THE MAKING OF A PORTRAIT OF AN ARCHITECT
The call came in while I was enjoying a rare period of quiet. I had set up on our front porch, sorting through images from a recent portrait photography session in Washington, DC where I based as a portrait, lifestyle and travel photographer.
I love porches.
Looking back, it was likely the reason we built the house. Spanning nearly the entire width of the facade’ of our Arts + Crafts style home, it’s a simple porch, framed in crisp white trim boards with a flagstone floor. Defined by white pyramidal columns and a white Shaker style railing and. set against the pale yellow clapboard that wraps the house, it provides a warm and inviting main entry into our home. With wide open views of the 280 acres of protected wetlands that border our land, it offers a quiet retreat. I retreat there as often I can.
Back to the call.
It was Mark Yoo, an architect in Alexandria, a city that borders Washington. He had been referred to me by a fellow architect. Mark liked my portrait photography style, particularly my environmental portraits. He thought I could be the right portrait photographer for his new project. Mark was building a new website and creating a new brand. He needed a new portrait, a new image, a new look: a portrait that would match his vision of him and his work and complement his new brand. He was not a fan of the ‘typical’ portrait experience. He was hoping my approach to portrait photography would be different. His last portrait session had been “brutal”, according to Mark.
That portrait was ‘professionally’ done in a local studio by a well known photographer. That session checked all the boxes: studio setting, studio lighting, black backdrop, bathroom to the right, etc. The result was a generic looking headshot: brightly lit, sharp from front to back, great ear to ear awkward smile. It had all the charm of a marketing promo for a wedding DJ.
For the next 20 minutes, Mark talked about architecture and his work. He spoke of his vision, of his new brand and the look he wanted me to bring to this new portrait of him.
Finally, he asked “Are you interested in this project”
I didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely. Let’s talk about how to do this.”
Many portrait photographers are wary of working with architects. They occupy a unique place in the portrait universe. Architects are often perfectionists, highly critical, consumed with detail and self absorbed. Traits that may lead them to success in the highly competitive world of architecture, but qualities than can be daunting for a portrait photographer.
I wasn’t concerned.
I spent years working for and with some of the top design firms and architects in the Washington, DC area. My career as a professional photographer began with architectural photography. I enjoyed working with architects, whether it was on a construction site, behind a graphics monitor in an office cubicle or, now, from behind a camera.
We made a plan.
Mark had designed a new dance studio, at an arts center an hour south of the city. It was nearly finished. We would meet there and choose a location for the portrait session. Perfect! A week later we met. For his session, I chose a spacious corner studio, with beautiful northern light falling into the room from the tall windows that lined the outside walls. The exposed brick walls, aged hardwood floors and barrs (ballet rails) added texture and an understated elegance to the setting.
We were set. This would be an environmental portrait, created at one of Mark’s projects.
We agreed on a date and time and to sort out the details (like clothing), soon. Before I left, I scouted the studio and the grounds outside the studio, for alternate locations as a backup. After years of location photography I have learned, the hard way, to have a Plan B (and a Plan C) ready to go on session day.
On the day of Mark’s portrait session, the outside temperatures were hovering in the upper 90s, with high humidity. No problem. We would be working in the dance studio, in a beautiful room with soft northern light, right?
Not so fast.
The studio had just opened for business and the afternoon students were rolling in. Really? I thought we had the corner studio! Nope. As these well planned events often go, the studio administrator had never received Mark’s message about our session. They were using the studio we had chosen for the session. It was booked for the rest of the day! No other suitable space in the entire studio was available. Everything was booked. Remember Plan B? No problem. We’ll just move outdoors, right?
The locations I had scouted on the grounds were OK, in a pinch, but not great. Shade was a problem. There was none. I had found one spot with a decent background, but the backlight in that scene would be so intense I would have to overpower it with strong light on Mark. I was not in love with that option. I kept looking, as we left the studio.
And there it was.
On the way to the great outdoors, where we would fight heat, high humidity and brutal sun, I spotted a small room, just off the exit hallway. It was cluttered, but it had high ceilings, brick walls painted white, a killer tall window and a view of the buildings outside. The daylight streaming in the windows was good, but fading quickly. And so was our time. The studio was filling up fast and we had one hour, or less, to clean the room ( full of furniture and staff gear), set up and get our shots.
Mark was a great subject. It started slow, with Mark quite nervous, until Erin, my assistant, decided that he was a Bradley Cooper look alike. Mark was now relaxed and confident. Once I was able to calm Erin down, things went well.
Less than hour later, we had wrapped up, packed up and were on way to our next adventure.
To learn more about Mark and view his work, click here.
In a perfect world, a session like this should be a snap, right? No pun intended. But the world of a professional photographer is rarely a perfect one. Even studio sessions can become a nightmare of the expected. Think failing radio triggers, quirky strobes, malfunctioning equipment, and my personal favorite, the studio air conditioning failing on a 104 degree day. That actually happened to me at my first studio session with a professional model. And the makeup did run.
No matter. As the professional on the job, you must get the shot, whatever the circumstances.
Our clients are often busy professionals, with considerable demands on their time and talent. As portrait photographers, our job is not to make the process of their portraits another stressful event in their day, but to create a stress-free Oasis, where you may just be able to create that one moment, that one click that captures the very best of your client on the day. Whether you are shooting in a studio or on location, your preparation, and your experience, can make the difference between a blown shoot or a compelling image.
Mark doesn’t like being photographed.
He was honest about it. He’s not alone. Unless you’re a in the PR business, or you’re a celebrity, a model or a certified narcissist, being photographed is a stressful event. Something to be avoided, unless absolutely necessary. My method of counteracting that stress is to keep it light, at all times. If something does go wrong, unless it’s a national emergency, the client need never know. Be engaging, be positive, be professional, be confident and be in charge. A dash of humility can also be an endearing and disarming trait.
For this session, I carried a light travel kit: (2) Nikon pro bodies, (3) Nikon SB 900s, (1) 24″ Ezybox softbox and several reflectors. I carry 4 lenses most of time: 24-70 f/2.8, 50 f/1.4, 70-200 f/2.8 VRII and an 85 f/1.4. This covers all of my portrait needs. If I’m doing a travel or landscape shoot, I’ll add a 14-24 f/2.8 to the bag. The Ezybox is mounted to a telescoping pole, held by an assistant. I shoot with my camera in manual mode, most of the time, and set the flashes to manual as well. I chose a 50 f/1.4 for this shot. I could have used the 24-70, but I have been known to drift out wide with that lens and the distortion is no fun in small spaces. I chose f/9 for front to back sharpness and to bring in the background through the window. I adjusted the flash exposure to balance with the ambient daylight.
I had 45 minutes to create at least one image of Mark that would be a ‘keeper’. That 45 minutes included cleaning out the room, which was a working conference room, and restoring it to its original condition after the shoot. In 25 minutes of actual photography, I captured 35 images. You can see the final 3 proofs that made the cut, below. In the final image at the top of the post, you can see the adjustments I made to the final proof in post production. Aside from taking the reflection of the softbox out of the window, fine tuning the light on Marks face and cropping, little had to be done to create the final portrait.
Mark was delighted with the session and with his new portraits. Mission accomplished. Another client satisfied.