I’m often asked what my criteria are when building my signature environmental portraits.
And they say it’s difficult to come up with ideas to blog about.
Here are they are in a particular order:
(actually 1 and 2 are interchangeable)
3) Clearly explaining the back story narrative with my subject
4) Absolute confidence in my ability to come back with a keeper in terms of lighting angles, ratios, patterns, color, exposure values, posing, expression and gesture
5) Keeping a 100% open mind during the post production process
A good location is critically important to an environmental portrait. Duh. I ask myself: Is it accessible? What type of location is it? Industrial? Corporate? Residential? Natural? How large is the location? What is the available light quality and quantity? How can I supplement the available light? Is there power? Is it safe? When can I get access? You get the idea.
If a portrait is commissioned, my client usually has an idea of where they want it done. That was the case with Roy Disney’s portrait. He asked me to create an image of him for use in the forward of his book: “Fantasia/2000: Visions Of Hope.” Roy made it clear that he did not want a regular head and shoulders portrait, that he was tired of seeing his face in close ups and he didn’t want to wear a jacket and tie. He also wanted the session to take place in his ceremonial office. This ceremonial office was built to look like the sorcerer’s hat Mickey Mouse wore in “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to shoot there for his portrait. He gave me the baseline for his creative floor. My job was to build up from there. In this particular case the location drove the concept. You can read about how I use the concept of the “image hit” to propel my work in other ways by purchasing my book. I will send you an autographed copy for less than Amazon’s price but you have to contact me first.
A strong and flexible concept is important too. In the case of Sam Maloof, I wanted to build a portrait that combined his stature with wood in its’ raw state. Prior to my idea he was always photographed alone against a plain backdrop, working in his shop or sitting in one of his world famous Maloof Rockers. My idea was unique. I can’t always get to unique but with Sam and Roy I did. When I say flexible I mean that I go into a session with a very clear idea but I’m also open to the singular challenges a location presents and how my subject is feeling that particular day. Heck I can be in a mood too so we all have to stay frosty and work through whatever the session throws at us. For the record both men told me personally that these were their favorite portraits. Sweet.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the idea I wish to build: what is the story of this person? Of this photograph? Who’s in it? And why? What’s happening within the frame? What is the action? What is the gesture? Color? Lighting angles? Lighting sources? Contrast ratios? Props? The location has a strong influence on these answers. The temperament of the subject influences my choices too. As I answer these questions, the story evolves. And as I flesh out the story I make sure the subject knows what’s in my mind and what part I’d like them to play in my vision.
In 32 years of practicing the craft of photography as a self-employed creative professional, I’ve failed only twice to deliver results and that was very early in my career. I’m very good at what I do. I still get nervous though when I’m prepping for and immediately after a session has ended. I usually feel I messed up somehow and won’t be able to produce a photograph I’m proud to display. Don’t know why this is but I no longer fight it, I now go with the flow and know that I did it right every step of the way and in the end the image will be there. This is my philosophy: a successful photograph is a series of small decisions made correctly. I live by this credo.
The increased role post-production applications play in the creative process is controversial for a lot of my contemporaries (read old school dogs like me). They see it as a substitution for doing it right at the moment of exposure and post production is for lazy losers. I embrace post production. It’s foolish not to for it expands the possibilities of what can be done in all phases of building a better photograph. The usual suspects come into play for me: Photoshop, Lightroom and Bridge. I geek out on all three. I use them separately and together depending on whether or not I need to blend layers for my finish. Lightroom offers so many tools now that I have to come up with reasons to use Photoshop and Bridge.
It’s good to know the applications and how to light, etc. but truly without a strong vision or concept the photographs I build would be all technique without content. And I see enough of that already. Don’t you?
As always, thanks for reading.