Portrait Shoot and A Major Key to Success

On last Sunday Cynthia asked if I could help with a studio portrait/headshot for a friend of hers.  Of course.  So we met at the studio and got it roughed in before the subject arrived.  Her friend was a very attractive lady and between them there was enough wardrobe and props for an army of headshots.

I used a 22” Beauty Dish  for the main, a medium softbox for fill and then a grid spot and diffuse spot for accent lights.  That allowed for very easy subtle modifications as Cynthia directed the subject into various poses.  Here is a diagram/light plot…

Light Plot for Headshots

Light Plot for Headshots

But though I promised myself I’d just sit and watch, that proved to be extremely difficult and a couple of times I had to interject and take a shot.  The first was to use some roses Cynthia had brought for a shot to be done later.  But the subject’s electric blue dress color and jewelry just cried out for a shot with those roses so when Cynthia was ready to move to a new dress… what could I do?  Here is the original…

Here is the original camera shot.  Canon 5D MkIII and 70-200mm f4L

Here is the original camera shot. Canon 5D MkIII and 70-200mm f4L

But the more I looked at it, the more I wanted to treat it like an illustration.  I cropped it so you cannot see the dress anyway so I used the flowers themselves to create a soft background and created a little more drama to the lighting and got this result.

Edited version of the shot above.

Edited version of the shot above.

Cynthia had also brought a small hat that had belonged to her grandfather.  At one point I was this coquettish look in the subject’s eyes so interrupted again to hand her the hat and did this shot.

Second fun shot.  Canon 5D MkIII with Canon 50mm f1.4 lens.

Second fun shot. Canon 5D MkIII with Canon 50mm f1.4 lens.

It was a fun shoot especially because the subject was so easy to work with. She said she would come to help with a demo for the Fall Semester portrait class so that should be cool.


This is Finals Week for the Summer Semester.  During the final critiques I had a student ask me what I thought was the single biggest factor to achieve success.  I had already discussed attaining a technical mastery through lots of dedicated practice and then filling their “sensory database” with all manner of art and learning all they could about the visual languages involved such as the language of color, the lexicon of placement and the syntax of composition.  We talked about maintaining and honing the fires of creativity.  And we had talked about the critical issues of marketing and business management. But all those discussions were directed at the specifics of photography and the business of photography.  The student sensed that there was something missing.  And they were correct but I doubt they expected the answer I had for them.  I’m sure they expected some wonderful photo technique known only to the elite or some marketing tip that would have clients beating a path to their door.  If only it were that easy.

Those things — tips, techniques, skills, etc  already noted — are foundational for the creation of competitive work and cannot be shirked by anyone wanting to be successful.  They are fundamental to the creation of the “work” but they utterly fail to address the less than wonderful times when you are burned by a client or when you come home late from a long shoot and every muscle in your body aches.  They do not prepare you for the early career times when rejections are common.  And by themselves give no comfort when you are in the middle of a “snake bit” project and are just trying to get it completed without loosing too much hide in the process.

But, the sad thing is that it is most often those bleak and black times that end up determining who will punch through them and succeed… or who will give in to them and fail.  Physical aches and pains are easily addressed with medication, poor marketing can be outsourced,  but for emotional/psychological/spiritual aches and pains  There are liniments for tired muscles but none for a tired soul.  There are remedies for a broken contract but few for a broken spirit.  Creatives and creative service providers, whose work comes from inside them like a child and whose fragile sense of self worth, especially at the beginning, is vulnerable to being easily destroyed by things that have nothing to do with photography per se, and often nothing to do with the photographer either

I have attended several conferences and workshops on “success” in the broad general sense since I am fascinated by people that, in any field, achieve success.  One seminar that was especially valuable to me was offered by Peter Lowe.  In that 10-hour long seminar a long list of well known people who were all considered highly successful and from all walks of life, had 20 minutes each to synthesize what they saw as foundational to their success.

They came from all types of businesses from sales and marketing to art, from entertainment to real estate and financial services, from politics to sports.  They all had elements specific to their own fields of endeavor to discuss that felt contributed to their success..

But, to my surprise, they all had one element in common.  They all – and I do mean ALL – credited their success to having a loving, supporting relationship.  A spouse, a partner, a significant other, whatever term was used, each credited someone in their life that was supportive of them, encouraging to them, sometimes long-suffering of their personal drive and commitment, as critical to them being able to devote the time to that “dedicated practice” and to the production of their individual products or the performance of their individual talents.

Several went so far as to assert that without that support they did not think they could have achieved all they had done.  Yes, each and every one of them had enormous skill, enormous drive, enormous dedication; yet they credited their success, in the end, not to their talent but to the support and encouragement they received from someone who cared about them and who, critically, was there for them to help through the bad and slow times.  Time after time they talked about reaching a point of burn out, of giving up, and how they were helped through it by that close support.

That had certainly been the case in my life.   I would like to think that I was pretty good at what I did, but without the support and encouragement of my now ex-wife I know I could not have managed to hang on through some of the bad times.  In the end, I was the one who failed to keep up my side of the equation; I was unaware of the value of what I had and took it for granted… until it went away.

So to that student I suggested that they certainly lay the foundation for success with their skill mastery and other photo-specific foundational skills.  But for the long term, find someone who is supportive of their passions and will encourage them, be there for them through the inevitable failures where they will want to give up. Then honor them, respect them, love them and treat therm as if your life and career depend on it, because it just might.

In the end I told them, they need to remember THEMSELVES the rules I forgot: Show Up and Pay Attention.  Life and relationships are two way streets.  Good ones can make your life easier and your work far more satisfying, but you have to understand you are part of the bargain.  I’ve heard it said you cannot expect to tweak someone’s heartstrings with a work unless you put your own heart into it.  I can tell you categorically that your heart has to be not just in your work but in your life and relationships before it is ready to be shared via your work.

It is a completely symbiotic situation.  But when done correctly it can be the single biggest factor in your ultimate success.  Your technical and aesthetic skills are a “given.”  But they are not enough for long term success.  Creating a pretty piece, getting a huge check from a client, getting strokes from viewers are all wonderful experiences, but unless you are emotionally shallow – something you cannot be if you are a true artist — in the end those surface “strokes” do not, by themselves, create a fulfilled life.

And at the end is that not what it is really all about?  Not just that you were a great or successful photographer but that you felt your life was fulfilled… that your life was a success!  Ego aside, life is not just about you or even just about your work.

One last item.  I’m always telling students that they need to learn to use their cameras like great musicians use their instruments — as an extension of their bodies, minds, and spirits.  Here is a great example:



About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to Portrait Shoot and A Major Key to Success

  1. harveya101 says:

    Very nice comment, David, and certainly true about the need for a supportive person to help create success!

    • ndking says:

      I can’t think of an exception. I have known a few that gained some financial success without the support but in truth, in the personal life, they were a mess.

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