Why Portrait Photography Is My Passion

To say that I love portrait photography sounds cliche to me. To say that one “loves” anything almost has no meaning any more because the word “love” is so over used. It’s so over used that it doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean… at least to me it doesn’t. The word has become so watered down and it’s a shame because now I have to find a new way to describe how I feel about my passion. 

So, I’m going to say it this way. Portrait photography is what drives me. It’s what gets me excited and even anxious to get behind my camera and begin capturing slivers of time in someone’s life. I almost hate to admit this but before I have a photo session and I’m getting everything ready, I feel as though I’m getting ready for a really special date with a woman I can’t wait to spend time with. Now, I think that describes how I feel a lot better than just saying that I “love” portrait photography. My soul gets giddy. 

This affair I’m having has intensified for me in just the last several months, like a lover’s body you really start to get to know, the passion gets more intense. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Comparing what I do with having a passionate affair, but I think that translates better than just saying, “I love portrait photography”. 

I don’t like all portrait photography, just the kind that’s honest, the kind that lets you see behind the facade that people put up. The kind that allows you to see who a person really is, inside. You know it when you see it because you can’t look away. Its honesty is like a magnet. It’s an image that captures you… and you willingly surrender to it.

Portraits, unlike headshots, aren’t trying to sell you anything. They are a statement — a declaration of who someone is in that moment. An image that makes no excuses for itself. The best portraits take no prisoners and hold nothing back. They are reflections of the truth. 

I’m a truth seeker in life. I only want to know the truth and portraits give that to me and it energizes me in some spiritual way. I don’t always capture it. Some people aren’t in touch with their own truth, but sometimes they let their guard down when I’m clicking away. It’s not until I start going through the images when one of them stops me… dead in my tracks, and there it is. My shutter managed to slip through the cracks and capture a fleeting glimpse of someone’s truth.

An interesting thing is happening with my photography. The more honest I get with my craft and art, and the more laser focused I become in trying to purify the intent of what I want to capture with my camera — the more attention I seem to be getting. It’s a vibrational alignment kind of thing… if you’re into that. 

Confessions of a Portrait Photographer

I recently came to the realization that I’m not a headshot photographer… I’m a portrait photographer, at heart. That was huge for me because I was a portrait photographer who was trying to be a headshot photographer. Things were out of alignment, but now that I know that, I’ve actually become a better headshot photographer and a better portrait photographer. 

It’s funny how the truth has a way of making you honest and also bringing out the best in you… even if at times the process is a bit painful.

The Voice Inside 

It all comes down to listening to yourself, that soft voice in a quiet corner of your mind that gently whispers to you. A lot of times it gets drowned out by all the noise from the outside world and all the noise from inside your head. One has to take the time to be alone with oneself and just listen… to that subtle voice that’s trying to tell you something. It knows you better than you know you.

In starting my photography business I wanted to make money and have it be successful and profitable, and all those wonderful things, but it was struggling. I was out of alignment with what I was supposed to be doing and who I was supposed to be doing it with. It was tricky because headshots and portraits are similar… but there are differences. (To read more about these differences you can refer to an article I wrote called, “What’s The Difference Between a Portrait and a Headshot”.)

My Fortunate Accident

I actually stumbled upon the realization that I was a portrait photographer by accident. I had a new client who wanted to be photographed against a plain gray wall and at the time, I was shooting in a cinematic style, outside, with a shallow depth of field (check out Dylan Patrick’s work for more info on that). I obliged to adjust my style because they were, after all, a paying client and I wanted the business. 

We did the shoot (I happened to have a gray wall in my apartment) and afterwards, like literally for weeks and weeks and months and months afterwards, I kept going back and looking up those images. There was something about them that kept luring me in like a mythical siren.  

I realize now what that was. Those images were more like portraits than headshots. I was being seduced and didn’t even know it. Something inside me was changing, something beyond my control and it was scary because even though I didn’t want to admit it at the time, I knew eventually that someday this was where I was going to end up and it would require me to change everything about the way I photographed people and my business would have to be turned upside down. 

That was something I didn’t want to face, but it became such a strong and seductive pull that I eventually and inevitably gave in to it. I surrendered to the truth, and it was that little voice inside that kept saying to me that this was where I wanted to be.

Change can be scary, but if it’s that voice inside that’s directing you, trust that in the end, it will be the right choice. 

I "Love" Portraits

After I finally admitted to myself that I “love” portraits (I think you know what I mean now when I use that word), I noticed a shift within myself… kind of like a final adjustment had been made. Things were good before, I was shooting people and faces and headshots, but something was off that I could not put my finger on. 

The crazy part about all this is that now I feel free to develop a headshot style that’s different and independent from my portrait work. The two were co-mingling and overlapping and muddying up the waters. I see my work through a corrected pair of lenses and my vision is now clear.

I’m in the process of developing a headshot style that’s free from the trappings of my portrait work. It will be its own thing, separate and unique.

What’s that saying? The truth shall set you free? 

How To Take Your Commercial Headshot To The Next Level

For me, there are two levels of commercial headshots. One is the standard smiling shot, while the other is all about character, personality, and energy… and thinking outside the box. 

Before I dive into this topic, I want to first talk about the standard commercial headshot that most actors get. The standard commercial headshot that most actors get (heck, all actors get) is the smiling shot — the cheery, uplifting, light-hearted smiling shot… and yes, every actor should have one of these.

However, there’s another level we can go to with the commercial headshot — a level that brings with it more personality and more energy and thus, more impact. Now, since we’ve already established that every actor has the required smiling shot, then there’s an opportunity here for you to stand out when submitting for that next commercial audition. 

This next level combines a more defined character and then matching that character with its appropriate energy (i.e. expression, pose). 

I’m going to illustrate what exactly this is with an example. 

In talking with my client, Wesley, over the phone a few days before our shoot I learned that he liked to wear bow ties.

I said, “Bring the bow ties!”

Upon meeting him in person I discovered he had a mischievous playful personality. 

It was during the process of getting a standard smiling shot, that I thought of the idea of having him photobomb his own shoot. I’m always looking for new ways to do things stylistically so I told him the idea and he liked it. And with his bow tie, it just all fit together to create a more unique and memorable commercial image. 

In comparing both shots, it’s clear to me which one shows more personality, is more interesting, and delivers more emotional impact.

Now, this kind of shot is like the icing on the cake because it requires knowing the personality of your client and then both of you agreeing to play and experiment and have fun and try different things. I believe it’s most effective when you can recognize and capture a truly genuine part of your client’s personality that shows a lighter and more playful side. 

This technique works well with actors who are also stand-up comedians who want more of a publicity shot. Having them do something or pose in an unconventional manner that’s organic to a part of who they are can really add a lot of interest to the image. 

So, the next time you’re preparing to get new commercial headshots, try and think of a look, an expression, a pose, an attitude, that expresses a side of you that is still light and commercial, yet outside the box of your standard smiling headshot. It may just be the ticket to your next commercial booking. 

What's The Difference Between A Headshot And A Portrait?

What is a headshot and what is a portrait?

A headshot is an image of an aspiring actor or spokesperson, usually from the collarbone up, that is used as a marketing tool to sell their type to a casting director, agent, or manager. It’s a solicitation for acceptance, meaning, it asks the question, “Am I what you’re looking for?”

A portrait is an image of a person, from up close to full body, that captures who someone is in that moment in time. It isn’t selling anything. It’s a statement that says, “This is who I am, right here, right now.”

A headshot with regard to actors is used as a marketing tool to get work or representation.

A portrait is used to illustrate who someone is, like in a magazine, book, or as a work of art to be displayed.

That being said, many people refer to any image of someone’s head and face as a headshot. Are they wrong? No, that’s just part of the nomenclature.

Is there a gray area with headshots and portraits?

Is there ever an overlap between headshots and portraits — a sort of no-man’s land where one isn’t quite sure if it’s a headshot or a portrait?

Sure, some headshots can share certain characteristics of portraits, and some portraits can share certain characteristics of headshots but I believe that’s more the exception than the rule. 

Differences in lighting

Headshots in general are bright and more evenly lit with either natural light or studio flash. There are not a lot of harsh shadows or bright highlights that contrast with one another.

Portraits, on the other hand, can be evenly lit as well, but they can and often do include more shadows and highlights to achieve a more dramatic look.

There are fewer conventional constraints with portraits, allowing one to be more creative with the lighting. Not that one is better than the other, just different, because of their different uses. 

Differences in framing

Headshots typically don’t show a lot of the surroundings in which the subject is in, and any background that is seen is often out of focus on purpose, so the image draws your attention to the subject. 

Portraits may or may not feature the surroundings, it just depends on how wide the shot is.

There is in fact something called an “environmental portrait” that is used in corporate and editorial photography quite a bit. Its purpose is to include the surroundings to add a setting to the image. When that’s done, the surroundings are typically in focus as well, or slightly out of focus but not to the point that we can’t tell where we are. 

An environmental portrait of a greasy mechanic can be taken in his shop next to a car he’s working on, or a ballerina in her dressing room moments before she steps out on stage. Both include a recognizable setting and add to the story of the image. 

Which segues nicely into my next topic…

Portraits Have the Ability To Tell A Story

A portrait can more accurately tell the story of who someone is. For example, a 100 year-old African-American man sitting on the front porch of his home built in 1870 in New Orleans in the heat of an August summer gives you a lot more information than if you just took a “headshot” that only showed his head and face. 

With a headshot, there is no story because the intent of the image isn’t to tell a story, it’s to show what a person looks like.

Portraits can get crazy, headshots can get just a little crazy

There’s a lot more room for experimentation with portraits. You can have unconventional lighting, unconventional posing, crazy makeup or effects. 

Not so fast there buddy with your headshot. The most you’ll be able to get away with in the Crazy Department is with your commercial headshot. I’ve seen some unconventional framing and posing in that category that works really well, but anything beyond that and your agent will probably want to have a little talk with you. 

This style of pushing the envelope with a wacky pose or silly expression is a lot more popular with stand-up comedians and comedic actors than it is with the mainstream acting crowd. Still, if you want to stand out a little with your commercial headshot and grab a casting director’s attention, this might be something you want to experiment with. For more information about this refer to my article “How To Take Your Commercial Headshot To The Next Level”. 

Body Language

Since portraits can be shot wider to include more of one’s body, how the subject strikes a pose can contribute greatly to the attitude of the image.  

With headshots, since we’re up close and personal with one’s face, the expression is everything. We’re too close to even see any other part of the body, unless we’re in portrait orientation and we see more of the torso. But notice the term, “portrait orientation”. It’s borrowing an aesthetic from the conventions of the portrait world. 

Where is all this talk about the differences between headshots and portraits taking us? 

In knowing these conventions, and the unwritten rules of Hollywood, an actor can swim with the current or against it with their marketing. 

Most agents, managers, and casting directors want and like conventional mainstream headshots from actors. Some even only want portrait orientated headshots instead of landscape. 

That’s good information to know. So, every actor in town gets their headshots and they submit and some get noticed and called in for auditions, and some get agents and managers, and then some don’t get any attention at all.

The ones that don’t get any attention at all try again… this time with a different headshot photographer… and they submit all over again… and still get no attention.

Hmm… this doesn’t seem to be working.

This is when you need to try something new and perhaps different, and perhaps even swim against the current here.

Why not use a portrait as your headshot?

If anything it will stand out because it just looks and feels different than a headshot. It has a different mood, look, and vibe to it. 

Now I’m not trying to push one over the other because in my business I actually shoot both. I shoot mainstream headshots and then I have my moody and dramatic portrait work.

I’ve learned to appreciate both for what they are… and for what they can be used for by a smart marketer.  

Sometimes you have to take a risk in life and go against the grain. If main stream headshots are working for you, then great, stick with ‘em. If not, though, doesn’t it make sense to try a different tactic? 

Wouldn’t it make sense if you’re auditioning for an edgy independent film that you submit an edgy moody portrait instead of a more mainstream headshot? I personally don’t think it would hurt your chances one bit. In fact, you would probably stand out more from all the other “headshots” because you’re matching the tone and energy of the project. 

Now, if you’re submitting to a sitcom or a big network series, you probably want to go with the mainstream headshot. It tells the people in charge that you know what you’re doing because you have all the traits of a professional actor.

I guess my point here is that knowing the difference between a headshot and a portrait, and knowing how they can both work for you and against you takes your marketing to a level that few actors dare to even think about, let alone actually go to. 

You see, there’s actually very little competition at the top. Most of the competition is right smack dab in the middle, where people don’t have to work too hard — just hard enough to be in the game. 

Here’s an example of what I’m saying. How many actors in Hollywood are auditioning for roles their agent sends them out on? Quite a lot, right? Would you say 99%, something like that? Verses, how many actors are either writing and or producing their own script to make into an independent film? 1%? Less? I’m not talking about the ones who are talking about doing it, I’m talking about the ones who are actually doing it.

Did you know that Vin Diesel made his own short film that he starred in which led to Steven Spielberg casting him in Saving Private Ryan?

Look what Brie Larson did with Room.

Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs (he was originally going to play Mr. Pink, Steve Buscemi’s part, but then later chose a smaller role so he could concentrate on his directing).

My point here is that these actors took a gamble and did what the other 99% of their peers didn’t or wouldn’t do. 

We are no longer in the Information Age, we are in the Attention Age. 

These artists got people’s attention by doing something creatively atypical for actors. 

The purpose of your headshot is to grab the casting director’s attention so they can decide if they want you to audition or not.

If what you’re currently doing is not working then try something atypical for a change and see how much attention you get then.

What Exactly Is A Dramatic Portrait?

We often hear the term “dramatic portrait” used in describing a certain type of portrait photography but what exactly is a dramatic portrait?

In order to define what a dramatic portrait is, we must first define the word “drama” (seems only fitting). 

According to Merriam-Webster drama is:

“a state, situation, or series of events involving interesting or intense conflict of forces” 

It is these “intense conflict of forces” that is key to defining dramatic portraiture. They are the opposing forces of an image. 

To put it into a visual context it is light and shadow — two elements that are inextricably linked. In order to showcase light, one must also showcase darkness, and in order to showcase darkness, one must also showcase light. 

Shadows and light are certainly intense forces that are in conflict with one another, at least visually, and when applied to the human face in a photographic portrait is certainly one element of a dramatic portrait, but what exactly do these two elements represent?

Shadows and darkness represent what is hidden or unknown, and can take on a mysterious or dangerous tone.

Light and brightness represent what is revealed or known, and provides us with information we can understand and interpret.  

Putting the two together we experience an image on a dramatic level because on one hand it’s providing us with information on what it is we’re seeing, but it’s also hiding information from us in the shadows and that causes our minds to fill in the darkness with our imaginations. It’s a conflict between what we see and don’t see, between what is known and what is unknown — conflicting forces.

Now, the intensity of these conflicting forces can be dictated by the degree to which the shadows are dark and the light is bright. The higher degree of contrast between the two, the higher the drama, and the opposite is also true. An image that has a very gradual and smooth transition between the highlights and shadows won’t appear as dramatic because there is less intensity between the two opposing forces.

Expression in a Dramatic Portrait

Light and shadow certainly play a big role in a dramatic portrait, but expression is also a key element. 

Most expressions in dramatic portraits are what one would consider serious, or intense, or at the very least, neutral because those are the expressions we associate conflict with. When one is in conflict, we’re battling to get what we want and there’s rarely any levity in that. There’s intensity, angst, struggle, strife, a concentrated effort of energy. I personally don’t consider someone smiling to be a dramatic portrait. I consider it to be just a portrait. 

What Is the Tone of a Dramatic Portrait?

Another element that goes into a dramatic portrait is tone.

When one hears the word drama one thinks of conflict and opposing forces each trying to get what they want. That’s why we categorize movies and TV shows as either comedies or dramas -- two words that are on the opposite sides of the spectrum. 

The word dramatic does not lend itself to being light-hearted so anything that gives off that vibe is going to erode the drama in a portrait, or eliminate it altogether. That’s why I don’t consider anyone smiling or grinning in a light-hearted manner to be considered a dramatic portrait based on how the word drama is defined.

Where Does the Word Portrait Come From?

Since we provided a definition on the first half of our topic, we owe it to ourselves to define the second half as well.

Portrait.

Where does that word come from with regard to photography today?

It comes from the world of painters painting portraits of people, a craft that goes back many hundreds, if not, thousands of years. 

Since the original professional portrait painters were commissioned to paint royalty, significant leaders of the church, and wealthy nobles who could afford such a service, these painters painted their subjects showing them in a dignified and esteemed manner. They weren’t comical in nature, is what I’m getting at. There was a tone of seriousness to them.

Although I wouldn’t consider these portraits to be dramatic, because the goal was to capture what a person looked liked for posterity in an artistic way, they certainly had a gravity to them — and when I say “gravity” I mean, they conveyed a significant impact due in large part to the status of the subject in society that was being painted.

So, putting the definitions of drama and portrait together, along with the origins and history of those words, we arrive today with…

The dramatic portrait —  a photograph of a person whose composition includes elements of opposing forces (light and shadow) that delivers significant impact with a serious tone. 

At least that’s how I see it.  

How To Transcend the Traditional Dramatic Portrait Using Eclectic Contrast

A concept I was introduced to a number of years ago is something called the eclectic contrast

It’s basically two or more elements that appear together that normally don’t belong together -- and when done right, appear rather shocking or unsettling. It’s a variation on opposing forces and can create conflict in the logical mind. 

An example of this would be an image of a ballerina in an eloquent pose holding a large cleaver in one hand. Those two elements are not typically seen together so when viewed in the same image creates this disturbing conflict in one’s mind. You’re trying to figure out how the two go together because your mind is saying that logically they shouldn’t be together. 

This mental conflict can give an image drama if done right and that can add to a dramatic portrait along with lighting, expression, and tone. It’s not a typical dramatic portrait but it’s kind of like an extra ingredient you can throw in for added drama.

Another example of this, using the dramatic portrait, can be found by photographer Joel Grimes. He did a series on bikers, hard core Harley Davidson riders specifically. He took dramatic portraits of many individuals but there was one woman included in the series as well.

This woman presented an eclectic contrast to the norm because one wouldn’t normally associate a woman with the hard core lifestyle of Harley Davidson bikers.  

You’ll typically find this kind of creativity used when photographing actors for a magazine article and lends itself more to an editorial type of shoot. Someone like Robert Downey Jr. has used this in the past but I’ve seen it to some degree with other actors, musicians, and artists.

Dramatic Portraits With Regard To Headshots

When an actor gets a “dramatic headshot” taken for their marketing purposes, the photographer is borrowing elements from the world of dramatic portraiture. I won’t get into the details of the differences between headshots and portraits here, but for a full explanation of that topic you can refer to my article, “What’s The Difference Between A Portrait And A Headshot”.

So, What’s the Point?

Why all this research and effort to define what a dramatic portrait is? What’s the point of all this? To be honest, I didn’t see the point until I reached the end of my article and I started asking myself this question.

The point of all this is to help us recognize and achieve a certain level of genius and excellence. 

It is only through limitation that we as artists can achieve genius or excellence and by defining what something is, we’re providing ourselves with those limitations… a playground of sorts in which genius and excellence has a chance to be created.

An example of what I’m talking about is music. Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven only had twelve notes. That’s it. They were limited to twelve notes to compose all the various masterpieces they created. 

Another example is Michelangelo’s statue of David. There was this piece of marble that had been rejected previously by two other master sculptors due to too many imperfections and it laid untouched for 25 years. The imperfections were thought to be weaknesses in the stability of the marble itself — its limitations considered it to be unusable. 

Michelangelo, at the age of 26, carved what is considered to be the greatest piece of sculpture from that very block of marble, working with and around those very limitations. 

In Conclusion

If we can define what something is in great detail, it provides us with limitations of what it is, and also what it is not. It gives us our boundaries and defines our limits from which genius and excellence can arise and be recognized. 

Defining what a dramatic portrait is, and what it is not, gives us the boundaries in which to create stunning dramatic portraits which can then be justly classified as dramatic portraiture.