As a portrait photographer, being asked to define your own style or brand of portrait photography in writing can prove a difficult yet rewarding challenge, we’re not always known for our literacy skills, preferring instead to let our images do the talking & hide behind our camera.
So, what makes me tick in the world of contemporary portraiture? Firstly I have to admit to being a relative newcomer to the world of children’s portraiture. Although I’ve been a commercial photographer for over 18 years now, (ouch!) it’s only been since 2012 that I’ve ventured into this particular genre of photography. Why? Well I have to be brutally honest and admit to being ever so slightly scathing of the whole family portrait business up till now. It seemed to me that for a long time the industry was dominated and plagued by the white backdrop brigade. You know the shots I mean, in fact if you have any interest in photography whatsoever you’ll know the franchise I’m referring to. You couldn’t walk down any high street or indeed into any young family household without being inundated by high key and high energy, life-style type portraits.
Now I’m not interested in dissing this style of photography, indeed I’d be the first to admit that back in the 90’s it had it’s merit and was certainly a much needed breath of fresh air after decades of rather dull, lifeless and stuffy portraits that many of us were brought up on and forced to endure. What do I have a problem with though is all the other photography studios that just churn out often badly shot cheap clones and therefore devalue, historically, one of the most important genres of photography there is. Surely as photographer’s the one thing you should be without any exception is creative and individual, in fact isn’t that why a client visits a professional photographer in the first place, not just because they have all the latest gear but to benefit from the photographers creativity? Yet how creative exactly is it to lazily copy an already rather formulaic style of another photography studio? I can now understand and even sympathise with many clients who often deem portrait photographer’s as overly expensive and arrogant.
Maybe I differ to many of my modern photographer peers in that I firstly and formostly see myself as an artist rather than a businessman and choose this career because I love taking photo’s and am not just interested in making a fast buck. Maybe it’s that I began my career down London where if you didn’t stand out from the crowd you were ignored and lost in the seething mass of competition. Or maybe it’s just that I’m a bit bloody minded and slightly arrogant, preferring to buck the trend and do things my way. It’s probably a mix of all three to be honest but whatever I refuse to copy the path of others, instead I try to learn from them and carve out my own niche.
The other reason I steered clear of children’s portraits for so long is that I loathe the concept of what I call “enforced fun”. Maybe it’s just me but when someone orders me to “smile” or empathically informs me that I will have “fun” today it sends my blood cold and actually just serves to annoy me. Can you really tell someone to have fun, aren’t they either enjoying themselves or not? If not, then that smile that you are demanding will at the best look false or patronising and at worst have dark repressed undertones of hatred! Is there anything worse in life than being told to “cheer up, it may never happen”??? Also I have no secret desire to be a children’s entertainer, that’s not that I don’t love being around and working with kids because I do, in fact my wife would be the first to tell you that I spend most of time behaving like at child, my two kids would be standing in line to back her up. This isn’t to say that I shy away from employing a few tactics to get emotion out of my child subjects but rather that I prefer to concentrate on real emotions and expressions, not forced ones.
When I came to experimenting with children’s portraiture for the first time I was determined to try and do something a little bit different, something that I’m passionate about and would ultimately enjoy shooting. I looked towards the current trend of rather lovely natural location photography but decided again that there are simply too many other talented photographer’s doing this and at this time I would have nothing different to bring to the party. Also I love shooting with natural light but loathe second guessing the weather so I don’t fancy playing roulette with the gods and having to reschedule more shoots than I actually take. Having been a commercial studio photographer for several years now, it seemed a natural decision to me to build upon these skills and apply them to my portraiture.
So this is what I do. I carefully light the child in a way that enhances and flatters their physical form whilst allowing for a fair amount of fidgeting and movement that all kids inevitably do. This will vary from child to child and I’ll obviously alter the lighting to enhance the overall mood/style of the portrait. No pointless props, no distracting sets/backdrops and no enforced smiles. I keep everything as simple and stripped back as possible and really study the child, much as you might do when photographing an adult, whilst letting their own unique character shine through.
I find that this intimate approach is great for capturing what I call “micro expressions”, the looks that as a parent you know and cherish. It takes a considerably amount of patience and I am reliant on the parents to help me tease out these ‘looks’ but it’s a three way partnership that proves fabulously rewarding. It’s not all about the smiles and laughter, although we normally get a fair amount of that too, but about truly capturing and documenting the child’s personality. No two shoots are the same because no two kids are the same either!
Next, as any experienced photographer will tell you, the actual shoot is only really the first stage of creating artistic photography and that the digital darkroom then plays a significant part in giving each photographer their own unique signature style. Again I really prefer to keep my post-processing subtle, as explained in another post, often choosing to carefully convert my portraits to monochrome, whether traditional black and white or split toned, but at the very least desaturated so again removing as many distractions as possible. This isn’t to say that simple means quick or easy, as all too often in life making things look simple often requires a huge amount of time and a fair amount of experience. Finally I love to compliment these intimate portraits with suitably beautiful fine art grade materials. This is where I work very closely with an experienced local craftsman and source only the finest museum quality printing papers, mounts and frames. I want my clients to enjoy these works of art for a lifetime so longevity is really important to me too, not just simply the aesthetic attributes.
Simple Honest Beautiful is how I often describe my photographic style and philosophy, from the start right the way through to the final framed artwork. Thanks for reading!