Why the process of photographic portraiture is so different from all other types of photography.


Over the years I've read so many quasi-scientific manifestos about "how to shoot." I just read an essay by our friend, Michael Johnston, in which he talks about shooting too much or shooting too little. How his mentors would go out with six frames of film to do an assignment or, conversely, how a teacher at an art school program was "prolific" and wanted to instill in his students the same machine gun approach to shooting. 

It seems most of the recent talk about "process" revolves around whether or not one is committing the sin of wasting film or pursuing the opposite approach and hoarding their film/digital frames. The underlying concept seems to be that there might be an exacting number of frames that one might be expected to commit to on any given genre of photography. 

But the trigger for me of the essay was MJ's decision not to drill down and let the reader know just what kind of assignment called for which approach. Was his example of going out and forcing himself to use just one 36 exposure roll of film connected to a portrait shoot? Was it a landscape project? Was it a bout of street shooting? Was it a commercial shoot in which he was working carefully to a specific comprehensive layout in collaboration with a marketing team? If we don't know what our guides are shooting then how can we possibly make any sense out of their intentions? How are we to understand if they are, in fact, over shooting or under shooting?

Not trying to criticize Michael because his essay was a quick afterthought about his blog post yesterday about a photographer who currently shoots architecture with large format film. But his writing spurred me to think about the whole subject a bit more.

I also come across writers who make the assumption that everyone who is shooting in a 35mm format is making lots and lots of frames while photographers who work with large format cameras are magically imbued with strict discipline and shoot only a handful of images when confronted by each scene. I am instantly reminded of the stories surrounded Richard Avedon's photo session of "Natasha Kinski and the Serpent." It was a beautiful photograph and it was made on very expensive, 8x10 inch color sheet film. If one assumed that photo writers are correct even part of the time then one would also expect that Avedon might have tried to get his shot in five or ten frames. 15 to 20 frames at the outside limit. But multiple sources confirm that this was not the case.  

In fact, Avedon exposed more than 100 frames of very large sheet film on one pose and took well several hours working at it before making the frame that he judged would be the "perfect" one. That doesn't take into account the vast numbers of 8x10 inch Polaroid frames he took just to get everything into the ballpark of his vision. 

He knew when he got the frame not because he was counting the number of film holders used and judging the number to be sufficient. No, he kept firing the camera until one moment arrived where the serpent, laying over and around Kinski's nude body stuck out its tongue right next to her ear. Avedon, prepped by the numerous previous frames, and the extensive trial and error of an artist who has mastered his vision (and not just his craft), was waiting and watching for just that sort of additional magic in the shoot. He tripped the lens shutter on the view camera at that exact moment and got the frame that went on to grace millions of posters. 

A casual writer about photography might hear that story and deduce that Avedon "wasted" those frames and should have just set everything up and waited for the right moment, shot his one frame and then moved on with life. A highly skilled portrait photographer would understand that those previous 99+ frames were the fuel that powered the creative moment into existence and that without them there would be no perfect frame. 

I've seen people work both ways on photographic assignments. Some are parsimonious with their frames as though they are wasting something precious which they'll never recover. Others are generous to a fault with their frames and shoot until their memory cards fill up or their film supply is gone. But, again, it all depends on what kind of photograph they are pursuing. What their aim in the adventure might be. One approach seems too rigid and structured, giving power to the process of photography over the imperative of gently guiding along a more nuanced process and, step by step, building a rhythm and rapport with a subject. 

With a landscape scene one might be able to understand that the scene in front of them will have a perfect moment of exposure where the balance between light and dark is just right and the angle of the sun is like a sculptor's chisel. Working with a digital camera or a film camera and well understood light meter the photographer might be able to capture the image while using only five or six frames, taking time to try a frame or two over and then under the median value. She might bracket a bit to get the perfect balance. 

But here's the vital difference between portraiture and all other forms of photography: only (good and great) portraiture requires the photographer to enter into a relationship, a rapport and a collaboration with the subject. No one walks in cold and, on meeting a portrait subject for the first time, fires off five or six frames, deludes themself that they have a perfect shot, and terminates the session. Unless your only goal it a clinical documentation of the person in front of the camera. 

The hope of most portraitists is to work through a process that involves getting to know the other person as well as possible, looking more keenly with each exposure for slight changes of expression, angle, glance, gesture that eventually come together because the photographer has used his accruing knowledge from all the previous exposures to gently guide the subject into a physical space and emotional realm that is, to the photographer's point of view, the definitive image of his sitter. Each frame builds on the frame before it. Each subtle change distills the image into it clearest essential truth. To arbitrarily and methodically limit the encounter to a certain predetermined number of frames is sheer folly and eliminates the chance that the frame after the "last" frame may have been the best frame. 

Each session that I've ever done that's made me feel as though I've gotten good work follows a similar pattern. The first frames of the shoot are awkward and stumbling for me and the subject. They are trying to orient themselves to the space, to the light, to our proximity. They are trying to divine my intention in the shoot just as I am trying to unearth theirs. By getting started and photographing we start to both build a comfort with the process. I'm vocal during shoots. I encourage, suggest, and when frames work I heap praise on the subject and the process. You can feel the subject getting more and more comfortable over time. As the frame count grows there is a diminishing of stress and tension. At some point we've worn each other down in the best of ways. I've let the subject trot out all the cliché poses and expressions they've seen in other people's work; whether on Instagram or in a magazine. I've been worn down by working through my reflexive routines. My desire to "shortcut" and try poses and expressions that have worked well for other subjects. At a certain point I stop trying to overlay these on my subject and the person in front of the camera has started to trust me with her potenital image. 

As the frames fly by we get into a tighter synchronization and we divine, by trial and error, how the light looks best on their face. How their posture influences the personal power they feel. How my voice and cadence motivate movement, or I might ask for them to pause so when can fine tune a pose rather than constantly changing (like models on TV). 

At some point somewhere in the process of shooting, reviewing and shooting again we both realize that we've hit a high point and that the energy we had moments ago is starting to dissipate. We keep trying so we don't miss something good but at some juncture we're both ready to end the process. But as my subject gathers their belongings, finds their silenced phone, grabs their alternate wardrobe, I keep the camera in my hand and look for the unguarded moments that might have their own magic. 

I can't keep track of the number of times we turned off the studio strobes or big LEDs and walked into an area in the studio that is flooded with some beautiful and soft natural light and I watched it flow across my subject's face and begged them to stay and  let me shoot just a few more frames. It is, after all, an art project and not a mathematical problem. There are no upper or lower limits on the number of frames it might take to get a portrait that's special. That's why we don't count frames and don't artificially restrict the shooting process. These are photographs, not spreadsheets.

It would be as though you were constrained to only drive your car in one of two ways; always at 30 mph or less, and only at 90 mph or more. We follow the road and handle the curves as required by the feel of the car and the road conditions at hand. Not by preset scenarios.

The process of landscape photography is one of discovery. Once discovered the artist conceives of a way he or she would like the final photograph to look and works, more or less methodically, toward that goal. The landscape is the landscape. It doesn't change second by second. It doesn't toss out a gesture that changes your understanding of your subject.  The light may change but that's one parameter. 

In convincing and intimate portraiture it's much more important to build a relationship between photographer and sitter and to understand that it's only with their willing complicity that each works to make one image a culminating treasure of their combined efforts. And that takes shooting no small number of frames. 

I recently did a photographic assignment on which I needed to work with six different subjects in the course of a day. Each needed to be guided through six looks. While not my brand of "art" portraiture it still took a lot of back and forth, a lot of role playing, prompting, encouraging and cheering on my part to get each model to share their energy without reserve and without worrying about looking goofy. 

Even though my lighting didn't change much I needed to go through about 3,000 frames in a digital camera, or about 500 shots per person, to get the looks that I wanted and that my clients needed. I needed to work with the models in collaboration to make it work. The models aren't mannequins that can be positioned then photographed with some requisite number of frames. They are all fallible and insecure human beings who need to be guided into a process, supported in their interpretation of the process, and then coaxed into blending the best of my preconceptions with theirs to make images that are both authentic and connected. 

We used 36 frames for the final, international ad campaign. Should I have tried to set a limit or was I right to respect the process as well as the individual needs of each model/photographer interaction?

I've shot a lot of product in my career. I can light a white seamless for products in about 20 minutes. With digital cameras and their direct previews I can probably shoot most products in one or two frames. Then I could walk away from the shoot having fulfilled the letter of the contract. But even in these situations there is an opportunity to move the product around, shift the lighting and come away with variations that might be even better than the original concept. If we limit our frame use we'll never know....

I continued to be surprised that the process of portraiture, as a subset of photography, can be so misunderstood. Either that or I am just slow or inefficient at fostering relationships and too lost in the emotion of photographing people to stick to a "logical" and "cost effective" process. 

But that's the only way I know how to do it. 

Final thought. An anecdote about a major ad agency's expectations for film use. 

On my first big assignment for GSD&M Advertising I needed to photograph four different mentor/mentee pairings for a series of ads done for a cellular phone service company. It was a bigger job, dollar-wise, than I had ever done before. One advantage I had was that my assistant made an instant connection with the art buyer. My assistant and I labored over the bid process. Somewhere in the bid was an estimate of how much medium format color transparency film I would use, how much Polaroid test material, how much processing would be required. We bid optimistically (at least from my point of view). 

The art buyer came back to us and said they were fine with everything in the bid except for the film and lab costs. I was ready to sharpen that pencil and whittle the film cost to a bare minimum. But before I could commit to that the art buyer said, "The client will be on the set and they expect to see a lot of different variations and subtle changes. You need to double the amount of film and processing in your bid. And, in fact, since we haven't shown them numbers yet you might want to triple the amount. Otherwise we'll need to give this job to someone else." 

My assistant and I took the art buyer's suggestion and proceeded. We shot more film on the two shoot days than I ever had before. Our film and processing cost for the shoot was about $6,000. (Medium format transparency film + Polaroid + Testing and Processing). Part of our overall profit was in the mark-up we charged for film and processing so we made more profit into the bargain. 

The clients were happy and I learned a valuable lesson: Don't artificially limit your process. Don't be your own limiter. Some of the best frames were on rolls of film we would never have shot if the client had accepted our first bid. 

It's still true in the digital age. Especially in portraiture. 

One more note: my typical headshot shoot for a single pose takes about 100 frames. Rarely fewer. We talk and shoot, shoot and talk, and I can see non-models relax more and more, frame by frame, until it's just two friends talking. That's when the eyes start to look kind and welcoming and smiles become genuine. 

Just saying. 


MikeR said...

" ... MJ's failure to drill down ..."
"Not trying to criticize Michael ..."

But, you just did!

"Just saying."

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

changed it. Just saying. Hold that thought.

Greg Heins said...

This is great. Many thanks.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Thanks Greg, Much appreciated. So many people don't understand that taking photos of their coffee is different than taking real portraits.

Joel Bartlett said...

Thank you for your essay on how you do portraits. I appreciate the effort that you put into your portrait sessions, and the time you spend to educate us on your process. I do have one bone to pick with you though, your simplified description of landscape photography. The photographer who shows up with a preconcieved view of the scene, hones in on it, and then exits misses a lot. Landscapes have a lot to tell the photographer if they'll listen. Stay a while and you may discover you need to shot from another vantage point. The detail you thought was important, really isn't. And you might have to return to the scene several times to catch what you now think important. And finally, don't forget to turn around and look behind you, that may be the best shot of all.

Bob F. said...

Great post! I kept thinking of the high school yearbook “portraits” where the photographer had us sit on a stool, took three frames to get one without eyes closed and moved us out. The exposure was perfect-at least for those of us with Caucasian skin-the focus was spot on because everyone sat on the same stool, but the result was plastic and awful. My daughter in law takes marvelous portraits with her phone because she only photographs the family that she loves so much. You make the point that a serious portrait photographer has to spend the time and emotional energy to develop a sort of love for the subject. It’s got to be both exhausting and exhilarating.

A Photog said...

Yes nice to read your process....inspiring!

Gary said...

Kirk, this is one of the best posts I can recall reading here. Not only is it quite informative, it is also a beautiful description of your working process.

Gary said...

Ps. Heck, I think you might even get ME to feel comfortable. I do not like to be photographed because I think I look horrible in photos.

Cpt Kent said...

It may be Nastassja, rather than Natasha.

Len said...

Kirk spot on as usual, except I shoot landscapes, trees, flowers and people. I used to lug around a large format camera when I had no money and shoot three frames a day on a good day a budget six for a portrait shoot. I did this for twenty years.

Now with digital I shoot as many as I like. 3-5000 on a nude shoot in a couple of hours.

On a landscape shoot I also don’t hold back and shoot hundreds. I wander and work everything so hard.

I find my work is so much freer, and more me.

So... it’s not just portraiture.

Great article. Been talking about this a lot lately as an old large format guy gave me a ribbing for shooting so much. I tried to point out it doesn’t matter as long as I love what I do and how I work.

Michael Matthews said...

Among the many books by and about major portrait photographers the currently popular “50 Portraits” by Gregory Heisler has a lot to offer. A variety of styles are seen, influenced by the subject and circumstances. A bit of explanation on technique is included for most, wrapped up in an anecdotal, story-telling approach which may go on for a few pages rather than just iso/shutter speed/f-stop info or lighting diagrams. The contrast between the Lee Iacocca shots that didn’t work and the one that did make a great example...as does the splendid portrait of environmentalist Lester Brown.

RayC said...

I agree, and disagree. I think photography at the highest level is generally always a unique experience - so yes portraiture at the level you work at is unique, less so for the school photographer, though there is a good bit of craft there for the best I suspect.

But as others have stated a Landscape photographer has many challenges and it is hardly static and goes beyond light but season, weather and much more than that I'm sure because as a landscape photographer, I am really a tourist (my generic term for someone who dabbles but does not specialize).

I think back to when I was an apprentice to a food photographer and the approach taken for big national ad campaigns. We would sweat the details and work with mock up foods and Polaroids and test film often for 8 hours before getting close to the real deal, this was a similar learning we came in with an idea and often left with a completely different approach in lighting, set design, perspective etc than the original layout. In the end we may have only exposed a few sheets of 8x10 film on the final hero food and image but it is not that dissimilar to a full creative process. Contrast this to cookbook photography which relied on essentially cookbook photography and lighting with just great Home economists and set styling to move from one dish to the next - a meticulous craft but not the same creative expression and iteration done at the highest level.

I think this exists in virtually any field from wood working to "non creative" areas like auto mechanics! There are artists and there are competent craftsman, the former may have a hard time understanding how their artistry transfers into other fields even if they are adjacent.

Travis said...

Kirk, this is one of your best articles among many excellent choices. I've often felt vaguely guilty for taking "too many" frames during a portrait session, like I'm showing some lack of discipline. (I've also felt like I talk with my subject "too much" to concentrate on seeing fine pose and light details.)

But I've come to understand, as you stated better than I could, that each of these frames, and the conversation and energy that go with them - and the momentum that builds - is crucial to doing any portraits at all worth having. (And for me, it's all in service of that single unguarded moment where I can see who someone really is - that's an amazing thing to have happen.)

Augie said...


Your engaging, informative and nuanced essay made me think back to a conversation I had with my college mentor a few years after I started my job as a university campus photographer. He is an internationally known artist who has taught me a lot about art and life over the years. I was eagerly talking to him, sharing my campus life with him. At some point he was curious to know about my portraiture workflow. I told him that I had on average 5-10 minutes with a subject and that was it. His response was immediate. His shoulders slumped, and I thought I saw tears in his eyes as he stared at me. “How is that possible? He demanded of me. “You needs hours with a subject. You need to know them...”. He continued on instructing me like he had done years before, hitting on points that you address within your post. Thanks for sharing. It brought back many fond memories. I need to drop my mentor a note, and maybe a few well chosen portraits. Enjoy the day!

Anonymous said...

Once again a contrarian view of photography that is exactly correct. Well thought and well written. Thanks.

tnargs said...

But if the python was plastic and positionable, Avedon may have only needed one frame. ;-)

Peter Dove said...

Like others have pointed out, landscape (and other genres) still require plenty of waiting, watching, listening, even talking of a sort, letting the scene (spooked or unseen wild critters) settle down while I do too. I hardly ever do people portraiture, but I think of any really deliberate photo as a portrait of sorts. I’ve told other photographers to treat everything as a portrait, and seen the lightbulbs go off as the idea hits them. Sure enough, their non-portrait work starts improving.

JC said...

Great post. Anytime you're writing about portraits, I'm there reading it. IMHO, it's the highest form of photography.

I've written more than 50 thriller novels during my career, and I've sat for perhaps a dozen different photographers (mostly in NYC) for back-cover portraits. They all worked very differently, some in studios, some working outdoors with natural light. But that thing you mention about rapport -- I was once working with a guy who must have taken two hundred shots in three or four different locations. I'd gotten pretty tired (we were outdoors in NYC in the summer and it was hot) and he said something like, "Okay...I'd like..." and I felt myself make a little (very small) grimace. Looking through his camera viewfinder he instantly picked it up and said, "You know what? We're done." I was also photographed by the very well-known David Burnett in Santa Fe and he took quite a few more-or-less set up shots that he'd scouted before the shoot, and that wound up as back-cover portraits. But as we were moving around during the shoot, he took two off-hand, non-back-cover photographs of me that turned out to be the best shots that anyone has taken of me in my entire life, and I've spent quite a bit of time hanging out with photographers. His ability to do that was also a bit depressing for someone who shoots a fair bit; I look at those shots and think, "What the hell? How did he do that?" I suspect the answer is, "talent," with, of course, a lot of work, if those two things are not the same.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

And you could never have written the second book without writing the first book. And what you learned writing the second book led to the third book... never the same twice I bet.

Nigel H said...

Lovely and insightful post, thanks.
What shines out from your description is the desire and need to capture THE moment or THE shot....and that applies to all genres. And it means we need to take lots of photos to get that one or two we love.
I can think of two situations where I've needed to limit to a greater or lesser extent the number of photos I've taken: when I was an 11 year old with a Brownie Box camera (6 shots per film) and my pocket money struggled to keep up with processing costs(!) and going on longer photo trips when I had to limit myself to about 60 rolls of film.
If I start with the premise that with digital cameras there are few physical barriers to the amount of memory I can carry, I think that if I artificially limited myself to a number of shots, that could be my preoccupation. So, that intuitive process of getting a feel for the setting would be disrupted and the photos poorer. Interestingly, the architectural photographer on which the TOP article was based would I think disagree with that! And that's ok!
I'm not saying that there aren't any constraints or limiting factors on our photography for example lighting, weather, access etc some of which we control and some we definitely don't!
Final thought: if I were to use a prime lens / fixed focal length camera, would some people argue that is simply limiting my photography in another way? (I wouldn't by the way.)

TMJ said...

Communicating with people, whether it's taking their portraits, or operating on them ((i.e. surgical intervention), it's the same process. Trust.

Gordon Lewis said...

Thank you for the insightful counterpoint to MJ's post. My personal take on this is that the world at large will judge a photographer not by how many or how few tries it took to get the final result, but rather the final result itself. As long as the final image excels for whatever purpose it was intended, then why get too caught up in the time and effort it took? The real trick is to know for sure when you've got the shot, whether it took 6 frames or 60.