Where I learned to do portrait photography

March 13, 2023 Wedding Photography, Portrait Photography

My portrait photography style is a direct result of being a newspaper photographer

This is Robey. He was a Ninth Air Force P-47 pilot in WWII, then a jet pilot in the Air Force Reserves until he retired. I met him doing a story, where this picture was done. Then kept going back to his house to hear stories of his time as a pilot. His squadron was the first to occupy a newly built runway at the Normandy Beach a few days after D-day. He said German snipers would shoot at them when they were taxying to take off. He had more crazy stories that are now in my memory. I loved hearing them because they're a part of who we are as a country.

Because I had such high respect for him and what he did I rearranged his house and did this portrait with two lights. One on his face, and the other on the portrait of him being an F-105 fighter pilot back in the day. I had more assignments that day and had to work quickly and efficiently. A newspaper photographer doesn't have time to sketch out the scene and the lighting to use. I had to know what to do and get it done.

For these next two pictures I have to go WAY back to the late 90's at my first newspaper photographer job at the Telegraph Herald (TH) in Dubuque, Iowa. This is where I truly learned how to do portrait photography.

For starters, we were overworked with between 5-8 assignments a day. It's like new doctors doing their rotations and working to the bone. When you're tired and hungry, you really learn how to work quickly. When you have an editor like what I had, you really learn how to shoot like a National Geographic photographer. I had learned how to use a simple lighting setup while learning photography at San Francisco State, but wasn't able to use it too often at the TH because we didn't have time to spend. I learned how to react very quickly to changing environments, watch the backgrounds, and work quickly.

Furthermore, the TH had a program called Friends and Neighbors where a photographer would drive around and look for someone and do a quick portrait. Then have the person answer some standard questions like "What's your favorite book?" I used this opportunity to really work on my portrait skills and would try for two per week in between assignments.

This picture of the little girl happened one day when we were walking about the giant block and I saw her standing in the doorway like this. I just so happened to have my camera with some black and white film loaded. It was getting dark and these pictures, hand held, were done at about 1/30th of a second with an 80-200 lens at about 200mm. Somehow it's tack sharp. The scene reminded me of the Farm Security Administration portraits from the 1930's. This young lady is probably in her 20's by now, but when she was this age her favorite book was "Green Eggs and Ham."

A Friends and Neighbors portrait done in Dubuque, Iowa.

This final portrait is of organic chicken farmer Dean Dickle in southwest Wisconsin. I had been doing pictures of him and his farm all afternoon and getting some nice photos. We were about done and he went to light this cigar. He said, "Don't do my picture with a cigar, my wife will kill me!" Of course I did this picture, because with the low light reflecting from the barn onto his face it made a super portrait. It actually won a portrait photography prize in Iowa that year. Sadly I shot it with an early digital camera and so it's not perfect. But... It hit the spot for the story.

This portrait brings up another point: I'm not afraid to let better photographers influence my ideas and work. What did I think of in the split second this portrait presented itself? Yep, you guessed it: National Geographic and Magnum photographer David Allan Harvey. When you look at enough pictures a library of inspirational images forms in your brain and these images influence how you see and do pictures for yourself. For me, they pop into my head so fast that I don't spend time pondering what to do. The pictures come automatically.

A portrait of southwest Wisconsin organic chicken farmer Dean Dickle at dusk. I wonder if his wife would still kill him all these years later for smoking a cigar?

Portrait and Wedding photography: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

I'll do a blog about the OODA Loop next time. My work, both in portrait and in wedding photography uses this loop extensively. Did I know about this idea when doing these past pictures? The answer is a big fat NO. Subconsciously yes, I was using the loop. Anticipating and reacting quickly is how these three portrait examples were made. Anyone can learn how to do this and then if you are lucky enough to be a low paid overworked newspaper photographer you can really sharpen this skill.

Now I use it for peoples enjoyment so they can have treasured photography of themselves hanging on their walls all the days of their lives. You can see this throughout my two websites: Bend Portrait Photography and Bend Wedding Photography.

More on my shameless use of keywords and keyword links at another time.

Robey on the wing of a P-47 in WWII.