The “How To’s” Versus The “Why’s”

by William Lulow

I have spent quite a bit of time in these articles talking about certain techniques, showing examples of methods of portraiture that I have used and have worked well. “How to’s” are all well and good and they serve to educate people, but part of their problem is that they never really get at the “Why’s” of using a particular technique. So, today, I thought I would address some of the “Why’s” of portrait photography.

1) Why does really great portraiture usually take place in a studio?

I’m known as a studio photographer. Basically, that means that I prefer to photograph people in the controlled environment of the photographic studio. One of the reasons I do this is that the studio is the one place where I have complete control not only of the lighting and other equipment, but the “flow” of the session as well. This gives me a unique ability to be able to set up the image that I want to make and moreover, that my clients want as well. This is not to say that a good portrait cannot be made outdoors, but mother nature is notoriously difficult to control and can even be somewhat of a distraction at times. For instance, when you shoot outdoors, you always have to contend with a background. If you want your subject to stand out from it, it must be rendered much softer. This might limit you in your choice of apertures and/or shutter speeds. So, the studio is always a better choice for me.

2) Why do most people wind up looking directly at the camera?

Most of the portraits I make are used for a purpose. Lately, they have served as profile images for social media, but they have also been used on book jackets, magazine covers and advertisements. For these uses, it’s always more powerful to have the subject look directly at the camera. They are establishing a connection with their viewers that they want to be a powerful one. When someone is looking at you, you make a much stronger connection to that person.

3) Why is the process of getting a portrait done such a long one?

As I have indicated previously, making a great portrait involves much more than setting up a camera and ensuring that there is a good exposure. There are quite a few other factors involved. One is the photographer’s ability to interact with her subjects in order to elicit that one great expression that says what you want. It is a process of being able to see something in someone that works to make a strong image and to exploit it.

4) Most people know how to use a digital camera these days, why do I have to pay more for a great, professional portrait?

Part of the answer to this question lies in the process of making portraits itself. When I am doing a portrait, I immerse myself in the person for the entire time that she is in front of my camera. I’m not interested in talking about myself, I’m only interested in my subject. Sometimes I use stories about myself in order to elicit certain responses from my subjects. But, make no mistake, it is all about them! One reason that I am so successful at this is because I am well acquainted with many facets of human behavior as well as with all the necessary tools of my trade. The other important point is that I love what I do and it shows.