The Process Of Portraiture

by William Lulow

I write quite a bit about lighting and how to get the most from your lighting setups when it comes to doing portraits. But, there is really no substitute for the ability to elicit that certain something special from your subjects. It can be done in so many different ways and that’s why there are so many styles of portraiture in the marketplace. I’ve said before that many photographers have photographed the same people yet every portrait looks different. That’s because each photographer has his or her own unique style. The photographer really needs to concentrate on developing an approach so that his or her portraits begin to take on that certain style! Some people like white backgrounds. Some like to do all their portraits on location. Some prefer photojournalistic portraits, whereas others just love the simplicity of the studio. It really doesn’t matter as long as the images show that special connection that the photographer has with a subject.

(Interestingly enough, the famous portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz says that you really don’t need to show a subject smiling or in a particularly good pose. That’s all well and good if you’ve already achieved a bit of notoriety as a portraitist. But, I’m talking about the more down-to-earth photographic portrait photographers who are working for clients who will be exhibiting their portraits on their own walls, perhaps. Or using your images on their websites or brochures! As I have often said, if you’re shooting for a magazine art director, she’s the one you need to please. If you’re shooting directly for a paying customer, he’s the judge of your efforts!)

You can often see this in a person’s eyes. There is definitely something special about the eyes. You can register a smile, but if there’s no emotion in the eyes, it won’t look real. I often can tell just when I’ve connected with my subject. And, I can remember having this feeling when I was shooting film. The digital process let’s you check immediately whether you’ve connected or not. But, that feeling still exists even if you can’t check it right away. When I know that I’ve captured a communicative expression, I often continue shooting anyway. I don’t stop there. Sometimes I fire off several frames at a time to see if I can capture the expression, the gleam in the eyes, more than once. When I was shooting with my 4×5 or 8×10 view cameras, I could only expose one frame at a time. Even then, I knew when I had the expression I was after:

This portrait was done with my old view camera. I knew I had the image I wanted but I kept exposing sheet after sheet anyway. I think I probably shot about 20-30 frames of Mr. Levin.

For my portrait of Diana Vreeland it was the same thing. I think I had barely enough time to expose a dozen sheets of film. This was one!

Photographers often don’t like being photographed themselves. Here is a “grab” shot of famed photographer Richard Avedon I made at a book-signing event. His expression is almost haunting.

And, a recent portrait of my granddaughter, Haylie. Look at how she’s looking at me! She has that “glow” in her eyes, even though she doesn’t know what it is, she still feels it and the viewer can tell! This is what I’m always looking for in my portraits. It’s the connection between me, as the photographer, and my subjects almost independent from the camera being there. I’ve often thought that it would be great to just be able to blink your eyes and record that special moment. Digital imagery is really the next best thing. Although, most times, as I said, I can just feel it when I’ve captured the connection!