The absolute worst branding: photographs that "look" professional.

How do I know when my work is in trouble? When it starts to look "very professional." When I look at headshots and all kinds of commercial and retail portraits out in the marketplace I see an endless reworking of older styles, not just from the ages of film but from the times when film was a tough medium to work in and it took real lighting and shooting skills to overcome limited dynamic ranges and a masterful touch to finesse tones and colors into an unforgiving print medium. Some of the lighting ratios that we use in the portraits weren't a reflection of us wanting a "flat" print as much as needing to compensate for the tendency of printing papers to block up shadow tones. And we've carried over these fixes and compromises as part of a codified visual style into recent and even current work. Well, not everyone has. If you work for yourself you are free to create whatever you want. And if you set the style then the details are yours to control and present. There are a number of conventions, the reasons for which I understand, that still drive me a little nuts because they are not honest reactions to the subjects in front of the camera but fulfillments of group think and cultural expectations set back in a different time and a different technical milleau.

A lot of the "rules" are protected by organizations that have outlived their aesthetic reasons to exist. While the PPofA might be a good place to discuss how much to charge for a wedding or how to maximize prints sales from a family portrait shoot, their influence on professional portrait photograph as regards aesthetics is corrosive and manipulates scores of people into preserving a status quo that may, at the same time, be killing the very businesses of the people who follow the intonations and teachings of that particular priesthood. I could cherry pick images off  the web to show you what I mean but that would be cruel. I'm referring to the same kinds of portraits that I've taken a thousand times. Parameters like the four light set up with a main light, a fill light, a hair light and a background light.  The overly perfect pose. The obsessive attention to grooming. The meticulous matching of colors. The perfect gradations--from safe highlights to detail larded shadows. The banal, textured canvas background or the solidly tired solid colored background. Just the right focal length. Just the right distances from the camera to the subject to the background. The ultra smooth skin retouching and sharp lips and eyes.  And always the cloying social correctness of the whole presentation with last century mat boards and thick backings. 

But in my own work, my personal work, I love to see inky shadows that drown detail, and highlights ready to bust out of their relegated area of the histogram. The light I love usually comes from one big source that seems to have a brain of its own and spills around the edges and sneakily pushes just enough juice onto the background to say "hello" in an entirely natural way. And when I say "natural" I mean:  That's a kind of light I see all the time in the real world. It's soft like that when I open my garage door and look back over my shoulder at the face of someone who is following me out into daylight...only they aren't out of the open shade yet. Soft yet directional. Defined but not surgical.

Tastes change and over the last ten years there's been a changing of the guard in the world of portraits. The old school stuff is just about dead and those of us who practiced it; either cynically, knowing it was no longer moving people's marketing or branding or self image forward---or in ignorance of a tidal change away from obvious visual constructions to much more natural and less codified styles-- will go down with the ship unless they take a good, hard look at what's in our portfolios and in our promotional materials and change quickly and sincerely. 

And therein lies the rub. If we knew better all along do we have the balls to be honest now and show stuff to sell now in that personal style which we really liked all along. Do we even get the new way of doing portraits? Are we doomed by our ages and the shackles of long experience to keep doing styles that no one really wants for a market of fellow traditionalist clients which is shrinking every day? I would go further and ask if our acceptance, as consumers, of photo dreck in our own lives means that we're giving a tacit approval to something that looks like it came from the Brady Bunch era. By that I mean to ask, do you buy the package of school prints your kid brings home even though you hate the style and your kid's one stab at expression is.....not up to snuff? You figure it's not that much money and you'll probably send the prints along to grandparents and great uncles who may, in fact, be the last truly appreciative market for those styles. Do you settle for good enough when you know that what you've bought is as dated as the Twinkies you found in that drawer in the tool box in your workshop?

I think the time is long overdue for anyone who wants to create portraits for money to make a hard examination of the kind of work they love to look at and make sure it matches the work they do for money. In fact, I think I'm calling for a wholesale re-imagining of the portrait as a sellable product and re-align it to be a sellable work of art. But to do that we'll have to stop aping the styles of the neighborhood studios from days gone past and start producing work that we really adore. Work that makes us excited. Work that you can hardly wait to post on your social networks.....just to show off what you've done. My personal work is quirky. At least I think it is.... But it's more honest than the main light / hair light / back light / rim light / fill light structure with added amounts of barbie-esque retouching that I sometimes default to out of fear or indecision or in the face of ambiguous direction from clients.

How can I break the bad habits I've amassed because I made the serial mistake of making my work safe over the last decade by making it indistinguishable from the hive mind? And why did I make it safe (homogenous) in the first place? Oh, I remember. The economy collapsed a few times and I wanted to embrace the safety of the herd. So I adapted the kind of looks that I saw in other people's work when I should have been an out-of-touch but stubborn artist instead.

I figured clients had been trained to accept flash photography as the lingua franca of our business so I started lighting with speedy lights even though I knew I liked the languorous effects of soft, continuous lights. I took the coward's way out and conformed to best practices which is code for "don't blame me, that's how everyone else does it..." I'm trying to get back to the garden, my garden, which means getting back to the way I lit people when I didn't care about jobs or purchase orders or what clients might think. 

To that end I've been dragging along an assortment of continuous lights with me on all of my assignments. I did ten portraits at a hospital this morning and all of them were done with large fluorescent banks as my lighting tools. Big banks covered with custom layers of diffusion cloth. I did a personal portrait yesterday (in black and white) and it was lit with a mix of daylight and the cool, soft light of my little open faced LED fixture. These are the ones I like and the ones that my family and friends say they like.

I think when we hit the digital age a lot of us got confused. There were teething problems with the early cameras, especially when it came to color rendering and profiling. We were also trying to get calibrated and it seemed like our job was to master all the technical shit. Stuff like making sure that what we saw on the back screens of cameras would match our monitors.  And then, since we were one foot in and one foot out of prints being deliverables we were locked into the battle of trying to figure out how to get good prints out of our labs or out of donkey like ink jet printers. We forgot that we needed to be in as much charge of a changing visual style as we were in charge of making sure our Epson printers didn't clog up the night before a big deadline. We technocratically mastered the process by overlaying the new instruction set over an older idea of what constituted "deliverables" while a new generation took all the tech stuff in stride, ignored it, flubbed it or (MOST IMPORTANTLY) made it into the bedrock of a new (deconstructed) style.

We ignore giant shifts of style at our own peril and sometimes in our paid work we are supporting something that (if we look at our personal work as our compass) we don't even believe in.

When I find myself grousing about the younger generation not "getting quality" when it comes to imaging I immediately stop myself and think of someone whose work I personally can't stand but who represents, in a way, everything I'm talking about. I think of Terry Richardson, the bicycle seat sniffing misogynist who made over $40 million in three years doing his snapshot style aesthetic for magazines, fashion designers and publishers. Small cameras, grainy, noisy files, a lot of direct flash, etc. But it's his style and he's become the mirror for a big swath of his generation because his work is NOT about perfection. It's about intimacy and risk and perilous connection.

Let's face it. When we all know how to achieve perfection in a craft the craft becomes boring and there's a period of time in which we sit, like a car in idle, and do this boring perfection craft until someone comes along and blows the whole thing up. Because if we all practice the same parameters of perfection the one person who zigs in the opposite direction and shows the market something new is nearly always the person who's chosen to do his own style in a vacuum made by our own resistance to change. Or our abdication of our personal style for something we imagined might be easier to sell....

I'm not recommending any course of action and this isn't a manifesto for anyone to follow. But I've been coming to grips with the fact that visually everything I did before I learned to be "perfect" is much better (emotionally, visually, connected-wise) than anything I've done since I made enough money to buy my way into the best practices of equipment and since I've had access to the internet to learn all the details I didn't even know I needed to know but which everyone now knows equally. My first year of shooting was my favorite year. And the next ten were great. But when I started to analyze and manipulate the work for an audience which I assumed wanted something with a common inflection and finish I unintentionally killed the very things I liked about the work and I've regretted it ever since.

So what am I doing? I'm making the act of shooting portraits less of a big deal technically and more of an exploration of what I like in a person. What I find interesting. Or what I hate in that person. But I'm not dishonoring them with template lighting. I'm not doing the equivalent of putting marks on the floor to follow for the lighting. I don't care how good the camera is, or how Annie Leibovitz lit something, or which light Chase Jarvis used on his Ninja Bankers Skiing shots.  I want to go back and connect with people like I used to. I want to worship the beauty of the fascinating women in front of my camera and I want to look at the men in front of my camera with the same interest and curiosity with which I approach my closest friends. I want to find things that are peculiar and interesting about the people in front of my camera and not hobble their representation by cloaking them in an unguent blanket of syrupy visual goo that makes everyone more of a metaphor for their image than an interesting and unique artifact of our mutual collaboration.

Way too verbose. I guess I just wanted to say I'm tired of photos that look like all the other photos. I liked the way mine looked thirty years ago. I want to go back to a naiveté that subverted mechanical details in the service of falling in love with the people in the frames. I want to celebrate the look and the energy, not my ability to solve problems.

In the old days when someone said, "Your work looks so professional." what they meant was that you had done a good job mastering all the hard technical stuff so that your subject could shine through. What people mean now when they say, "Your work looks so professional." is that your work is done in a style that matches the vast center of the Bell Curve of working imagers and meets all the basic technical criteria in the space. But the subtext is that your work is contrived, stilted, robbed of authenticity and uniform to a fault. Interesting when you find yourself on the wrong side of the divide and you always imagined yourself as a risk taker and a forward thinker. 

The day that you wake up hating the work you do for a living is the day you need to quit or start over in a more genuine way. There really is no middle ground for artists.


Peter B said...

Your rant may be long, but it's very much to the point. Photographic conventions evolving out of long forgotten technical limitations and turning into absolute "professional" rules. When I started out in photography oh so many years ago, I was a member of PPofA for a short time. Even then I found the portraits dreadful and boring. Because I thought portraits had to be as in the PPofA magazine, I developed a dislike of taking portraits and over the years have become quite incompetent at any portrait photography. Don't misunderstand me: I like looking at good portraits, I just seem to be unable to create them.
In a similar vein, landscape photography has become quite ossified, too. "Professional" landscape photographers only take pictures at sunrise, sunset or in a moody fog. Bright mid-day light is a no-no. In my mind, traditional art landscape photography is not unlike a traditional art portraits, with rule-bound lighting and composition. Traditional portraits and traditional landscape photography try to glamorize the subjects rather than revealing the inner character.
Thanks for your blog.

Owen M. said...

This is so right on the mark, Kirk! Hats off to you for having the cojones to admit it and make your readers really confront what they do in this crazy world of making a living as a photographer.

Joe Gilbert said...


Brilliant post! You've inspired a thought that I really like….You had in essence distilled several ideas into what donned on me as a "Creative Kata". The basic moves of the Kata are obvious. As you train and are guided through thousands of repetitions, you no longer think of the technical, but begin to understand the meaning to each part. Through repetition and subsequently earned competence of technique, you have gained the freedom to VISUALIZE an attack, strike or block, and move without thought to reach your desired end.

The mere mastery of photographic technique is not enough. Imperfections in technique are now covered by digital filters, and claims of "I was going for that look". Any criticism of the omni-present Instagram type photo usually results in being told that you are old, don't understand art, etc..

A photographer having mastered the technical, no longer requires conscious effort to capture the physical, thus allowing the freedom to see beyond the obvious. A master thoughtlessly adjusts the camera, waits for the perfect moment, directs the subject into the best light, handles countless other challenges without thought, and captures the moment as envisioned. A master makes sacrifices to the high or low end of exposure and places the subject into the perfect zone as if on autopilot. When you have moved to that level, the blocked or blown areas are unimportant, and the photograph is more than a crappy digital filter could ever copy. Personally, I've become fascinated with "Gesture" as defined by Jay Maisel, although I too often fall short.


Ken said...

The pathos of coming to grips with what we do and how we do it. The introspection and analyse of the nature of photography and the flow of something greater than ourselves through the images we capture. I just read a quote that said "God does things through us, not for us." If the results of our efforts are no different than what others produce, it compromises the unique expression that has the potential to shine through us as only we can manifest it. These posts are my favorite. I want to think deep on motivations and uniqueness and purpose and expression. I don't need to learn how someone created a particular image. For what, so I can try to emulate it? That's not my purpose with photography.

Eric said...

"The day that you wake up hating the work you do for a living is the day you need to quit or start over in a more genuine way. There really is no middle ground for artists." A-F****** men.

Bob Dein said...

Please don't hold back - tell us what you REALLY think! :-)

Great post, telling it how it is.

Kirk Tuck said...

Bob, I don't think I could be any more blunt...

John Sarsgard said...

Thank you. A real wakeup for me. Imretired early from the corporate life 10 years ago so I could do the photography I love more or less fullmtime with no business plan. Among other things, I have been doing natural light portraits of poets, writers, political agitators and other less known celebrities for years. I love much of what I've done, and the process of doing it with these people. Mostly but not always they like the results too. some have used the portraits as author photos. I have a book of portraits of poets and their poems done in collaboration with a poet/editor being published next year. BUT I keep reading and playing with multiple lights and buying lighting books. On reading your post, it is clear that I don't think I'm a real photographer because I don't use much stuff to make a portrait. And when I do use the stuff, the result is almost as "professional" as the "standard." And I don't love it. The difference is between trying to make the pictures I don't love vs spending more time doing what comes naturally making the ones I love. End of my rant. Thank you.

Mike said...

The worst thing about the Internet is this sort of lighting diagram culture (a.k.a 'strobist info') where people want to know exactly how shots were made down the exact power settings. That's the perfect recipe for lookalike, homogenized work.

I learned the most about shooting when trying to work out things myself, which essentially forced me to stumble onto interesting things and ways of working. Trying and FAILING to break down lighting and images of people like Sam Haskins and Greg Gorman taught me way more about photography than any silly website ever did.

ODL Designs said...

Experimentation and risk.

We all have a bit of a herd mentality, we want to belong, we crave acknowledgement. So we dress alike, watch the same shows, read the same books. The accessibility digital has had for taking and sharing has led to a rapid acceleration for photographers. This made is very painful for many.

But, experimentation and risk will always set apart unique from ordinary.

Well, that is my take on it.

Scott said...

That applies to any craft or occupation, not just those thought of as "art". When you can't bear the thought of waking up and going to work, it's time to find another job.

Anonymous said...

Nice*...i have thought the same thing these days. i am at dpreview shooting an a55 now ,soon an a58 also. i started with film and still love 'that look'. Most of my depth in color and the richness of the image i am sure was based on low iso film and the tech available....but i still like to embrace exactly what you are saying...
so many respond 'oh its too dark'..almost as if black does not exist anymore or isn't supposed to now with increased iso performance. Like shadows almost should not exist anymore. Maybe a 'whats within the shadows' also leaves a subliminal feel of sorts to the photo. Thanks for sharing what and how i have felt all along and have seemed a minority in the photography forums. i refuse to 'go down with that ship'
the cookie cutter photographic shooter....thanks again kirk,brian

MGO said...

your rants, are the posts i like best:)

richard swearinger said...

Luckily there is a book that explains in very exacting detail how to shoot portraits with available light. It was published in 1914, the days before strobes, so everything is about how to use windows, reflectors, and silks. The author spends a lot of time explaining how to install and use a 12x15-foot ground-glass window in your studio, but then in chapter 16 he tells you how to get the same effects using the normal windows in a typical house.
The lighting is amazingly beautiful and except for the clothes, the photos are timeless, find it at http://bit.ly/16XMIWv