Huge Thanks to Scott, Brad and the entire gang at Kelby Media for kindly allowing me to hijack the Photoshop Insider blog to share a few of my favorite portrait photography tips from my new book Secrets of Great Portrait Photography
I never set out to be a portrait photographer. I started out shooting news and sports photographer but gradually made the move to magazine portrait photography when I realized that I preferred connecting with people face-to-face instead of from the distance of a 600mm lens and I’ve learned a lot along the way.
Here are just a few of my favorite stories from the last two decades photographing celebrities—stories that reveal what really goes on behind the scenes of a high-profile portrait shoot. I learned a lot in the course of these shoots and I hope you will too.
PUSH THE RIGHT BUTTONS
The first key to successful portrait photography is finding a way to connect with your subject. Portrait photography is kind of like mixing psychology and speed-dating. You’ve got to quickly figure the right approach to take with your subject to connect with them and draw out their personality.
I get asked all the time how I pose people or what I say to them to bring out a great expression. There is no magic phrase or pose that works every single time. I’m not trying to be coy or hide any secrets, but there’s simply no formula to this. An approach that works for Donald Trump will likely fail miserably with Bill Gates. The best way I can answer that is to say: It’s Different Every Time!
When I was shot Art & Soul in partnership with The Creative Coalition and Sony as a way for celebrities to show their support for arts education, David Hyde Pierce was one of the first actors I photographed for the book. David has such an amazing face, I didn’t have to do much to come away with a memorable portrait.
That photo of David was enough to convince Kelsey Grammer to pose for the book. After just a dozen frames, I’d only started warming Kelsey up when he turned to leave with the words, “Certainly, you must have what you need.” I only had a split-second to save the shoot, so without pause I replied, “Yes, I suppose I do, though we got a lot more out of David Hyde Pierce.” The sheepish look on Kelsey’s face is his reaction to being upstaged by his Frazier co-star.
Peer pressure can be a wonderful thing.
FIND THE PLACE
When photographing an environmental portrait on location, the shot is about the person and the place, so I always spend time before the shoot getting to know the location and searching out the most interesting place to shoot.
I grew up in the 60s watching guru Jack LaLanne on TV every morning whip Americans into shape. When I got the chance to photograph Jack and his wife Elaine at their home in Morro Bay, California, I wanted to shoot the couple together at sunset with the Morro Bay Rocks behind them.
It was a landmark suitable for a legend – yet until they struck a pose flexing their biceps, I hadn’t pictured that the Morro Bay Rocks would become a third bicep rising out of the sea. Sometimes you just get lucky.
SEIZE THE MOMENT
Reportage and sports action photography are all about anticipating what’s about to happen and putting yourself in the right position to capture it when it unfolds. Portrait photography is more about directing and creating and making something happen. It’s not uncommon to hear photographers loudly debate the merits of one over the other – particularly when cold beers are involved. Honestly, one is not better than the other, they’re simply different. The great thing is that the skills you learn from one can make you better at the other.
The idea for this shoot NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon was to combine the expected with the unexpected. We got approval to shoot Jeff at Homestead racetrack, which is a place you might expect to find him, but gave it a twist by shooting him in a spot he could never be during a race—standing in the middle of the track along the final turn leading to the grandstands.
Anything can happen in the course of a shoot, and embracing these elements of surprise rather than fighting them can result in some unique portraits. In this case, I noticed that the wind kept blowing Jeff’s tie up, but instead of pinning the tie down, I asked the stylist to pin it up to match the sense of motion in the checkered race flag. Even when directing a shoot, keep you eyes out for things that happen naturally.
SELL YOUR IDEAS
A great concept is worthless if you can’t convince your subject to do it. Convincing celebrities to take the risks that make great portraits is a bit of an art form in itself.
New York Magazine, assigned me to shoot Donald Trump at his Palm Beach mansion, Mar-a-Lago. I went in the day before to scout the location with the stylist, my wife Fazia. When we spotted a pair of massive poolside swan fountains and pictured the Donald, decked out all in white and sitting on the swan so that it looked like he had angel wings.
Without hesitation, my ballsy wife called the store where she’d reserved Trump’s wardrobe for the shoot, canceled the suits she had lined up and asked for every white suit they had in Trump’s size.
The next day we showed up at Mar-a-Lago with nothing but eight white suits. Trump’s handlers were worried since they’d never seen him wear all white and they were concerned that it might not be the best look for him. But I’ve always found that dealing with people confident egos is actually a piece of cake since we all want the same thing—to make them look good.
When Trump showed up, he took one look at his wardrobe and said, “I’ve always wanted to do a shoot in a white suit. Don’t you think I’ll look good in a white suit?” As it turned out, he did look good in a white suit. And he loved the look so much he even bought the suit!
LESS IS MORE
When Forbes assigned me to shoot Don King, art director Bob Mansfield’s direction consisted of two words: “Think cover.”
I knew I had to bring back a bold, eye-catching image if I wanted to land the cover and figured that nothing could be more eye-catching on the cover of a business magazine than King’s signature hair.
We kept the shot very simple. With King in profile, I backlit him from both sides to rim light his face and make his hair glow, and his face is lit from the front with ring flash. Right before we shot, Don did his part, combing through his hair to make it stand up. Did Don make the cover? Absolutely!
SHOOT LESS – THINK MORE
When you’re shooting pro athletes, it’s virtually a given that your time will be limited. You can either panic or embrace it.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were in the midst of their Super Bowl run when ESPN the Magazine sent me to shoot defensive end Simeon Rice. With only a half hour to do so, my job was to come away with as much variety as I could in the time I had to make my editor happy.
Sure, you can walk in with a high-speed motor drive and machine gun the hell out of the shoot, but often the best approach is to do the opposite. We kept things very simple, shooting outdoors in available light against a plain black background with my vintage Graflex Super D camera and Polaroid Type 665 Positive/Negative film. You shoot, pull the Polaroid to process, wait 15 seconds, peel it apart, drop the negative side into cold water, and look at the positive to see what you got. Out of the 39 frames we shot, five shots ended up in the magazine.
Shoot less. Think more. Make every shot count.
SHOOT ONE FOR YOURSELF
Never leave a shoot without at least one shot that makes you proud. Although some magazine assignments can be very open-ended, others read like a shopping list. You always have to photograph what’s on the list, but you shouldn’t overlook a great shot just because the magazine didn’t think to ask for it.
This Sports Illustrated shoot of boxer Christy Martin read like an endless shopping list of shots. We started early in the day and had knocked out the sixteenth and final shot and everyone was beat. When I told Christy I had an idea for one final photo, she shot me a look like, “You know I could kick your ass.” But she agreed to do it if I made it quick.
I pulled out my 4×5, placed a single flash head on a boom directly overhead to mimic the tungsten spotlights you’d see at a fight, and taped a full CTO warming gel over the reflector. I shot just four frames of 4×5 and sent Christy on her way. When I shipped the take to my editor at SI, I made certain those four frames were on top.
A week later I got a call from my editor; “Congratulations, you got the cover—and it wasn’t even one of the shots we asked for.”
Always shoot one for yourself because there’s often more to the story than just what’s on your shot list. Those four extra sheets of film got me a cover I wouldn’t have had if I’d done only what was asked.
If I had to rank these points, I’d actually put this number one. Never, ever forget that photography should be FUN, both for you and the person on the other side of your lens.
One of the keys to successful portrait photography is having all the technical aspects of the shoot nailed down before the subject walks in front of your lens. Then put all the technical stuff out of your mind so that you can concentrate on the person you’re shooting.
As a photographer, there’s nothing better than getting a call from a photo editor who begins the call with the words, “I’ve got a shoot that’s perfect for you…” unless their next words are “nudist golf.” With those two words, consider my calendar cleared. Our shoot was not only tons of fun – it also resulted in some of my favorite photographs ever.
TELL THE STORY
I’ll close with this portrait of Richard Branson from the cover of Secrets of Great Portrait Photography since it encompasses so many of the points I’ve made in this post.
“Richard Branson…on Necker Island…in a spacesuit.” That pitch from TIME magazine photo editor Dietmar Liz-Lepiorz is as good of a pitch as I’ve ever heard, but to be honest, he had me at Branson.
Branson is a photographer’s dream subject: He’s extremely media savvy, and he knows a great concept when he hears one. So when we suggested putting him in a spacesuit for a story about his new Virgin Galactic space flights, he was immediately sold on the idea.
Necker Island had a lot of great locations ranging from palm-lined tropical beaches to red rock cliffs that looked like Mars, but my favorite was a little sandbar just off the island surrounded by nothing but the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean. After discovering that I wanted to shoot on a spit of sand just off the island at sunrise, Branson leaned over to me at dinner and slyly said, “Sunrise is at 5:30 a.m.” Without skipping a beat, he added, “So you and I need to be at the dock at five.”
The next morning, which just happened to be Christmas Eve morning, we were all up before dawn boarding the boat to the sandbar just in time for Branson to don the spacesuit as the sun began to break the horizon. I shot from one knee so that Branson and his spacesuit rose heroically into the sky. We shot for about and hour starting at first light. The resulting portrait, blends conceptual and environment portrait with a touch of the unexpected and boy did we have fun!