Portrait Photography and Digital Retouching
Updated: Mar 16
I am a person who is too complex to describe in just a few sentences. I’m fine with that. Every time I try to make myself more understandable, or even palatable, I fail big time. But I also realized that I don’t have to wear my every attribute on my sleeve. I am a lot of contrasting things that you can’t assume from just meeting me. So, to me, it’s important to tell stories and “drain” that excess energy from parts of me that feel like they haven’t gotten any attention. I don’t know if that is a good way to make art or practice my craft, but that’s how I do it.
Since August I’ve taken up portraiture. The truth is, I just wanted to be technically good so I could get a job and prove to the a-holes who said I didn’t have what it takes that I, in fact, do. Sure, I wanted to be an artist. THAT would be a feat, if as a beginner I could just come out with works that are renowned right from the start, the kind of artist museum curators speak about with such fawning and awe. But mostly, I wanted other professionals to look at my work and say “she’s got good technique.” I just wanted good enough. I wanted to follow the rules, show that I’m competent, and get it done. After you get the basics down, you can move on.
Then I got into it, and more and more of my friends or people I met on photography/modeling pages in front of the camera, and realized how scary it is to take someone’s photo. We all do it with our mobile phones all the time, but to take someone’s portrait with a professional camera increases the expectations. If the timing is wrong, you can get camera shake, and thus a shaky image. If the shadows or lighting are too uneven or harsh, they aren’t evenly lit in a way that is flattering. How close or how far you stand, how much above or below eye level, and what lens you use all can change how you make your friend look. If I’m shooting a model in Miami who wants to show off her ass, I’d go with a 35mm lens to start, and then find that spot in my height to get enough distortion to make that one body part look bigger, which is generally below eye level. Handy one to know down here.
The problem with analogue is that you can’t take a million photos like you can with digital. I had to learn composition skills, otherwise I was throwing away pictures. And if someone is relying on me to deliver photos, then I can’t risk shooting a whole roll of film and them not getting anything because of my lack of knowledge. You can do that in digital. There are plenty of videos online to learn from, and they’re dense. It’s not someone yapping on and on about their memories just to fill time.
I recently began studying retouching. It’s very soothing and alluring. I find myself wanting to go into Photoshop because I’ve got this nagging feeling about how to fix a shadow. But I’m not good at it yet. My file sizes are massive, and I have no idea how to make a 16-bit final without it being less than 70 MB. I know file size is important and too many people from videography have drilled into me that knowledge about tech specs is vital, so I’m going to work on that. I’m overwhelmed, but happy about it.
One of my goals, my priority in fact, is to have an answer for when people ask me “how do I pose?” I also get asked a lot about hands. I’ve worked with and seen videos by portrait photographers who say that building a connection with a person almost always yields a better photo. Truly, I can see it in the eyes of people I’ve shot that I know really well and who I end up having a long conversation with during the shoot. They’re relaxed, calm, and their eyes are even sparkling. When we feel comfortable with others, we open up to them.
So as I grow and develop more technique, that initial impetus to “just get good enough” has shifted to creating a genuine connection, and producing a photograph where you can tell the subject was connected to me and confident in what I was doing. That allows them to tell their story, whatever it is, through their eyes. If they’re preoccupied with the person behind the camera or feel awkward in any way, the shoot is already over. But when people live freely in their own skin, it’s hard not to capture a good photo and maybe even some of their essence.
I don’t intend to try to shoot a whole person. If you’re complex then one photo cannot ever describe you. As I improve my technique I hope to help people tell their stories better, and show slices of themselves, through the art of photography. Recently I’ve been repeating the phrase “be you,” and I mean it. I went through some crappy years and I learned that you have to exercise your power to not get lost in the crowd by fitting in. When you’re having your portrait taken, you should be boasting and announcing who you are. So to my future clients, I hope that I can help you shout through a still image who you are.