The traditional image of professional portrait photography involves a studio set up with lots of lights, and a photographer with a medium format camera on a tripod shooting negatives that then go to a retoucher to remove wrinkles and blemishes by hand before the prints are presented to the customer. That has been professional portrait photography.
Times have changed. Today’s professional portrait photography may well include shooting in the studio, but is just as likely to take the photographer outside with a digital SLR and perhaps a reflector or fill flash, shooting natural looking photos of individuals, families, pregnant mothers and graduating high school students. The resulting images are often lively, casual, and a far cry from the stiff looking portraits of years gone by. You might think that anyone with a digital camera and Photoshop can produce this kind of portrait. But the gap between amateur snaps and professional portrait photography is a wide one, for a number of reasons.
Professional portrait photography differs from simple snapshots of people in a number of ways. In professional portrait photography the background is almost always uncluttered and contributes to the portrait rather than distracting the eye to unwanted and unnecessary items. Lighting is another major factor. In professional portrait photography you will not see the dark, telltale shadows behind the person that betray the use of on-camera flash; the lighting is soft where appropriate, making the subject look younger rather than older; catchlights in the eyes add a sparkle; and the subject looks relaxed, natural and comfortable (no cheesy grin or artificial smile) because the photographer has set them at ease and brought out the best in them and snapped the photo at the exact right moment.
Of course much professional portrait photography is done in the studio, but very often the subject’s home or work environment or a nice outdoor setting will result in a better portrait. The pro portrait photographer establishes what the client needs, what image they want to portray, what the purpose of the photograph is, and then works out the best way to capture the right shot. Styling enters into this to some degree, at least in advising what clothes to wear, colors to choose and so on. It can also involve make-up.
Professional portrait photography almost always involves some post processing of the photos. This adds the professional finish so often missing from snapshots. The subject wants to look his or her best, and some minor retouching is often required although this should not go to extremes and make the finished photo appear unnatural.
Apart from the use of lighting, the choice of location and background, the careful post processing and other details, the mark of professional portrait photography is the ability to bring the subject alive and reveal the personality so as to create an attractive image that pops off the page or the screen and makes the subject look real, attractive and interesting.
David © Phillips is a professional writer and photographer living in Seattle, WA. You can find out more about him and his work at www.dcpcom.com
Photograph(s) in this article are © David C Phillips, All Rights Reserved.