Creative Portrait Photography: Be Inspired
Child portrait photography is so incredibly popular today, and we can probably give credit to Australian-born photographer Anne Geddes for giving spark to this phenomenon. Now living in New Zealand, Geddes has sold more than eighteen million books and thirteen million calendars (according to Amazon), and has been published in eighty-three countries. Wow! Down in the Garden, her debut book, made it to the New York Times Bestseller List.
Anne Geddes broke with the traditions of child photography in her day—which typically displayed children stiffly dressed in their “Sunday best”—wanting to offer instead, creative images that captured the unique personality of the children photographed. A self-confessed “baby freak,” convinced that “emotional content is an image’s most important element,” Geddes revolutionised children’s photography.
Below you’ll find my thoughts on creative portrait photography interspersed with many inspirational photography quotes. Grab a cup of coffee and read it through or use the quicklinks below to jump around the content as suits.
The Goal of Portrait Photography
While it is important for every photographer to discover, develop and deploy their own unique photographic style, creative photography that draws out a child’s uniqueness is surely Geddes’ lasting legacy—the raison d’être of child portrait photography. Whether one prefers novelty or simplicity, black-and-white or colour images, or studio-lighting or natural-lighting, creativity for the sake of creativity is not the end-goal. Photographic images that capture the child’s unique character and spirit are. Props are merely tools towards this lofty aim.
Scouring the internet and craft markets for original and envogue props is vital to stimulate a photographer’s creativity. A new hat or bonnet or blanket or posing pod can trigger an entire new collage of images bursting with creative expression. And fortunately, there are so many good vendors dedicated to providing the best props for child portrait photography. Constantly remind yourself, however, that creativity is in itself not the end-game. Use any and all tools necessary, but seek to capture the unique beauty of the child you’re photographing. That’s the point, the goal in my opinion. Capturing the uniqueness of your subject. And that requires creative skill and energy.
Even the very word “photography” hints at this.
You see, photography entered our world with the invention of the camera and the experimentation with permanent images starting in 1790 with the likes of Thomas Wedgwood (son of Josiah Wedgwood, the famous English potter) concluding with the efforts of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (a French inventor) in 1826. It was more than a decade later though, in 1839, that Sir John Herschel coined the word “photography” borrowing on Greek words meaning, “light” and “to draw”—together meaning, “drawing with light.” I find this phrase fascinating. Photographers are artists in a very real sense.
While there is a marvellous science to photography (camera technology and image development), the joie de vivre of portrait photography lies in the artistry, “drawing with light.” Just as an artist creates something on a blank canvas with a paint brush or on sketch pad with a pencil, so photographers create something out of a moment in time. Yes, anybody can “point and shoot,” but a photographer’s artistic skill—her eye for detail, her understanding of light, her use of both camera and props, her feel for the moment, etc.—turns an ordinary moment into a magical memory. As Karl Lagerfeld said, “What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.”
What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.” (Karl Lagerfeld)
Portrait Photography ~ Art or Graft?
Abraham Lincoln once humorously claimed, “There are no bad pictures; that’s just how your face looks sometimes”. While he may have a point, there is a world of difference between good images and great images. The difference lies in the artistic capacity of the photographer. Drawing with light is both a gift and a skill. No amount of graft can make up for a lack of art.
For many, taking photographs is merely a fun way to capture moments, memories shared with friends (and the entire world) via social media: Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, Google+ and the like. And that’s great. Point, shoot. Go wild! Just make sure you print and “albumise” the photos you want to preserve.
For others, photography is a hobby, an artistic expression, or a leisure-time escape. Still, for others, it’s a vocation, a calling: art coupled with graft crafted into a profession. In both cases, investing in personal coaching is a great way to get the most out of the adventure.
For others still, photography is an obsession.
Photography & Obsession
In my research for blog articles this year, I stumbled onto some really obsessive photographers. Here are a few quotes that got me scratching my head.
American photographer and writer Diane Arbus said, “A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.” Novelist Kim Edwards, writer of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, seemed to agree: “Photography is all about secrets. The secrets we all have and will never tell.” I think I get what they’re poking at, although Arbus specialised in capturing deviant or marginalised people on camera, and possibly found what she was looking for.
Fashion and portrait photographer, Richard Avedon—a man attributed by The New York Times with defining America’s image of style, beauty and culture—also waxed lyrical: “A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” To be honest, I don’t have a clue what his last three sentences mean, at least in my understanding of what truth and accuracy mean. Maybe I’m not obsessed with photography enough 😉
Ansel Adams shed some light when he said, “A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into.” Now that’s a pithy statement that makes sense to me. In my opinion, a photograph captures a moment in time that can speak volumes if you’re prepared to look into it.
A photograph is usually looked at—seldom looked into.” (Ansel Adams)
The Gains of Digital Photography
As a photographer, can you even imagine a world without the many gains of digital photography? For many, it would be a sentence to the dark ages. (Or at least, the dark room.)
Steven Sasson, an engineer at Eastman Kodak, attempted the first digital camera in 1975. Weighing in at 3.6 kilograms with a resolution of 0.01 megapixels, the camera took 23 seconds to capture its first image. It was a monster … an ugly monster. However, as the saying goes: you have to start somewhere.
The first digital camera commercially available came out in 1990, the Dycam Model 1 (also called the Logitech Fotoman). Since then, digital photography has taken the world by storm, and the popular choice by most professional photographers.
While the debate of film versus digital photography continues unabated in the photography world, in terms of convenience, flexibility, and film speed, there really is only one winner. And with digital editing software, photographers are now truly in control of their final image. This, however, brings up one of the negatives related to digital photography, and more specifically, the digital post-processing arena. The attitude of “shoot now, fix later” pervades the photography industry, and can create a lazy approach that undermines the art and craft of true photography. While Photoshop, for example, is a fantastic tool to improve a photographer’s work; Photoshop itself cannot make one a good photographer.
In The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson said: “To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.” While a digital camera can vastly aid the artist’s goal, digital editing software cannot create art.
To photograph is to hold one’s breath, when all faculties converge to capture fleeting reality. It’s at that precise moment that mastering an image becomes a great physical and intellectual joy.” (Henri Cartier-Bresson)
Lessons from a Landscape Photographer
As a portrait photographer myself, I found a heap of wisdom from a landscape photographer. The late, multi-award winning landscape photographer Ansel Adams (February 20, 1902 – April 22, 1984) offers much advice to all photographers irrespective of one’s photographic bent. Here, through some of his pithy comments, is a world of wisdom.
“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
While photography is a beneficiary of science and technology, it is more art than formula. And like all art forms, while a doctorate in related theory has its benefits, nothing can compensate for a lack of artistic skill and flair.
“A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.”
Photography is fuelled by passion and conviction. From the portrait photographer to the landscape photographer, photography is not a matter of indifference.
“To the complaint, ‘There are no people in these photographs,’ I respond, ‘There are always two people: the photographer and the viewer.’”
As a portrait photographer, one won’t field a question like this, but the comment reminds both portrait and landscape photographers of a critical matter. The object of the photograph is just one consideration. You, as the person behind the lens, have immense bearing on the photograph, and your work can make a telling impression on those who view it.
“You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
This comment speaks to the issue raised in the previous one. Just like a paint brush doesn’t create a painting, a camera by itself is just a camera. In the hand of an artist, both a paint brush and a camera come alive.
“Sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.”
I can imagine Ansel Adams coining this thought staring at the golden sun rising over the Yosemite National Park just before he captures some of his world famous scenes. And it would be easy to feel something of the divine surrounded by the wonder and beauty of nature. A reward exclusive to landscape photographers only? Is there not something divine in capturing the wonder and beauty of a newborn child, or the unique personality of child, or the magical day of wedded bliss? Sure there is. Though different in their own ways, inspiration abounds if one has the eyes to see.
Divergent Photography Perspectives
As mentioned, photography is a profession to some, and a hobby to others. To some, it is a plague to avoid—mostly by those who’ve had a bad hair day (or year), and the thought of saying cheese and cranking up a smile, knowing that their mug shot might be immortalised (perhaps on Facebook!), is just too much. Needless to say, there exists a gamut of contrasting photography perspectives.
In my research on the subject of photography perspectives, I came across a few quotes of people who, from their comments, see the dark side of photography.
Kate Morton, author of The House At Riverton, wrote, “It is a cruel, ironical art, photography. The dragging of captured moments into the future; moments that should have been allowed to be evaporate into the past; should exist only in memories, glimpsed through the fog of events that came after. Photographs force us to see people before their future weighed them down…” While her assessment is spot on, in my opinion, it’s only a “cruel, ironical art” if one’s future does indeed weigh one down. In contrast, photography can be a “kind, inspiring art” offering a connection between the past and the future, rousing fledging dreams and strengthening present resolve.
In her 1977 collection of essays, On Photography, both confrontational and controversial, Susan Sontag left little to the imagination: “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” The context for such an ostensibly warped photography perspective?
She courageously tackled the role of photography in capitalist societies of the tumultuous 1970s. Her basic premise, as I understand it, was that the person who records a moment (via, among other things, photography) cannot intervene, and the person who intercedes in the moment cannot record it with integrity faced, of course, with a conflict of interest. So yes, she wasn’t speaking about newborn photography. 😉
Perhaps the final photography perspective should go to a true photography genius, Ansel Adams, who said: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” (I suppose the same could be said of a fuzzy image of a sharp concept.)
The camera is like so many things in life: it’s neither inherently good nor bad. Who uses it, and why they use it, and how they use it?—these are the questions that determine the morality of the outcome. And the outcomes will continue to foster divergent photography perspectives.
There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” (Ansel Adams)
Great Photographs vs. Good Photographs
In this age of digital photography, it’s easy to point, shoot and go wild, sifting out the good from the terrible later. George Bernard Shaw humorously alluded to this when he quipped, “A photographer is like a cod, which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity.” Of course, with editing software available, you can then doctor that one image in a host of different ways. My daughters do this kind of thing, and derive tons of delirious delight from the process. And occasionally, they strike gold. However, if you’re after great photographs versus good photographs, a little more attention is necessary.
To return to Ansel Adams again, he said: “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” There’s a difference between being snap happy and being happy with what you snap. Great photographs versus good photographs require concentration, creativity and commitment. Thinking through the set-up pre-shoot, drawing from your experience while improvising during the shoot, and selective editing post-shoot are all vital ingredients for a great photograph.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that a great photograph requires a solemn face and clinical loss of humour. French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson—considered by many to be the father of modern photojournalism—said it best when he said, “For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.” Intuition and spontaneity. This union is crucial for great photographs versus good photographs.
Consider the image to the right: Jenna among the tulips. The photograph didn’t just happen, nor was it left to chance. On an outing to the Tulip Festival, a little intuition and spontaneity—and in this case, a very willing model—resulted in a timeless memory.
Sometimes great images just happen. We just get lucky. However, to take great images consistently, thought, planning and flexibility are required.
For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.” (Henri Cartier-Bresson)
Well, that’s it from me. For now 😀
I hope you found a little inspiration from all that. Here’s wishing you a fantastic 2018 and may you capture many unforgettable memories.
For over a decade now, Lorna Kirkby has enjoyed the thrill of capturing special of moments for her clients. She specialises in memorable baby, maternity and newborn photography, and it would be her absolute pleasure to serve you.