Given that this is the last article I will be writing for Pro Photo Resource I wanted to use the experience of looking at these photos to reiterate and put a final stamp on what I hope are the main points I have written about over these few years.
What we do as portrait photographers, once eroded by time, has nothing to do with the photographer at all (that is if the products we are selling to clients stand up to the test of time, more on this later). I can only hope that someday someone's great, great grandchild will be able to sit in his or her living room and gaze at a photograph of a relative that I photographed fifty or a hundred years prior. And at that point will they care who took it? Probably not, because like I said, it's not about me.
It's not about any of us.
I have to clarify that this is not coming from a jaded photographer that's been in the business for an uncountable number of years and has been beaten down by the digital revolution. This is from a relatively young photographer just finally opening his first studio. I have spent a lot of time at WPPI and other workshops across the country both as an instructor and a participant and I notice there is a strange "rock star" mentality that exists within the photography industry. It leads to a belief that the photographer is the center of the show and feeds a idea that people choose a specific studio for some materialistic reason.
That grandiose attitude is a detriment to the task at hand because it puts more emphasis on the process than it does on the final product. People go to a studio because they see images that make them feel confident that a photographer can capture beautiful images of their loved ones. It is not clothes you wear, gear you have or how many times you have been published in some photography trade publication. The only people that care about that are other self-indulgent photographers.
I say this now with a straight face... get over yourself.
This beautiful image is simple but also timeless.
Now that that is out of the way lets get back to the archival qualities of the products we produce for a moment. I want to touch on something that I think is lost in today's photography business. That is the client/photographer relationship. More importantly the process of consulting clients on how to care for their photographs and selling them products that we know will stand up over time. Having the slogan "Capturing the moments that last a lifetime" or something to that regard means nothing if you don't hold up your end of the bargain. Actually making what we know about photography part of what we sell and not try to keep it from them like some mystical secret is the first step in that. I want my clients to take photographs of their children. Good photographs, butI also want them to feel the confident that when they bring their children and family in for those big occasions they know I will treat whatever the moment is with care and I will do everything in my power to ensure that their photographs will actually last a lifetime. I won't just push them out the door with a CD.
I am going to say this right up front that image CDs as the only product from a photography session are not only detrimental to our business structure but they are unfair to our clients. They are unfair because the photographer should be the one with the knowledge to help a client protect the photographic investment they have made and to share that knowledge with them. I strongly feel that if the person that had photographed my grandmother had simply handed her mother the negatives from the session, and shuffled them out the door, I would not be looking at these photographs right now.
Help your clients realize photography is about time.
This is a photo of my grandmother at around 1 or 2 years old. I love this pose and the simplicity of the image.
One of the funniest things is that most of these old photographs that I am "oohing" and "ahhing" over were shot with some of the simplest lighting you could imagine. Slightly modified natural light. Yeah that's right, the same stuff all of our expensive gear is trying to mimic. These photographers were able to make these unbelievably beautiful photographs without electric light or plastic gadgets.
Being a great photographer has nothing to do with what you have.
Unplugged. Natural light and scrims are all that make up this studio from the 1800's lighting.
One simple defused light source that wraps from the ceiling and down the wall.
Learning about lighting is key to being a photographer. Even though this 1800s studio is simple in design those who used it had to know how to position their subjects face into this simple light source to get the most flattering image. Plus there would be many different ways to work with this one light source if the proper techniques were known. Do yourself a favor and learn your lighting. Many people call themselves "natural light" photographers when in reality they are just too lazy to learn the basics or too non-committed to being a photographer that they refuse to invest in even the most modest equipment.
This image made with one large light source reminds us to keep it simple and to not be scared of shadows.
Learn your lighting but don't get caught up in trying to recreate the wheel. No amount of lighting knowledge or gadgets will eliminate the need to interact with the person you are photographing nor will they make it easier to bring out their character and capture it. Don't become stifled by the process to the point where you can't see the forest through the trees.
Simplify your lighting because, chances are, no matter how hard you try nothing that you will come up with will be new in any way. Even the lighting concepts we naively describe as being "modern", in theory, are as simple and as old as portrait photography it self. When I was going through the photographs from my grandmother I started looking at the lighting trying to draw parallels to the way I light my photographs. It was obvious after a moment that the photos were lit in very similar ways.
Limit yourself to one or two lights and some reflectors for a month and feel the pressure lift off of your back.
High School Seniors separated by 100 years. These two photos were essentially lit identically.
I was really shocked when I started to see just how similar these two images are, right down to their expressions.
Another example of a beautiful one light set up.
So to wrap up I think the most important thing that I realized while looking at these images was the simplicity of what portrait photographers do and how non-simply they approach it. Treat your client the way you would want to be treated and approach your work with intent and purpose. It is so easy to overcomplicate what you do and to get caught up in the "flavor of the month" lighting and studio techniques but if you keep it simple and focus on the person you are photographing and not how cool you are and how cool other photographers perceive you to be your work will be much more fulfilling for those on both sides of the camera.
I wish you all of the success in the world.
Take beautiful photographs, fulfill the promise to your clients of "lasting memories", and I repeat it one more time... get over yourself.
© Wes Kroninger