I think when most people start off in photography, they tend to point their camera at simple everyday objects and that’s completely fine. Over time, some people become quite skilled at still life photography, landscape photography, wildlife photography, etc. For some, there comes a point when they consider the idea of pointing their camera at a person. Believe it or not, portrait photography can be very intimidating. For those of you out there that enjoy photography and have considered taking people pics but just haven’t, for a myriad of reasons, let me attempt to help you get past some common fears and stumbling blocks and hopefully get you engaged in the wonderful world of portrait photography! But I have to warn you, once you start, you’ll probably find it very addictive.
Finding models is easier than most people think. For more ideas on cultivating a list of go-to models, head over to my other blog which has some great ideas for finding models. In short, start off simple. Ask family members and close friends. The more practice you can get with those you are comfortable with, the more that will help build up your confidence to start photographing friends of friends and complete strangers. If you’re anything like me, after a while you’ll simply start asking strangers if they have any interest in modeling for you. If you do it long enough and get your work out there, people will start contacting you for portraits. I now have a decent sized list of individuals I bug from time to time for my ideas. Just work on getting your first model!
Some will, guaranteed! Or just plain ignore you. Don’t take this as a personal attack on you. Some people are so extremely nervous about being in front of a camera that the idea alone is enough for them to turn down any possibility of being photographed; even by a family member or friend. In fact, the more you get rejected, the less of a big deal it becomes. Simply move on and ask someone else. However, I think you’ll find most people are willing to be photographed. A little trick I found that works more often than not is to ask friends that tend to take and post a lot of selfies. If you’re lucky, you’ll find someone that loves being in front of the camera and is always willing to model for you. If you find someone like this, practice with them as much as you can. I was very fortunate to find a model that enjoyed modeling just as much as I liked photography and we did tons of ideas.
As an introvert, this was truly my biggest fear. When you first start asking people to model for you, there can be a sense of relief when they say ‘no’. You’re simply back at square one and at least you can say you tried. But what do you do when you get that first ‘yes’ or two? Now the balls in your court again and it all falls back on you. That’s okay! If you’re just starting out, let them know that. Let them know you want to get some simple pictures of them in the park or some other setting that you think might make for some decent images. Research images online and find some ideas that appeal to you then try and see if you can duplicate the look. Don’t start out with some grandiose idea that will take hours to setup and shoot. Maybe have the first session be fairly brief, 15 minutes or so, or more if they are willing. Start simple. In all honesty, I still get nervous before each and every portrait shoot regardless if I’ve worked with the model before or not. It’s that adrenaline rush that can make this hobby addictive. Add to that getting one or two amazing images, and you’ll probably be hooked for life!
No one is a pro the first go around. I look back now at some of my first portrait images and I cringe. The funny thing is, I thought a few of them were fairly decent back then. In all honesty, I still think the vast majority of my images are not good but that's okay. That's what keeps me picking up my camera. Like anything in life, practice makes perfect. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. If you’re expecting a stunning image that will go viral as soon as you post it, think again. Photography is a continuous learning process with no real ‘end goal’ – at least for me. Generally speaking, the image you take next should be better than the image you just took. Just keep shooting. Don’t get discouraged if the resulting images aren’t perfect but also don’t over criticize yourself either. We all tend to be our own worse critics so allow yourself some slack. You learn more from your failures than you do your successes. The images will get better over time as long as you continue to try, I guarantee! Nothing beats a failure but a try!
Then don’t! Simply have the model sit or stand and do whatever comes naturally to them. If you have researched some ideas that you like, have a copy of the image on your phone or printed out and simply show them. They will see how the person is posed and will attempt to duplicate that for you. If you want to get better at posing your models, there are several online tutorials that cover that very topic. I tend to pose my models very little with most of my shoots. For the shoots where I desire a lot of very specific poses, I will either show the model an example or simply take the time to talk them through my idea. Most models will want to make sure you are getting the images you want so if they’re not quite in the right pose, work with them until they are in the right pose. Posing models takes practice. If you are not working with a professional model, telling someone to turn just a bit to their left will usually result in them turning way too much to their left. That’s okay. Simple tell them ‘that was too much’ or ‘turn back just a bit’. Don’t start out trying to pose your model too much. Unless that’s the look you’re after, some images look over-posed and can take away from what would otherwise have been a great image. Simple natural poses are a great place to start. You will also find that if you shoot with the same individual repeatedly, they will tend to become more comfortable in front of the camera and will start posing on their own. Run with it! Just like you, the more they practice it, the better they become as well.
Nonsense! All you need is a camera. Now you may find photographers out there yammering on and on about the best lenses and camera bodies for portrait photography but don’t believe for a second that you can’t get great images with a basic camera. Sure, some lenses may be better suited than others, but I have literally worn out my kit lens, one of the cheaper lenses in my manufacturer’s lineup, and have achieved some amazing images with it. I would challenge anyone to tell me which images came from my kit lens and which ones came from a more expensive ‘portrait’ lens. You don’t need expensive lights, stands, umbrellas, soft boxes, etc., to do great portrait photography either. The sun is your friend, especially at sunrise and sunset. There is a reason they are referred to as the golden hours. Even if you can only shoot midday under direct sunlight, find an area with decent shading. If you’re shooting inside, simply move your model to a window or to a few bright lights and that is generally enough to start getting great images. Lack of expensive equipment should NEVER prevent you from experimenting with photography, portraiture included.
Most beginning photographers are intimidated by portrait photography. I was one of those photographers. It wasn’t until a dear friend challenged me that I decided I would give it a shot. The more portraits I take, the more I like taking them. And yes, I also do prefer more unconventional portrait shoot ideas that tend to take a little more work but I didn’t start out that way. I do not consider myself a portrait photographer any more than I consider myself an astrophotographer. I love all kinds of photography and I am rather proud that my portfolio is all over the place. If you’re a photographer that hasn’t done much portrait work but would like to, hopefully this information will help you take a step in the direction of at least giving it a chance. In addition to challenging yourself and stepping outside of your comfort zone, you will invariable meet and work with some amazing people that will touch you in ways you never could have anticipated. That, for me, is the true joy of portrait photography – the amazingly wonderful people I have met!
Whether you are a professional model, an aspiring model, or just someone I singled out to be a model for one of my many ideas, there are 3 things I look for, and greatly appreciate, in a model.
Looks matter, there’s no beating around the bush on this topic. However, it’s probably not what you’re thinking. When I say ‘looks’, I don’t necessarily mean some drop-dead gorgeous individual that could easily be on the front cover of some fashion magazine. When I have an idea in my head for a possible shoot, I will invariably have an idea of what I want the model to look like and I will attempt to get a model that is very close to my idea. Examples of specific looks I’m interested in for some of my shoot ideas include: people with a lot of tattoos, people with wild hair and makeup, people with tons of freckles, people with dark hair, etc. Those are the type of things I’m on the hunt for when I mean ‘looks’. The other way I use ‘looks’ is by evaluating an individual who wants to work with me and then coming up with ideas that I think best suits their ‘look’. For individuals I tend to shoot with a lot, it simply means that I think they have a very versatile look that works for a lot of different ideas. Now don’t get me wrong, if I’m after a very specific glamour type look that could be used on the front of some fashion magazine, I will look for an individual that I think has that look – and frankly, not everyone does.
So many things fall into this category. The best way to describe this trait is someone that is fun, outgoing, adventurous, and interested in getting the best images possible. One reason I will use the same individuals over and over again for several different shoots is because they have such great attitudes. I love working with people that are excited about the experience and are invested in the final product. Some professional models may look fantastic and know how to properly pose, but if they are there just to get paid or just to add another name to the photographers they have worked with, I’d prefer working with someone else. Not only do models need to have the right attitude about the shoot itself, but the right attitude about themselves. There is nothing worse than working with someone that is overly self-conscious about how they look. It comes across in the final images, trust me. All things being equal, I’ll take attitude over looks any day! For me, portrait photography is about having fun while creating great images at the same time.
I learned very early on that not everyone is as invested in my photography as I am. Hell, I doubt anyone is as invested, or ever could be as invested, as I am. Even though most of my shoots are for fun, they still require a fair amount of work and preparation. Everyone’s time is valuable, even mine. It’s just wrong to bail out on a scheduled shoot without notice. I’ve only had this happen to me on two occasions, but that was enough that I will not allow it to happen again. Now I know life happens and things come up, but it’s never ok to miss a pre-arranged appointment with anyone, photography or not. I have a friend that is also into portrait photography and the amount of ‘no-shows’ he gets is appalling – and this even includes models he is going to pay for their time. I honestly don’t know how he puts up with it. We have often joked about starting a site where we can post the names of models that are not reliable. Who knows, maybe it will go from joke to reality. If I start to get signals someone is going to flake out at the last minute, I’m done working with them, no matter their looks or attitude. It’s just a simple matter of respect.
So give me a model that has the look I’m after, has a great attitude, and who shows up on time, and I couldn’t be happier. Models that I prefer to work with multiple times, have all of these traits in spades! It doesn’t matter if they are a professional model or a friend of a friend, give me these three traits and I guarantee we will make some amazing images.
When I first started Steele Style Shots, I picked an arbitrary mile mark to measure my ‘success’. The goal was to simply have my photography Facebook page outnumber the followers on my personal Facebook page. In actuality, not much of a goal as my day job forces me to pick and choose my Facebook friends cautiously. I picked this goal to prove to myself that there are people out there that liked my work that were outside of my friends and family (and I knew my mom couldn’t create that many fake accounts to like my work). Over time though, my goal has changed.
Now don’t get me wrong. It feels great when I stumble across my images on other sites (even without my approval) or when something is shared far more than I ever could have expected. That’s all great, but that’s also all just gravy (or the icing on the cake for those of you out there with a sweet tooth). By the time one of my images hits the internet, I am generally finished with it. If it garners likes, comments, and/or followers, that just makes it even better. The joy of an image starts with the conception of the idea, finding a way to make it happen, finding a model (if needed), transferring the image in my mind into a camera, and finally editing the image to make it the best it can be. From day one, I set out to make my sites a visual gauge on my photography over time allowing others to follow along on the journey if they wished. But something else has happened along the way. Something I honestly did not foresee or could have ever guessed would have flowed from my work. Connections.
Because of my photography, I have connected with numerous individuals and moments in ways I never would have anticipated. I have been touched so deeply by these individuals and events that my life simply will never be the same. I have experienced moments that will last a lifetime. I have connected with star-filled night skies in a way that has profoundly helped me find my own unique place in the universe. These are some of the reasons I am so addicted to photography.
One of these ‘connections’ has once again made a mark on my heart and soul. After a recent photo shoot with my good friend Alecia Earle, she pulled out a box and handed me a gift. This wasn’t the first time she has caught me off guard with something amazing. You can read more about the first time she made me cry, here. Covered in fake blood (a session for my upcoming Halloween album) I started to open the box until I realized this was more than just a gift. This was something far more. Alecia had reached out to an online photography equipment site and had inquired about a unique gift to fit my passion. Not only did she mention what type of photography I like, but she also gave the person links to my sites to check out my work. The owner of the site responded back with a suggestion and Alecia followed up.
I am now the very proud owner of a Kodak No. 1 Series III camera. This camera was produced between April 1914 through December 1914 - an incredibly short production run. In addition to being in great condition, this camera is rumored to still be in proper working order! And yes, I do plan on purchasing some film and taking this camera out for a spin after some careful cleaning! This will be a test of my abilities in operating a camera in manual mode as this is just about as manual as you can get! No chimping at the screen to see if the exposure looks about right. No do-overs if it wasn’t spot on. I won’t know until the film is developed! It took me at least 30 minutes to figure out how to open the camera to put in film and probably another 15 minutes just to figure out how to open the front of the camera up. Thank God for the internet! As you can imagine, I was blown away. The gift is amazing but it’s the individual and the thought behind the gift that has etched a mark on my heart. Even without the gift, the connection I have made with Alecia, because of photography, is something that has made me rich beyond measure.
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I have captured tender loving moments at a wedding that still give me goose bumps when I look at the images. I have documented what a type 1 diabetic goes through day in and day out and that session was by far the most intimate photo shoot I have ever done. I have captured brand new faces of babies and proud parents. I have captured the shadow of Venus crossing between the sun and the earth – something that will never happen again in my lifetime. Even in planned model portrait shoots, I have captured amazing people in genuine smiles and laughs. And they in return, have captured a piece of me. Strangers have become friends, colleagues and friends have become best friends, and all because I have a camera and a few lenses. I couldn’t begin to tell you who or how many people liked one of my photos a year ago today, but I can tell you what made the bride cry. I can tell you who I was with during the Venus transit and eclipses. I can tell you why some of the individuals I’ve worked with got into modeling. I can tell you why my best friend switched from landscapes to portraiture. I can tell you why I have a hard-bound book of my astrophotography. And I can tell you why I miss one of my favorite models. Connections…
Thank you again, Alecia Earle!
I once heard a saying that ‘diabetics are naturally sweet’. After my latest photoshoot with Mattie, I couldn’t agree more.
As mentioned in one of my previous blogs, my wife works at the Children’s Diabetes Foundation in Colorado. She has worked there on and off for a little over 10 years. She loves her job and loves helping the organization raise money for diabetes research and services for diabetic children. One of her co-workers, Mattie, is diabetic. I honestly cannot remember how the conversation started, but it ended with Mattie and I collaborating on some images that she could hopefully use on social media to further educate the general public on diabetes.
Since I am not diabetic, I know nothing about diabetes other than what I might randomly hear on the news or from a conversation I might overhear at work. During our shoot, I learned more about diabetes than I imagined I would. But my intent is not to educate you on diabetes. If you are looking for that information, please visit the Children’s Diabetes Foundation. They are a remarkable source of information and support. In fact, you can follow Mattie’s blogs on their site as well. My intent is to show the never ending routines some diabetic individuals must deal with on a day to day basis. Although I hope the organization can use the images to further their cause, I think it’s also important to see the side of it most of us do not know about. What better way to do that than with images.
I think when most people hear the term ‘diabetes’, they instantly think of pricked fingers and insulin shots. But as I found out during our shoot, there is far more to it than that. I hate needles, always have, and I’m willing to bet most people feel the same way. My intent was to get some simple diabetes related images first and to save the finger pricking for the last few images of our session so she didn’t have to endure the pain throughout the whole shoot. I would term my thought process now, as ‘diabetic ignorance’. She brought a lot of equipment we could work with for the shoot and she explained how everything worked, including pricking her finger right there on the spot! I was blown away! Something I was trying to protect her from until the end of the shoot, she had done in the first few minutes without hesitation or concern. Not only did I reaffirm in that instant that I am a whimp, I also learned the strength Mattie has discovered in herself from years upon years of dealing with diabetes. But there’s more….
She used the shoot as a time to document the entire process she goes through on a routine basis. She demonstrated how she installs monitors.
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She also demonstrated how she installs her insulin pump.
…and the foods she eats when she needs sugar. I also learned that she indeed can eat sugar, something I always thought diabetics were not supposed to do. Again, diabetic ignorance.
Lastly, we ended with the quintessential finger prick and blood test. In all honesty, she wanted an image showing all of her fingers pricked but I wanted a more close-up and personal image just using a single finger. I can’t imagine purposely pricking one finger, let alone all of them.
I simply had no idea what most diabetics go through. Mattie has a strength I think most of us will never know or understand. Hopefully through these images, those of us with diabetic ignorance can at least begin to understand what she goes through day in and day out. Most of my shoots are about trying to capture great images, and I think we got some great ones, but this shoot felt more like photo journalism – albeit a simple form. I was simply trying to capture the truth of the moment regardless of how it looked. Mattie is an amazing, beautiful, strong, and incredibly sweet individual that has changed how I personally view diabetes. Out of all of the shoots I have done to date, I am most proud of these images because of what they stand for – resilience and strength. Besides learning A LOT about diabetes and finding a new appreciation for those that have to deal with it, I may have stumbled across a new model that’s interested in some extreme ideas! Hopefully you’ll be seeing more images from my newly discovered photogenic diabetic, Mattie, soon!
Should a photographer focus on one type of photography and attempt to create a recognizable brand/style or should he/she continually venture into new and different areas? I have read several opinions arguing both sides of the topic. I think there are pros and cons to both arguments. In the end however, I think a photographer is best served by following their own creative vision, which may be a single style or may be several.
Some photographers are very well branded because of their style and/or subject matter; Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz just to name a couple. I probably spend more time looking at other photographers’ images than I should, but I find that I can often identify the photographer by the image itself, especially for genre specific photographers. I’m not always 100% accurate, but more so than not. For example, Michael Goh of Astrophotobear is very recognizable for both his style and subject matter. There are a lot of very good astrophotographers out there but his works stands out to me. But even then, he will occasionally posts images that have nothing to do with astrophotography – and they are just as stunning.
An example of a phenomenal portrait photographer I follow is Kelly Schneider of Captured Journeys Photography. He too has a very recognizable style for most of his images, especially his female portraits. Again, when I am quickly scrolling through my photography feeds on my phone or desktop, I can spot his images almost immediately. Only rarely have I seen one of his images without a person in it – usually some sort of wedding ceremony. Whether on purpose or just a result of his work over time, his work definitely has a recognizable style. His work is gorgeous and stunning. I only wish I could get portraits as great as his. I can only assume he loves doing this type of photography. As a result of his style, he has quite a few followers and I’m sure a good clientele base as well.
Then there are the photographers that are all over the map in terms of subject matter and style. One of my personal favorites is Bernhard Beser. He simply has some amazing images that include portraits, landscapes, nudes, abstracts, to just about anything else you can think of. Because he delves into so many different areas and ideas, I have a very difficult time recognizing his work immediately. I will simply notice an image I like only to find out he was the photographer. This has happened so many times that I follow his work specifically to see what he comes up with next. In some aspects I anticipate looking at his work more so than other photographers. I know what I will get with Kelly Schneider (amazing portraits) and Michael Goh (breathtaking astrophotography) but Bernhard Beser keeps me guessing. I must admit, I enjoy the diversity.
The benefits of creating a ‘brand look’ are obvious. You create a fan base of followers and a clientele base that will seek you out for your style. You tend to become excellent and proficient at that style - the proverbial 'master'. One of the drawbacks is that you may start to get pigeon-holed in the type of work people start to expect from you. This may not be a drawback if your particular ‘style’ is something you love to do with no intention of doing anything else, but if you get tired of the genre and want to branch out, you may receive some blowback from diehard followers. I also think repeating the same style can become less challenging. Although your skills are more finely honed each time you repeat the style, I also feel you are less challenged as you have already discovered what works and what doesn’t, more or less. Again, this could be a benefit or a curse depending on your specific personal goals as a photographer.
At this point in my photographic journey, I am not looking to brand myself. I am looking to grow my skills, techniques, and talents. I love being the jack of all trades. My photographic work shifts over time; sometimes returning to themes I’ve already explored. Sometimes I find myself more interested in portraiture or people pics. Other times I find myself drawn to macro or abstract photography. Yet other times I find myself yearning to aim my gear at a dark star-filled sky. Photography is one of the few areas in my life that I have complete control over. I can do what I want, when I want to. Since photography is not my main source of income, I feel that I am not constrained by trying to always please the customer. I engage in photography because I enjoy it, period. I share my work because I want to, not because I have to. Some people like my work and others couldn’t care less. To each their own.
If you are a photographer looking to find your ‘style’ or ‘brand’, just keep snapping away and you will probably discover it along the way. If you are a photographer stuck in a certain genre either because of your prior work or because that’s simply what you’ve always done, keep in mind you probably got into photography because it can be immensely creative and fresh. Don’t be afraid to break away from what you are used to doing and try something different – even if this means keeping a private portfolio your normal followers and clientele do not see. If you’re a photographer and you’re put off by the whole notion of limiting yourself to certain subjects or styles, that’s completely fine too. I am a firm believer that once you start to bend your creative vision to what others expect from you, the joy of photography quickly fades and it becomes work and a burden. Do what you like, and if that changes over time, go with the change. I would rather have my photography be all over the map enjoying every minute of it than being forced into a style to make a living regretting every minute of it.
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.