What it’s like to have little time to photograph a portrait

Ideally you have time when photographing a person. Get to know him/her a bit in order to bring out the character or the message you want to convey with the image. But a portrait is also situational. While on the road or traveling you might want to capture people and faces in their environment, in different cultures. Here it’s best to first make contact, get familiar with them and create a relaxing atmosphere so they feel comfortable in front of your camera.

„What is the most important thing in portrait/people photography? – Trust! Connect with the subject and create a relationship!“ John McDermott, Photographer

But there are often situations, especially when you photograph professionally, that you don’t have time. You have to produce a portrait of a politician, a celebrity, a public figure, a CEO who very often give you only a few minutes in their busy schedule to take their portrait. Like the Washington Post photographer Matt McClain who had 3 minutes to photograph Donald Trump in an office at Trump Tower.

How do you approach portrait photography in this kind of situation?

You plan ahead. You have a picture in your mind. You know what picture you want. You know what you want to express and convey with the picture. You set up the photo shooting situation, the exact spot, the lights, the background. Possibly you set up an alternative “scene” or spot in the room or studio.

How do you come up with possible ideas for an image you want to create?

First, you inform yourself well about the person you are going to photograph. Who is he/she, what is his character, who and what does he/she represent? Which aspect do you want to bring out in the portrait?

Secondly, you possess an immense image bank in your head from which you can draw ideas. You constantly have to feed your brain with pictures, with the works of the photographers of the past and present, with pictures from the media, from movies, books, and museums.

The Washington Post photographer Matt McClain who had only a few minutes to photograph D. Trump did just that. “Expecting that he would have only a few moments with Trump, McClain made sure before the shoot to have an idea of the image he wanted.  “I looked back at the photography of Yousuf Karsh, a famous portrait photographer with dramatic lighting,” McClain said. One picture in particular jumped out among the many prominent figures who sat for Karsh — a 1941 image of Winston Churchill.”

With this picture in mind he set up the lighting, the backdrop, the “studio” setting in the office and made some test shots with his colleagues in the position he had in mind with D. Trump. When Mr. Trump showed up for the photo shoot, he could place him right into that prepared setting and “a 3 minutes photo shooting” could be executed with an excellent result.

During the IF/Academy Masterclass Portrait Photography at the Hensel Studio with John McDermott End of January 2017 those aspects were discussed and practiced. McDermott started out with showing portraiture works of known photographers of the past and present that have become for many a guidance and resource for ideas, styles and lighting. With this in mind the participants created the next two days portraits of a female kickboxing champion and an Indian gentlemen in a traditional garment. Techniques that you can see in this video were used in the Masterclass as well.

In the masterclass the participants worked with Hensel’s top-of-the-line Expert D series of monolights, using both the 500 and 1000 watt/second versions, and Hensel’s extensive line of light modifiers. The emphasis was always on planning out each persons lighting solution, testing and tweaking it as necessary and then doing the actual shoot in a relatively short time. Why? John McDermott: “Because that’s the way it works in the real world. You need to nail the picture. But you rarely get very much time with a subject such a as a busy executive, a professional athlete or a celebrity. You need to have the shot planned out and tested in advance so you can work quickly and if, god forbid, something goes wrong, you have time to react and find another solution quickly.”

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“It is always fascinating to experience what John teaches his students. His professionalism and enthusiasm inspire and make for a terrific atmosphere and spirit in the class. Even after many workshops with John it is still interesting to attend.”, says participant Peter Lutz.

If you are interested in a Masterclass Portraiture with John McDermott please contact us at claudia(at)if-academy.net


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