s got a business of her own. She is going to a Budweiser audition before she comes over here; but we both need certain things.

She needs some shots for her modeling portfolio. I need some shots for an upcoming book that I’m working on. Even though both of us are good enough that we can get paid, still we can trade with each other and get the quality that we want.

Lee:         So it’s about building relationships.

William:   Most of it is. Because if you don’t have a good relationship with your subject, or if they don’t have a good relationship with you, neither of you are going to get the best out of it. And it’s going to be an uncomfortable and unpleasant experience that you’re probably not going to repeat.

Lee:         On the flip side, would you have a little black book of ‘never again’ if you had a really bad experience with somebody?

William:   I don’t need a black book for that. I remember!

Lee:         Oh I was curious. It sounds like quite a rude question, but I’m being really serious. I mean we all have good and bad experiences with services and business and I was curious as to whether ....

William:   In my case I don’t need a black book.  I don’t need a reminder. If I’ve had an unpleasant experience with somebody they probably don’t want to shoot with me either because it was probably unpleasant for them.

Every once in a while I’ll get someone who will come back to me and say, “Hey would you like to shoot again?” and it’s a little awkward.

Lee:         I didn’t mean a physical black book, but you get what I after.

William:   There are people, like the model who is coming over tomorrow, who s someone I’ve shot with a number of times. She is great fun, I think she’s a lovely model. She knows how to pose and she knows how to bring things out, but there are also things that I want to do to kind of encourage her to break out of what she’s normally done and maybe get something different.

That’s part of our collaboration. I want to share things in advance. Like what kind of clothes are you going to be bringing so that I know what I’m going to be doing.  I want to prepare. I need to know what she needs for her shots so that I can prepare to give them to her.

Let’s say that you’re doing something completely creative and artistic. It’s not for an assignment. It’s not for the model specifically. You want to do something that maybe you’re compositing a background in or maybe you’ve got a location that you want to go to. And you need to select a model to go with that.

You’ve got to pick someone who matches the environment that you’re going to. And that’s not just a matter of if you’re going to a football stadium that you need a big linebacker to do that.  It could be a matter that you’ve got a sunset scene. Do you want a male or female? Do you want a blonde model wearing a blue dress?

Lee:         Do you want a horse?

William:   I don’t know where to get a horse. I don’t know if there is a horse mayhem site out there.

Lee:         I meant with the model.

William:   Well that I’ve done. But what it comes back to is sometimes I will think about am I going to be color grading this image? What kind of mood am I going to be setting for this?

Something as simple as hair color.

Lee:         I was going to ask about hair color for that.

William:   Hair color and wardrobe can make a big difference because how you are going to finish the image and what the result is that you want matters.

There is Charlize Theron?

I can never remember exactly her name.  She has a very beautiful commercial and ad that she did.

A few years ago she did one and I can’t remember if it was Channel or Dior or one of the high end things and she had blonde hair, she’s got this gold dress and she is walking in a ballroom and that is kind of in gold. She fits that perfectly. Had you put another model in there who is equally lovely and beautiful and was a brunette, it wouldn’t have fit the theme and the color that they went for with that.  So that’s part of why you select somebody. How do they fit what your end result is going to be?

I thought the result for that ad campaign was stunning.  But they selected exactly the right person, the right wardrobe, the right location and everything had that kind of gold shimmer to it. It’s a high end designer. They are going to be looking for gold because they are kind of intimating that this is what you deserve.

Lee:         OK, so that leads me to just one more question. Is that OK?

William:   One more question. I told you there was going to be a quiz. I didn’t tell you it was going to be for me!

Lee:         Surprise! Alright, so you’re explaining how you go about picking a model to suit the theme or the environment for the shoot.

William:   If I’m the one who is producing the shot, yes.

Lee:         Right, now it could work the other way, too.  You could have people and then have to go and seek out an environment for that person or that group of people that works for them.

William:   Absolutely.

Lee:         OK.

William:   Someone comes to you and says, “I need some photos for this purpose.”

You don’t have to tell the photographer, “I want to look good in my photos.”  That’s implied.  Look at the features of the person and think, what is going to be a complimentary background for something that correlates to what they want?  So if you are looking for a business executive, you’re probably not going to put them in a mud dirt track where you’ve got a bunch of monster trucks.

Lee:         That would make a really cool business card.

William:   But maybe, unless they build monster trucks or something like that – but they are probably not going to show up in a three piece suit – you are going to try to match the scene with the subject and their wardrobe. Ask them. What are you looking for? What is the message you want to convey?  That is ultimately what we are trying to do. We are telling someone’s story.

I know I say that a lot of the time, but you are not a photographer. You are a story teller. And you start thinking about that. You start producing your shot instead of just taking a picture. And then you start analyzing little details that maybe you didn’t think of as just a photographer.

If you are a story teller and you’re a director and you’re a producer, then suddenly all this is on you to make a great portrait. But you realize that is actually an awesome thing.  You don’t have to go out and look for railroad tracks or brick walls to take a portrait of somebody. You can do better.

Lee         Yes.

William:   I know we’ve kind of rambled on here and I really just wanted to bring this up to introduce the fact that I’m working on a resource but also, I’m looking for community help.  I am looking for people to reach out and contact me and say, “I would like to know more about this.”

I’ll be the first one to tell you I am not the best portrait photographer out there. There are a lot of good resources. I can bring those resources together, I believe, and be helpful.

When you are learning from somebody you don’t necessarily want to copy their style, but you may want to know what they do so you can take all of it or some of it and apply it to your own photography.

And that’s really what I want to do with this portrait photography resource, is to define what is portrait photography? What are the elements that go into it and allow people to pick and choose what they need and have one place to go.

Basically one place to go get all the information.

Lee:         Yes, so you can find your own place in the world of portraits.

William:   And that’s why I say it’s an ambitious project, because portrait photography is a niche of photography itself, but there are so many elements to it.  That’s why this is going to be kind of a living document. I’ll be changing some of the text in there, I’ll be changing the links that go to it and I’ll be changing some of the sample photos in there. And there are a ton of photos in the article itself.

Lee:         You’re changing because you’re adding to it constantly, right?

William:   I published this when I was only halfway through the list that I had. So when I was over 5100 words when I published it and I still had a whole lot more to go.

It’s definitely going to grow. There’s a lot more going into it and I’m looking for feedback.

Lee:         So what does portrait photography mean?

William:   That was the fun part, wasn’t it? Because I said I was going to get back to that. And I am showing examples in there. Some of them are portraits where someone knows that you are taking photos. Some of them were clearly candid photos like street photography or maybe event photography, like at a performance.

Ultimately you are taking a photo of someone presenting them as: this is who they are, this is what they do. This is their story.  And there are a number of ways to do that. Whether you’re in the studio with strobes, whether you’re outdoors and using available light, whether you’re at an event; whatever the case may be, when you take a photo of a person, you want to show them at their best. You want to tell a story about then and that’s where I kind of came down to the answer of that.

Portrait photography really is an obligation. It is an obligation that you have to be able to present someone in such a way that they look at it and they are flattered and they want to go show the world.  This is me. This is what I do. And that’s what I think portrait photography really is.

It’s not just a matter of lenses and apertures and lighting and ratios and all that other stuff. It’s your obligation from one person to another, just to make them happy and give them something they can share and show to the people that they love.

Thank you so much for listening to the Photo Flunky Show.  As I said before, show notes are going to be available at williambeem.com/episode67 If you want to read the article I was talking about, go to williambeem.com/portraitphography.

Of course as usual, you can get a transcript of the show for free at the show notes page and you can find links to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play Music and other sites. Of course the links are also available at photoflunky.com

Don’t forget to claim your free book, Creative Portraits at williambeem.com/freebook. Or text CPBOOK to 33444.

I’d love to have your feedback. Send a comment. Contact me. Let me know what you think about portrait photography.

See you next week.

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