What is a good portrait?

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What is a good portrait?

My portrait subjects often ask me what has been my favorite photography session, Or, if I have a favorite portrait. I always struggle with that question, since I find it very subjective.

Over the past 10 years, behind the camera, I have probably photographed several thousand faces. In the last 3 years alone, I have photographed roughly a 1,000 different people for magazines, advertising companies, corporations, and their own personal use. I have worked with just a single subject on set as well as groups of up to 100 people for just one photograph.  My camera has seen all walks of life: actors, musicians, celebrities, politicians, convicts, business leaders, doctors, friends, and neighbors. I photographed managers dressed in 3 piece business suits underwater, cancer patients in ORs during complicated procedures, the rich and famous in their multi-million dollar homes, and the not so fortunate among us living in moldy one-room basement apartments without windows. I photographed celebrities for magazine covers, fashion models on the beach in summer wardrobe at below freezing temperatures, friends  on an active airport runway in a blizzard, high powered CEOs in their boardrooms, college students in my studio, and one subject, who I had never met before, in the middle of the woods carrying a chainsaw.

So which one of these is my favorite? It depends on the viewpoint. I know that's not the answer you were hoping for. You thought perhaps I might copy and paste a picture in here and call it a day, but, just hear me out.

Firstly, it depends on who or what the portrait is for. There is a purpose behind each photograph, so the intention of the portrait is equally important as the setting. And then there is my client's expectation. 

The editorial client's expectation is influenced by the demographics of their readership, the style, and vision of the creative director, the publisher, who often weighs in last minute, the storyline, and the magazine's layout restrictions.

My commercial client's expectation is usually pretty clear. Pre-production meetings, extensive briefings, mood boards, and detailed contracts are part of the planning process.

Secondly, there are the subject's expectations, which can often contradict the client's. The very first sentence I often hear from my subjects is: "I hate to be photographed!” Alright then. That is where I have to put on my psychology hat and gently try to figure out how to get over that particular hurdle, without making that sentiment worse! Is it something that Photoshop, some small talk, or a coffee can help with? Or am I just totally screwed at this point? 

Lastly, there is me, Stefan Radtke, the artist, who sometimes might have a completely different creative vision. My vision of the perfect portrait doesn't always align with the client's or subject's expectations, and rarely is it the same photograph that becomes the final favorite for all three parties involved. I often end up with 3 different images from a single photo shoot. One for the client, one for the subject and then one for myself.

And if you would like to know what I consider to be a good, effective portrait, here it goes:

An effective portrait has to make the viewer curious about the subject. That means the photoshoot becomes more about the idea behind the photograph, then about lighting, technique, wardrobe, and location. 

An effective portrait should affect the viewer, it doesn't have to flatter. That doesn't mean you can't use Photoshop. There is no rule that says the third-eye, that wasn't there last night, has to be part of the final image for eternity.

An effective portrait is about a person and not about their looks. It almost sounds like the same thing as "it doesn't have to flatter". But what I mean here is for the photographer and the subject to get past the stereotypical camera poses that we seem to have literally embodied in the age of social media. 

For any of those three things to happen, we all have to step out of our comfort zone, unless the subject is an acclaimed method actor, then only I have to get out my comfort zone. Either way, I have to be able to build a rapport with my subjects to make those three things happen.

What helps me with this is the experience I bring to the shoot beyond the technical side of photography. I led a public entertainment company with 120 employees, founded a hospitality business, created an online film company and lived and worked in several countries. I can walk into any CEO's office, an actor's or musician's studio, or meet a stranger in the woods, build rapport, and make a successful portrait session happen.

Stepping out of my comfort zone, concentrating in my photoshoot on the person, and having experience beyond photography skills, to build rapport, are for me the key ingredients of creating an effective portrait. 

And just in case you are curious, my favorite portraits are here at stefanradtke.com/portraits