Portraiture and the Photographer’s Use of Light

Monica aDemetra 3aMollyStephanie b6. BaileaStephanie a7. MonicaDemetraMonica  a



Photographer and author Frank Criccho states, “ The success of a photographic portrait depends as much on the photographer’s artistic and creative use of lighting techniques as it does on his or her skill with the camera.”

In an opposing remark during a recent conversation, a photographer told me that he didn’t have to worry about getting a flash for portrait photography and doubted he ever would, because he could just use a higher ISO, shoot multiple bursts, and fix everything in PhotoShop.

I don’t think that he is totally wrong, but his statement certainly demonstrates a lack of the basic understanding of how light impacts a subject’s face and how light can make the subject look younger, or older, or more glamorous, or down right unappealing.

I think in the race to purchase the latest hi-tech photographic marvel many photographers tend to forget about how lighting affects their subjects.

In my opinion, the goal for portrait photographers should always be to make the subject look his or her best, and provide an image that is flattering, and allows the person you are photographing to have a photo that impresses viewers.

One could say the responsibility lies with photographers, and not the subject, as to how good they look. Yes, I know in reality that isn’t the truth, but in my experience when one makes a bad photo of someone they will blame you, not themselves, if one makes a good photo they will thank you for capturing reality.

Many photographers just excitedly snap away without examining their subject, or posing them. Relying on luck and their subject’s talent to make that pleasing portrait, and pay little attention to how the light is making that person look.

Light and how a photographer uses it is very important. Too much contrast or side lighting shows lines and blemishes, whereas, on-camera flash, or bright, direct sunlight gives a flat, dimensionless, uninspired look.

To use the words of world-renowned photographer and writer, Joe Marvullo, “It is your ultimate decision, however, to determine what is “real” about that person and how to portray it in the photograph. You must successfully translate a distinct human personality in three-dimensional form into a two dimensional representation. This recorded image must come to life on it’s own. You, as an artist, must capture the “essence” of your subjects – their persona.”

Modern on-camera flashes are excellent if used correctly and creatively. Photographers can diffuse, bounce, and move the light off to the right or left, higher or lower, and modify that light using umbrellas, reflectors or softboxes to soften and control the direction and intensity.

I believe photography is all about the light. The lazy photographer just worries about exposure, where as the imaginative photographer pays attention, experiments, and practices creating portraits using light that are more than just documents of some person.  And as Marvullo suggests it is up to you, the artist, to capture the “essence” of your subject’s personality.






Photography, a personal vision.

Kamloops Lake 1

Kamloops Lake

Kamloops Lake 1a

Lawnmower Race copy1

Lawnmower Race copy2

Sax player 1 Sax player 2





My photographer friend Greg posted the following statement on the Canadian photographer flickr.com/group: “Recently I’ve come across a number of photographs on the social media outlets that are absolutely stunning and amazing works of art, but there are a whole host of people who comment saying ‘it looks fake’, ‘it needs to be more real’, ‘that picture has no resemblance to reality’”. And he continues raising the question with “Should we be striving to produce photographs that are more ‘real’ to please the crowds who seem to have very little understanding of art?”

My quick and easy response is to quote Plato, “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”. Even Shakespeare in his work, Love’s Labours Lost writes, “Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye”.

I understand his (and others) frustration with those that are ready to condemn anything that deviates from their personal interpretation of photography, but we need to remember that is just their opinion. I don’t think Greg or any other photographer should “be striving to produce photographs…to please the crowds”. However, when one displays a photograph on any social media site one needs to be ready for someone else’s opinion.

I used the following last January in my discussion of Photography as a Fine Art. Wikipedia’s on-line encyclopedia says, “Fine art photography is photography created in accordance with the vision of the artist as photographer.” That should be enough to ease my friend’s frustration. I will comment to him that those detractors didn’t understand the interpretation or artistic vision of the photographer’s work.

Some may disagree with me, but I think photography has always been a technology driven medium. And just as there are those willing to push the limits, there surely are also those that employ their cameras simply as devices to document the people, objects, and scenes in front of them, and I have no doubt their criticism might come swiftly to those that manipulate their images instead of maintaining the more conservative course of photographic reality.

Regarding Greg’s question about some people’s understanding, or lack of understanding of art, that is a question that countless generations may have struggled with possibly since the first humans decided to place a favourite rock in their cave or put coloured pigment on the wall.

I believe the question is actually, “What is Art and who has the right to define Art?”

Mark Twain is attributed with the words, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”   I expect most of us fall into that category.

Here are a number of quotes about art by artists. American architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Art is a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use.” However, I much preferred photographer Ansel Adams words, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art.” Or this from novelist Rainbow Rowell, “…and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.” And French Impressionist painter Edgar Degas wrote, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

When one has the need to be creative they should have the right to decide on their own particular style to fulfill their personal creative vision. What that vision is should be entirely up to the photographer, and the audience for whom the image is produced. I think the problem in this day of mass social media is how to select the right audience.

I do look forward to your comments. Thank you, John








Two Photographers Are More Fun Than One




Fallen Cedars by John

By John


Fallen Cedars by Linda

By Linda

Notch hill church. Linda

By Linda

The train goes by

By John

This week I talked with a fellow that grumbled about how his wife complains about waiting for him when he wants to stop to take a pictures. I suggested that he find a way to get his wife involved in his hobby. After he left I remembered the following article I wrote back in August of 2011. For those who may have missed it, I thought I’d post it again.

I received a most encouraging email from a reader: “In talking to you I noted that you and your wife both are into photography, so I proposed giving my wife a DSLR and get her into shooting her own pictures. She was a little hesitant to the idea saying she did not have the “artist’s eye”. However, I printed out your blogs on ‘What Makes a Good Photograph’.

After reading it she commented that “each person has their own take on what makes a good picture”, and the short of it is, she is willing to take up photography with me”.

Personally, I think much of my enjoyment of photography would be missing if my wife, Linda, was not also a photographer, and it is great that we both enjoy this exciting medium and can share the experience of making photographs.

My advice to any photographers that are interested in getting their spouse involved in photography is as follows.

Match the equipment. I mean with regard to cameras, both DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras should operate in much the same way. The models can be a few years apart, but should be the same brand and the controls should operate similarly and if two of the latest models are affordable, so much the better.

Don’t be cheap with lenses for your spouse. If it isn’t good enough for you, it isn’t good enough for the most important person in your life. Just as you would select a lens for the subject and the way you like to shoot, your spouse should select lenses for his or her preferences. I know your mother told you to share, but my recommendation is don’t share. That just leaves someone behind. If you both like long telephoto lenses, get two.

I can remember the exact moment I thought about the concept of equality. I was in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming waiting for Old Faithful geyser to erupt. While I waited I noticed a man and woman with their tripods setting up closer than me. I could see that he had a large, professional looking camera and she had a tiny, almost toy like camera. I knew that his photographs would be good and hers not so good. It didn’t matter if she was the better photographer or had the better eye, his pictures would be better, and I wondered why would she even try.

Shop for accessories together. Each photographer has his or her preferences and should make equipment choices for the subjects they like to shoot.

Education is always a good idea. Attend a photography class or workshop. Search for them on line or check local camera shops. Take turns going to photography classes or take part in the same workshop. One of my wife’s and my most memorable vacations was when we both attended a weeklong wilderness photography workshop on Mt. Rainier. In my opinion we may have got more out of that class than the other participants because we were able to share information and experiences.

Gently critique each other’s photography. Don’t just store pictures away on the computer. Sit in front to the computer display together and decide which photographs work and which that don’t, delete all the failures, and make a combined presentation of all the successful images to show your friends and family.

One photographer in the family is cool, but two photographers, in my opinion, are much better. If you want your partner to have the same excitement about photography as you do, don’t be stingy with the compliments. And if your spouse is fortunate enough to make a better picture of that waterfall or running deer than you, be sure to tell them.

Open House Versatile Photography Studio

Guests arriveGuests 2Guests 3Guests 4AshleyAshley in Studio Horses at the creekHorse portraitsMonique on the horseThree with MoniqueMonique and dogOpen StudioFun on the HarleyAshley on HarleyMoniqueShy-lynRoasting hotdogs

I was invited to attend a photographer’s open house at a local studio last Sunday. The owners, Dave and Cynthia Monsees, hosted the event and invited photographers of all levels to attend. On their Facebook page they had posted “Versatile Studio took delivery of some new equipment this week. Two new 300-watt strobes arrived along with a 60-inch Octobox that is going to be interesting to use. We now have a 480-watt battery powered strobe complete with a 24-inch soft box for use anywhere on the site. More changes are happening outside of the Studio as we continue to grow.”

Versatile Studio is probably one of the best-equipped rental studios in the British Columbia interior, with a wide array of lighting equipment for use in the studio or on the studio grounds. As well as the indoor location, Versatile Studio facilities include a large open-sided barn equipped with backdrop and electricity for lighting equipment, a mowed meadow complete with an antique buggy and old farm implements, an old Cadillac resting in a field, and the real favourite, a tree lined stream with a sandy beach.

I joined several others to include a local photographer’s group called Coffee n’ Click, several members of the Kamloops Photo Arts Club, and other serious photographers, and I was pleased when Dave told me that twenty-five signed his guestbook. I wish I had thought to get a group photo.

The day started at 10am with refreshments. After a short welcome everyone split up and the excitement began. Several chose to use the studio and I decided to set up high key lighting for Ashley, one of the three models volunteering that day. The other models were Monica and Shy-lyn.

Several photographers walked to the meadow where a neighbor had brought over her horse and a donkey for models to pose on. Another group chose go down to the stream to take pictures.

I didn’t stay long in the studio. There were so many excited people competing for the model’s attention that after a couple quick portraits I moved on. A Harley Davidson motorcycle had also been loaned to the studio and I rolled it into position in front of a painted backdrop that hung in the open barn, where I tried out the new battery operated, wireless 480w studio light with a 60-inch Octabox, and added a large gold reflector I had brought from my store. The results were great.

The day was fun, most photographers barely stopped for lunch and before I knew it people were roasting hotdogs over an open fire and it was 4pm. I enjoy events like this where one can interact with other photographers are just having fun doing photography. Usually I use that studio as a place of work where I lead workshops on studio lighting, but on this day I didn’t have to be “on” and was able to relax and talk to other photographers.

This week the Kamloops Photographer’s Facebook page was filled with photographs from the open house. I am pretty confident that everyone had a great time at Versatile Studio’s event.

I always look forward to your comments. Thanks, John