Monday, March 2, 2015

Professional Portraiture

This lovely lady to the left is Hannah.

I visited her residence late last year for real estate photography, documenting her home and available spaces for rent (it is a very nicely renovated and extra wide row home in Northwest Baltimore City). She also runs her own small (well, maybe not so small) business, with an office on the Inner Harbor. And like everyone in self run business understands, having a good portrait to play strongly in positive first impressions is a rather essential element, an important puzzle piece in the occasional quandary of how to connect with customers.

When I photographed her home we had a small chat about my interests in photography on a personal front. This delved into a conversation about my penchant for decay and abandonment as well as my enjoyment of the portrait process. I suspect a light went off in her head when I spoke of portraits. She asked for my Flickr page URL wherein I have many very candid, informal portraits displayed. They must have made the right impression because she contacted me 2 weeks ago interested in portraits of her own, and offered to pay good money for them. Compensation aside, I was simply thrilled to finally be called upon, in a business sense, to produce professional portrait work. It had always been a tenant of business plan, my personal definition of my own success, to engage in commercial portrait work, and with Hannah's request it finally happened.

Despite never having conducted a professional portrait session before, I often boast about the process by which it should be done and why that method will work better than the emotionally and cognitively divorced department store method of direction. No "Sit down this way, tilt your head this way and look this way", that is not how one elicits the genuine article from a client. It is in connection, in conversation. My shoot with Hannah was an hour long discussion about our industries and our family lives, about the people we interact with on a day to day basis. We talked about our travels, where we've gone and the experiences we keep from those places. Photography was secondary, largely guided by impulse and an autopilot understanding of technical aspects such that adjusting ISO or aperture or white balance or shutter speed did not impede in the slightest on the flow of conversation. The session played out exactly as I imagined such a process to unfold; portraiture is an experience to be had by both photographer and client, not a technically governed process with rigidly defined angles and looks and lighting.

We bounced between 4 different rooms, the only actively considered photographic maneuver, to see how the different lighting in different rooms (with big windows) in her house worked out. Her dining room table worked well for a warm, softly green flat colored background behind her (excellent olive green choice in wall color from the real estate perspective). The home office was surprisingly less useful a setting than expected. My favorite setting (and the one used for the above portrait) was her reading room. A little bit of deception is at play in the final image; the bookshelf was rather small, and so I tried to keep its edges out of the frame to permit an enormous bookshelf to fill in the details within the imagination. We scooted a small chase lounge in front of the bookshelf for her to sit on and I leaned back against the far wall more or less level with her eyes. I was still pretty close to her, but fortunately the macro focus distance of the 40-150mm f/2.8 performed infallibly. The image above is easily my favorite of the set of some 300 frames.

Post processing of the images was a new question in need of its own answer. My excruciatingly hazed and lo-fidelity artistic style did not make sense for this kind of portrait work, it was too punchy and too heavy handed. Instead I kept things fairly simple; I processed the original RAW files in DXO using portrait rendering and tones, exported a DNG from DXO to Lightroom to allow for gentle softening and dodging via local brushes, and a very personalized tone curve to center exposure of the image. Suffice to say I was extremely pleased with the results. And so now I find myself hungering for more portrait work of this caliber. It is a kind of work I enjoy to the point of discarding the label of "work" to it.

After the portrait session with Hannah, I had a real estate shoot immediately following for a repeat client, Esther. She had mentioned to me a need for portraits for personal use, and so I managed to tack on a (shorter) portrait session, just because I was excited about making portraits. Little did I know she was a cellist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a detail that slipped into the open amid our conversation, and easily verified after the fact by web search. I was as pleased with my results with her portraits as with Hannah's, and do hope she passes word among her colleagues of this awkward young man from South of Baltimore City with a good taste for dialogue and a keen eye for "the moment".