Ego Out, Simplification In: My Two Portrait Photography Goals for 2017

Ego Out, Simplification In: My Two Portrait Photography Goals for 2017

Style. The idea of finding your own voice and style has become an intricate part of growing as a photographer and differentiating yourself from the competition. It's not only a way to get work, but a way to be remembered in a field of talented artists. But, as a portrait photographer, I find that my need to make a signature image sometimes gets in the way of capturing the human being in front of me. I'm so concerned about making the image "cool" that it's almost as if the person in front of the camera doesn't matter. Today, that ends (I hope).

Lighting has always been a focus of mine, and over the years, I've learned a lot of tricks that I can pull out of a hat. The problem is very often those tricks aren't needed. I find myself wanting to light someone in a certain way, not because it helps something about the person, but because it'll add a little oomph to the image. I don't think there's anything wrong with that when done in moderation, but sometimes, I think it can damage the integrity of the image as a whole. Ask yourself: when people look at one of your portraits, are they saying, "Wow, that looks really cool" or are they saying something more along the lines of how the image makes them feel? Are they relating to your subject at all or just your lighting? Of course, ideally, they will synergize and you'll be right on the money on both counts. 

DJ RockStar Aaron, Bronica 645, Portra 400. I took this portrait many moons ago and never thought much of it. As I've matured a bit, I find that it's beautiful in its simplicity and honesty. Not flashy, but it has integrity.

A portrait of Liz for an upcoming personal project. Shot on 4x5 film, Portra 400.

Another bad habit I want to work on is my need to bring a bunch of gear to a portrait session. I want to focus on a lot more "man in the street" style work for a personal project. It's tedious and disruptive to bring 70 pounds of gear to a 10-minute shoot. Rather, I'm whittling down my location kit to a small speedlight, my 4x5 camera, my RB67, a light stand, and a large umbrella. Maybe I'll put a reflector in my trunk just in case. If I can't make a good image out of that gear, then I need practice, not more crap to lug around. I'm hoping that paring down my kit will get me up and running faster, enabling me to be much more prolific in the new year.

A portrait of Alex Shibutani, Team USA Olympic ice dancer. I shot this during downtime for an editorial gig. Shot on 4x5 on Portra 400.

What are you all doing to simplify your process or gear? Has your ego taken some of the meaning out of your work? Sound off below! Have a happy and productive new year, everyone!

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Brian Suman's picture

Great post and it defintely resonates with me. I have found that in the last year I have been drawn to the simple portrait and trying to capture the person for who they are and not how I make them look with a bunch of editing. I think a simpler style od portrait will have its place again in photography over the next few years as the desire to create the ‘cool’ becomes cold.

Thomas Starlit's picture

Looking at sites like 500px, flickr and other social media, there is no doubt that "overdone" pictures are all the rage right now and that focus is more on the initial wow of the picture rather than on the interest of the subject itself and the long term interest of the picture overall. The initial wow simply outweighs the longer term interest of the picture. Interestingly enough, I find that I rarely go back to look at at "wow" picure, whereas the more sedate, natural pictures have much more long term interes. I can only hope that as smartphones get fancier and fancier editing and processing, the mainstream will take over the "overdone" images as their domain and photographers will return to a more natural, simple style

David Moore's picture

The lighting thing is funny. I got to where I was throwing all the lights I could find at a shot, then stripped back to one. I wasn't happy with either so I am working on a balance.

The biggest thing I want to work on is the ego thing though. It doesn't just get into my shoots, it definitely gets in the way of creating shoots/shots that I want.

And gels, I wanna keep geling things. lol.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Its definitely a tough balance. When im doing a portrait, a part of it is playtime for me. I want to try new things and I think there's value in that. Just not to the extent that it ignores the subject.

Christopher Eager's picture

Great article...I can definitely relate to this. I find myself concentrating on getting the WOW shot instead of focusing on the subject in front of me, dragging around less gear and finding my signature. Working with 2 strobes/light boxes when I actually prefer using only one because of catch lights...I can always bring up shadows later in Camera Raw.

Thorsten Merz's picture

I'm going to add another "I can relate to this" comment, because I've been thinking long these lines for some time myself. It's so easy to get caught up in the whole "over-production" side of things, whether that's makeup, lighting, styling, post-processing, etc, just because everyone else is doing it. My method for trying to move myself away from this and producing more honest images is simply to keep asking myself why, whether that's in shoot planning or in reviewing my own work or indeed that of others. Why do I need more than one light, why am I using this process or that process in post-production, why do I need to use a specific location, etc., etc. I think too often we do things just because we can, because it's easy and it looks "cool" instead of doing things that would ultimately make for perhaps a less "cool" image but overall a stronger image, if that makes sense.

Dave McDermott's picture

I'd also add to that (at least in terms of working with models anyway), is that if you have a great model you can great photos with the simplest of setups. I've worked with a lot of models that weren't very good, so I almost felt like I was compensating for that by using interesting locations, elaborate lighting setups and cool photoshop tricks to try and make the image pop. However most of my favourite photos were taken with nothing more than simple window light and minimal retouching. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I should probably be more selective with who I work with rather than concentrating too much on the production side of things.

Brian Comeault's picture

Great Article, I need to do the exact same thing. Thanks for posting!

Tracey Williams's picture

Excellent article Hans. Ego is definitely the enemy as they say. I'm going through a bit of self realization myself, so, thank you. Btw... the portrait of Alex is amazing, if the viewer relating to the subject instead of the technique is what you are going for, then you nailed it hat image.