The first time I picked up a camera with actual intent, I hadn't yet decided to become a photographer - but I certainly knew that I wanted to suck less at photography than I did.
So I started studying pretty much anything I could get my hands on at the time. As this was nearly ten years ago, I was able to access about 10% of what I could if I were starting out as a photographer today.
I set out to learn my camera from the ground up, and that included shooting in manual mode and putting myself through the paces until I learned enough about responding to a variety of situations that I finally felt in control of my equipment. That also meant I took on quite a variety of work for some time - if I could gain experience, get paid, and stay out of any sort of legal snafu, or at least prison time, I'd do it. In my first few years as a photographer, I shot weddings, editorial, headshots, children, family portraits, glamour, political campaigns, newborns, maternity, travel photography, landscapes, food, commercial work, editorial work, stock, architecture & interiors, and sports.
I didn't attempt underwater photography or aerial photography, but that's about all I didn't cover; I was essentially an everything-on-land photographer.
But everything-on-land is a lot of ground to cover and although I enjoyed the experience of shooting nearly all of it, it wasn't long before I recognized that I was becoming a great generalist and a pretty crappy specialist. I wanted to master something. Or at least I wanted to start the process of mastering something because, as it turns out, by the time you master anything in photography, all the rules change - and then you just end up building from there, working towards a new type of mastery.
I decided to narrow the field down to portraits and really place my focus there. The biggest surprise was finding out that those years of shooting so much variety taught me more than I would have ever guessed. I learned that shooting weddings (especially several hundred weddings) prepares you for being able to shoot anything, anywhere, and in any lighting situation - especially if you believe that your job, as the photographer, is to be able to roll with the day and be up for anything that unfolds, no matter what.
I also learned that shooting sports teaches you to anticipate the look of frozen movement, like the precise moment a runner tucks an elbow back and in while lifting his knee in symmetry, which is different than anticipating emotion, like the sweet moment a resistant father of the bride finally gives in to overwhelming sentiment.
(I also learned that you should never skimp on great lenses â¦ and you need to get past any body consciousness you might have when you're in the pool shooting an Olympic Gold Medalist swimmer with 1% body fat - but I digress.)
The reason I was most drawn to portraits is because that is where I found the most significant amount of connection between my subjects and me. It was also my best opportunity to build long-term relationships that would pay off exponentially not only in referrals and sales, but in having a front row seat to follow the lives of those I came to care about a great deal.
A great example is actually tied to the new book I just wrote, Envisioning Family. The focus of the book is about making meaningful portraits of the modern family - but the cover image is a pretty meaningful portrait in and of itself.
What's compelling to me about this cover is that I have been photographing this family since 2003, and so much has changed for them before and after this specific portrait was shot. Initially, nine years ago, it was just the couple and their baby. Then the second daughter came along. Then a third little girl came joined in - and suddenly life got more difficult, about the same time the army came calling. The family of five moved to the West coast and Dad was called up for a long-term deployment to Afghanistan. Mom became a single parent to three kids, as well as a doctor, working the night shift at a very busy Easy Bay hospital ER. And their middle child, the one on the cover of this book, was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that caused all of her hair, everywhere on her body, to fall out. Her parents were told that it was not going to grow back. And this diagnosis came through while dad was very far away – and would still be very far away for the rest of the year. It was simply a very rough time for them. And, yet, you can look at that image and still see such sweetness and care. You can see that this child would be protected.
As happens between portrait sessions, time moved forward, and we just had another shoot two weeks ago. Dad is now home and out of the military (with decidedly longer hair), they moved back to their hometown, mom's work life improved dramatically, they gave birth to a brand new baby boy - and, an unexplained medical miracle, their little girl just started growing hair again: beautiful, bouncy, auburn hair. She's the little photographer in the top photo of this post - and here she is in her very own portrait:
We know it's a privilege to do the work we do, especially for appreciative clients. We also know that the reason it is called work is because it's just that: there's a significant effort involved in producing portraits that capture something genuine, expressive, soulful, and beautiful, while still being shot technically well with respect to solid exposure and great lighting. Since so much needs to come together in the right instant, challenges abound in each shoot. Especially when you're photographing children.
Like when your subject is wearing a beautiful dress, but it also happens to be mega-bright white, and you're shooting on an extremely sunny day at the worst time of day (thank you, reflector-that-acts-as-a-flag):
Or when you find an amazing new location, but realize right after you get the great shot, that there are ticks everywhere, and you're suddenly swarmed (you pluck them off as best you can and then make a run for it):
Or those times your subject takes a while to warm up and won't put on "the good clothes" (you distance yourself considerably, talk in a soft voice, use a 200m focal length – and then just wait as long as it takes):
Or if you happen to be shooting in dappled sunlight and you can't remember which twin is which (reflector as shade, pop in some fill flash, and create brand new, interchangeable names for them for the length of the shoot):
Or that evening when there's a lot of wind on the beach and you're shooting belly-to-the-sand (keep two lenses attached to two bodies and use a lens hood and, depending on spray, a plastic bag):
Or if you're facing a very nervous little girl who is being photographed for a workshop you're leading, and the crowd of shooters behind you is scaring her to bits (stay close to her with a wide lens, speak to her gently but consistently and calm her further by maintaining eye contact and moving the lens ever so slightly away from your face):
Or when it's near freezing, rainy and cloudy (encourage color, shoot low to show less sky and more local scene, and make it a game that your subject will jump several times, until you get what you need):
Or in the not-uncommon instance when a little girl is all done with the shoot and just wants to go home now (simply take one last photo and then let her go ;)
I could go on and on when it comes to listing challenges and found solutions, but I can nearly hear Brad and Scott whispering that this is a blog post and not a manifesto, so instead I'll summarize by saying that most of the joy of portrait photography comes from the consistent practice of:
– Learning the technical specifics so well that you don't have to let thoughts of equipment interrupt the interaction with your subject
– Understanding that connecting with your subjects is just as important as any other aspect of portrait photography, if not the most important aspect
– Falling back on quotes as a wonderful way to end your blog posts
So, lastly, in the wonderful words of Erik Christopher Zeeman, remember this:
"Technical skill is mastery of complexity, while creativity is mastery of simplicity."