What makes a good portrait photographer?

So, you’re looking for a portrait photographer? Do you know what makes a good one?

There are a lot of highly competent photographers out there. Almost all of them are able to make a decent portrait image. The lighting will be fine. The composition will be pleasing. In all respects, it will be a technically good image. But, is a technically good image good enough? Do you see yourself or your family in that image? Do you really see who you are?

When you view a great portrait what is the first thing that happens? For me, there is almost an instant emotional response. I am drawn to the eyes and within those eyes, a great portrait shows the raw personality of the person being photographed. It shows their soul and who they truly are as a person. The iconic example of this is Steve McCurry’s portrait, Afghan Girl.

Children on the beach, Samoa.

Children on the beach, Samoa.

If you go back in time a few years, you can find this in Paul Strand’s work from the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. In Dorothea Lange’s work for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. More recently with the work of Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Jeff Lipsky, or Joe McNally. Anastasia Taylor Lind’s portraits from Maidan Square in Kiev during the protest in 2014 are incredibly powerful.

What magic had all of those photographers above been using? It isn’t anything special but they all naturally have the skill, or worked incredibly hard to develop it, of being able to instantly relate to people. Within the first few seconds of meeting someone, they can remove all the extraneous distractions and put someone at ease. At ease with themselves, the studio, the lights and the army of assistants that may be running around in the background. Once you’re at ease, the camera, the image making, everything just becomes secondary. Laughter is key.

Peter Hurley is incredibly good at this. As he mentioned in a TedX talk, he has a schtick. A schtick he has perfected over the years and it works. Very well. Another person who is very gifted at this is my friend Kevin Connors in San Diego. I always loved watching him work whether it was in his studio chatting with friends and clients or making portraits of my own family.

As I began my photographic career 12 years ago, this people skill was not natural to me. That is why I embraced the photojournalistic style so completely. Over the years, I have worked hard to develop it. I am still working hard to develop it. 

I still seek out the moments between the moments as they have the details you normally miss during your daily lives. Those are the ones that hold the most memories. 

Quiet moment with Linnea during her senior portrait session.

Quiet moment with Linnea during her senior portrait session.

But, to get to those moments, I have to make you comfortable. At ease. I have to make you laugh. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s difficult. When it’s difficult, I just have to resort to knock knock jokes from my seven year old. 

Serena enjoying the knock knock jokes.

Serena enjoying the knock knock jokes.

It would be fair to say my schtick is still evolving.

As you search for a portrait photographer for your family, high school senior or headshot, keep a few things in mind when you talk to me, which I would love, or any other photographer. Yes, they need to be technically competent but, more importantly, do they make you feel comfortable? Can they relate to you on a personal level? Can they make you laugh?