Portraits, ID pictures and PR

I spend about forty percent of my working life shooting portraits for newspapers and magazines. It is my main passion as well as my career….

You will probably not be surprised to hear that I have some strong opinions about the art / science / craft (delete where applicable in your work) of photography. As an editorial photographer I am really lucky because there are three parties involved when I am shooting someone. There’s me, there’s the subject and there’s the paper – and that is really important to me and to the freedom I have to shoot the picture.

Social photographers usually have only two parties involved in the process – themself and the subject who often doubles as the customer. They are suddenly having to please the person who is sitting there in front of the camera. I really hate having to shoot portraits of family and friends because that’s even worse – imagine having the hassle of shooting a picture of someone who you love and care about and portraying them in a way that they may not have chosen. The freedom of being able to be objective and detached is a wonderful thing!

I have been involved in many arguments, both in person and on the web, about exactly when a photograph of a person becomes a portrait. It is really difficult to give a list of criteria about what constitutes a portrait, but somehow you can just look at a picture and say “yes” or “no” pretty much straight away.

I think that there are three categories of pictures of people. There are photographs that are merely record of what someone looks like that are perfect for ID badges or criminal records that say little or nothing about the subject. There are photographs where what is happening in the picture is more important than who is in it, such as a picture of someone playing sport or a musical instrument. Thirdly there are portraits, where there is enough in the image besides the subject to give a few clues about the subject, but not so much that the viewer is left thinking about what, rather than who. As a location only portraitist I have the added luxury of having the subject’s surroundings to help the image work. Studio photographers have to work really hard with fake props and painted backcloths to do what I can do very easily. Mass produced accessories, even student gowns, add little or nothing to the information that the photographer can give about their subject and can detract from the individuality of an image. You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any particular focal length of lens or lighting rig, and that’s deliberate. You can shoot a great portrait with any lens, and in any place – it’s all about your relationship with the subject.

Portraiture is something that you either find easy or you don’t. There are things that you can learn to make the whole process less painful and there are ways of shooting that eliminate risk (and creativity) if you really find that saying something about your subject isn’t what you were cut out to do with your camera. My advice is to talk to your subject, look around the room or the garden for something that they relate to and shoot a lot of frames. You can add a lot of athmosphere with lighting, but if you get the pose, props and position right you have the battle half won. Get your “bedside manner” right and you can call yourself a portrait photographer.

The relationship between the photographer, their subject and their client is vitally important. Editorial photography usually has three parties and it’s a great way to create good images. A while ago I shot a PR portrait of two businessmen. It had to be done in fifteen minutes and the deadline for the pictures to be with the designer was very tight. PR is a strange hybrid of social and editorial photography. There are usually more than two parties involved and they want editorial style shots but they have to be flattering to the subject. It doesn’t matter if the client is a PR company or if you are being paid directly by the company that you are there to promote – the images have to be positive and show no flaws. Is that a two party or a three party relationship? I would call it two and a half.

“Nothing unusual about this job?” I hear you ask. The answer is OH YES! The number of parties involved was as many as six and the decision making process was made harder by the two people in the pictures having the final decision about which image was chosen. Let me explain…

The end client was a European division of a multinational company who needed a picture shot in London. They had asked their London office to arrange a photographer to supply the pictures to the designer who was in another country (that’s three parties so far). The two men in the picture both had a say in the shoot (parties four and five) and then, of course, there was me (party number six). I had to set up the shot without the two businessmen but with the London PR people present. The two men arrived and I shot for ten minutes with two differing backgrounds and then offloaded my RAW files into my laptop. There then followed a quick Photo Mechanic slide show for the two subjects and the London PR where they selected two possible images in which they felt they looked good. We finally settled on the very last frame that I had shot – taken, ironically, about a minute after the two subjects started to make noises about leaving to catch a flight!

It was then a simple case of converting the RAW file on site and sending it as a high resolution email attachment to the designer, copying everyone else who hadn’t seen the choice in at the same time. That, ladies and gentlemen, was a complicated relationship. Editing the images later to send a choice of twenty to the client I decided that there was a better file but by then it was too late.

The difficulty for me with this job was that one of the two subjects vetoed several of the images because he didn’t think he looked right in them and the other subject vetoed one or two as well. The old adage about asking a committee to design a horse and ending up with a camel comes to mind. If too many people have a right to say no, you inevitably end up with the least offensive and least interesting picture!