Portrait Photography and Creativity

Is portrait photography becoming more of a technical pursuit than a creative one?

The new Sony A9 camera shoots 20 frames per second and can go to a 5 five second burst, that means it can take one hundred high quality Raw images in five seconds – wow! The question I have is this – how could a photographer using this kind of technology ever miss the perfect shot.

There have been so many excellent photographs taken over the years that have captured ‘a split second’ in time. Robert Capa’s defining photograph of the soldier falling as he is shot dead during the Spanish Civil War is one such photo, as is Jonny Jenkins’ photo of American civil rights marchers. With the Sony A9 camera, these guys could have simply taken one hundred shots and picked out the best one at leisure back in their offices. Or possibly the best forty or fifty shots!

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Consider the famous American sports photographer Neil Leifer. He had to understand the sport he was covering, anticipate the action, set the technical aspects of the camera and coordinate all of these elements whilst creating the composition that delivered a brilliant photograph.

Nowadays, it would seem that modern sports photographers only need to put the camera on motor drive and – using its extraordinary technology – simply grab what is essentially a video frame. Perhaps there is a new career emerging – a ‘video grabber’! I must admit to feeling less impressed by modern action pictures, than when viewing those taken by the real masters of their craft – perfectly judged, perfectly timed, perfectly captured.portrait photography

Part of the skill of being an actors headshot photographer is mastering the technical requirements. Knowing how to set up the correct lighting, calculating the correct exposure and creating the correct composition. Although composition and lighting are the responsibility of the photographer, the exposure is accurately calculated by modern cameras. To the degree that the famous British photographer Martin Parr says he now: ‘photographs in full program mode’. So, fully automatic and allowing the camera to take all of the exposure decisions, without input from a world-class professional.

Which brings us to another question – is photography, in particular headshot and portrait photography, becoming less about skill and more about technical process?

To my mind, no. Although the camera can create and capture the perfect exposure virtually every time, an impactful portrait is only created when the photographer engages with their subject. Lights create an effect, but it is the portrait photographer’s skill in relating to their subject, their ability to encourage, cajole or draw out of them an expression, that captures their personality. In the moment of expression.

I suggest that whatever technological advances are made in the field of cameras and corresponding software, portrait photography will always be more about a personal relationship than about the equipment.