Fit for purpose

Portraits need to be fit for purpose.

Take this picture. A résumé picture:

I have shot this model clothed, nude, in studios, outdoors, traveling: every picture is different.

A resume picture needs to be professional (the jacket, the hairdo); show beauty in the case of a woman (the overall make-up, the low cut, the eye shadow), but not excessively so; be perhaps a little sexy (the white top) but not overly so (the necklace, the businesslike jacket again). The expression should be friendly but neutral. Yes, some thinking goes into this.

As it should go into every portrait you make. Always ask:

  • What is the photo for.
  • Whom is it for?
  • What are they expecting?
  • What is the person being pictured expecting?
  • What are you expecting?
  • What demands does this put on the photo?
  • What problems need to be solved? What needs to be de-emphasized?
  • What do you want to emphasize?

If you ask yourself these questions, you will come up with answers all by yourself. Answers about clothing, setting, light, expression, and so on.

But if you do not ask, you will not come up with answers; or worse, you will come up with the wrong answers.

For those of you who are interested, after the “more” break, two civilized nudes from the very same shoot as the photo above:

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A simple, but effective, trick

A simple trick, used by photographers the world over, is this. Can you see what we did in this shot from two days ago, a portrait of Liz Medori?

Yup, we used a fan. A simple cheap fan; I usually use an industrial fan from a home supplies store. That fan makes the hair do its wild sexiness thing, which you will see in many model photos.

And the good news: You need to know no technique for this. Even if you are a total beginner, nothing stops you from aiming a fan at your long-haired subject.

What else did I do in that photo? We had a make-up artist, Melissa T. We lit the model with one overhead softbox straight in front of her, plus one hair light aimed at us, for shampooey goodness™, plus one background light with a purplish gel aimed at the background. And I shot with a 70-200mm lens at the typical studio setting of 200 ISO, 1/125th second, f/8.

But even if you do not know what that means; go for it with the fan!


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The Thinning Lens

As a photographer, I photograph a lot of people who are reluctant.

Usually, they are reluctant because they do not like their looks. They want to be Jennifer Aniston, and in their mind they are Jennifer Aniston, but in fact they are middle aged, ordinary people. They are usually, but not always, women, who are generally more aware of their looks than men. A very common question is: “oh, you can only shoot me if you put on your thinning lens”.

No Thinning Lens Needed Here

These people will be disappointed when they see their photos. And as a photographer, I do not like it when my clients are disappointed. So what do I do?

What I do not do is “put on a thinning lens”; i.e. edit the picture to the extent that the person is materially different. My rule of thumb is that if I cannot do it in Lightroom, I do not do it – that is the reason I have not been in Photoshop all year. I am happy to remove blemishes, especially temporary ones, like pimples and bruises; perhaps even lighten the odd wrinkle a little; but that’s it. No distorting, no making breasts bigger (or thighs smaller) or making people thinner than they are.

But there are other things I can do to get the most out of what a person has. That means things including the following:

Lighting brightly: bright light makes wrinkles vanish into the top part of the brightness, where they do not look obvious. The more high key an image, the better skin will look.

Finding the right angles: everyone has good and bad angles. I would give examples here, but one cardinal rule is that I never show the bad angle pictures to anyone – client or anyone else. Hence, by the way, the fact that I do not like clients asking to “see the pictures” on the back of the camera, unless they are very young and pretty and confident (those three do not always go together).

Modeling: when I can, and when someone is a little overweight, I try to light from the side rather than from the front.  Look at this example of a model’s legs: one lit primarily from the front, and the second lit mainly from the side, using an umbrella and speedlight. This model needs to lose no weight, of course, but you can see the principle: by selectively lighting you can give objects and people shape, and make broad objects appear narrower.

Selectively lighting – in general, I try to light good bits, while keeping less perfect bits in relative darkness.

Use a minor electronic adjustment – I am happy to use Lightroom’s Clarity adjustment to slightly smooth skin tones. A clarity adjustment of perhaps minus 15 is hardly consciously visible – except it does make skin clearer, wrinkles less obvious and hence makes the person look better.

Finally, use the right lens! A wide angle lens can make large objects look “puffy” and will make close shapes look larger. Close shapes can, for instance, be the nose, or the thighs if the person is sitting, or their arms if they are closer to you than the face. Using a long lens, on the other hand, will give a much more neutral, undistorted look. My 70-200 lens is my favourite – provided I have enough space. Fashion photographers tend to also use this lens as a favourite. So I suppose in a sense there is a thinning lens!

No thinning lens needed here, either

In the end, of course, if someone is not happy with their looks, well, then there is little I can do – I cannot make them into something they are not (like Jennifer Aniston). That is one reason I am happy to photograph a lot of young women: it’s not that I prefer to (the challenge of shooting someone older is great!), but they tend to be more accepting of their bodies, for obvious reasons, and more accepting of reality of there is something not perfect.

And guess what: no-one is perfect. I am guessing that if you saw Jennifer Aniston get out of bed in the morning and groggily walk to the bathroom, you would not be impressed. We are all human. One reason I thoroughly enjoyed doing portraits of naturists at Bare Oaks naturist park the past two summers is that they understand this, and are happy with their bodies, whatever they look like, short, tall, big, small, young, old, whatever – seeing people naked, one realises that no-one is perfect like the fantasies we see in magazines where the photographers do materially alter things. Ahh.. so refreshing for a photographer!


NEW: You can now sign up for a June 20-30, 2014 photo tour of North Wales with me: go here and read all about it, and if you are interested, call the travel experts and sign up. Let them know you may be interested as soon as possible: this will be a great trip with photography, travel, sightseeing; doing and learning all mixed in together!


More than looking pretty

When I photograph people, there is often a conflict involved. There usually is, I might even say.

Why? Because I want to show the person’s character. Their inside; their conflicts;perhaps, their deep issues; their happiness, or lack thereof; their age; their life experience. I want the image to be evocative, to raise questions, and even, if possible, to tell stories. But mainly, I want it to raise eyebrows and to make people think.

The person photographed, on the other hand, usually wants to look like a supermodel, or like a person younger or happier or thinner (usually, all three) than in fact they are. And that is often in direct conflict with what I want.

Take a photo like this, from 2012:

That photo is in fact a tribute to Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra (see here). In it, the model does not look like a glamorous model; instead she looks almost like an insecure teenager. There’s insecurity, embarrassment almost, awkwardness for sure, body awareness, also.

Of course, the model does not like this portrait, and nor do her friends. (As I mentioned here last year, I was amazed that in The Netherlands, several people, when seeing this image, immediately said “That’s a Rineke Dijkstra”! Europeans really do have a great sense, and knowledge, of art.)

This portrait shows someone with life experience:

This shows a young woman thinking, and not happy:

None of these are happy snaps (no smiles, see?). But they are good portraits. And here’s me in a few of last year’s self portraits:

So when you are about to make a portrait, first ask yourself the most important question:

Whom is this portrait for?

It could be:

  • You.
  • The subject.
  • The subject – but 20 years from now.
  • The subject’s kids.
  • People who read a magazine the picture will be in.
  • Future generations.
  • Colleagues and friends.
  • An art competition’s judges.
  • Some combination of the above.

Then, when you are clear on that, decide what you want. The audience will lead you to the picture. Yes, you should also ask what the person portrayed wants – but it does not always matter. Karsh’s famous Churchill portrait was made seconds after Karsh removed Churchill’s cigar, and shows his resulting grumpy expression.

Then decide on a way to do the portrait – perhaps a compromise, or just for one party, or whatever – as long as the answer is not “I dunno”, because then, no great work will result.

Very often, just asking and answering this question will lead to a good photo.



When shooting kids, it is important to shoot a lot of different ways, to see what will work. Take a lot, and see what works, then refine that. Best to use simple studio lighting. I try to engage the child in the shoot, allowing him, for instance, to choose some of the gel colours.

Here’s a few from that portrait shoot this morning:

Kids move, so a nice prop (like a stool, in the example above) is good.

Do not be afraid to get close and fill the frame!

Try desat or otherwise changed colours in a few images.

And try different positions.

Simple backgrounds are good, because the emphasis should be on the child. But I sometimes just change my position to get a difefrent background, like the grungy one here:

Bribery helps, too!

If you do not have a studio setup, use a prime (fixed) 50mm lens and larger aperture and 1600 ISO indoors in reflected light. Either way, you will end uyp with good images. Do it – your child is young only once. And do also consider going to a pro – if you come to me, I will teach you some useful photography skills while we shoot!