Tips from professional portrait photographers

© Paul Remmelts

As portrait photographer I learned quite a lot from photoshoot sessions where I was the subject, the model.

As a CS professor I was asked for quite a few nation- or university-wide roles: chairman of a board, figurehead of an ICT initiative, director or dean. Everytime there was an interview and an executive head-shoulders photoshoot with a professional photographer, each handling their subject in a different manner.

© Bart van Overbeeke

One time the journalist and the photographer were the same person. We met in a tiny restaurant near Central Station The Hague. After the interview he asked me to join him to the parking garage downstairs. The setup was one flash off-camera and a kind of white background behind me, just sufficient for a head-shoulder picture. In the magazine it looked perfect. Only the photographer and I knew the picture was taken while I was standing between parked cars. The lesson I learned was that you need very little to make good portrait pictures.

Another time I was attending a meeting in the Trippenhuis of the Royal Academy of Art and Sciences in Amsterdam. I was called away from this meeting and to my surprise there were two photographers, one just put me somewhere in a corner with an off-camera flash. He was done in 10 minutes. The other one told me that he never used flashes, so he was looking for a window with the right kind of light. At one point we had to wait 5 minutes for a cloud to cover the sun. As you can imagine, the pictures of the latter photographer were much better. The message I took away from this was: take your time to find the light that fits the ambience of the photoshoot.

© Paul Remmelts

Another photographer had made his setup in the staircase of the building where I chaired a board meeting. So, I thought business as usual. However, when he was about to take a picture he started to ask me difficult questions: for example, my favorite female scientist. By doing so, he distracted me and pulled me away from the whole photoshoot. This distraction turned my facial expression in a more relaxed one. During another photoshoot the same photographer asked me to take off my glasses. I did not like the pictures he took, apparently I was not used to see myself like that. Now, many years later I have contact lenses! It is important to make your model feel comfortable. Try to take pictures when they think you are done.

Some of the other photographers put a lot of emphasis on the background. On campus, the photographer and I stroll around a bit, outside looking at the architecture of the buildings, indoors looking at stairs, balconies, ceilings to find a  background that fits the message of the picture. If you want to be a portrait photographer, know what type of background you are looking for to take meaningful pictures.

© Harry Klunder

Please note, although I remember the stories about the photoshoots I do not have all the corresponding pictures and names of the photographers. So, the stories and the pictures are most of the time not related. 

This post was inspired by the Youtube video of Sean Tucker about the role of empathy in portrait photography.

What I like about Sean Tucker is that he is an excellent photographer and at the same time honest about his doubts.