Story-Telling with a Portrait

How I Describe What I Shoot…

I consider myself to be more craftsman than artist, more technician than philosopher, and more storyteller than photographer. I think I'm different than many photographers in that respect. I'm not out to express myself or be an artist, I'm just passionate about telling other's stories.
Other things I'm not: I’m not a wedding photographer that’s capturing a beautiful moment, I’m not a family portrait photographer trying to elicit a laugh from a child, I’m not a sports photographer that’s spent years learning to predict action, or any of the dozens of other specialties in photography that creatives far more talented than I am make a living at.
I like to define my specialization as “commercial and editorial portraits.” I think that the word portrait is important to include with the term commercial because I don’t specialize, or market myself for that matter, as a product photographer, or automotive photographer, or any of the many more sub-genres of commercial photography. People need to be included with what I’m shooting. That doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally shoot vehicles, or airplanes, or products, or food… but there will usually be a shot of the driver, or pilot, or consumer, or chef included in my shot list. The same concept applies to saying “editorial portraits,” I use that phrase to refer to the subject of an editorial piece, such as a magazine cover or spread on an engineer, bus driver, astronaut, etc. Many people think of fashion when they hear the term ‘editorial’ because shooting fashion editorials is often its own career path versus commercial fashion, like billboards, ecommerce, etc.
Anyway, I’m not an expert in the definitions of photography specialties. There are about as many different ways to describe photography as there are photographers. I just wanted to set the tone for how I describe what I shoot so I can transition into how I approach what I shoot. So, without further adieu...

How I approach what I shoot…

Approaching my shoots as a craftsman and storyteller means I do a lot of research on my subjects and my clients. I rarely get the opportunity to meet, much less get to know, my subjects before I photograph them, so anything I can find out about their careers, their passions, their personalities, etc., will help me tailor a shot list to the individual, or find the common ground we can talk about while we move through the shoot. Casual conversation can really help to put your subject at ease when they’re uncomfortable in front of the camera, or even put a playlist of music together to give a sense of familiarity to the strange situation they find themselves in, after all, the majority of my subjects are experts in their chosen field, and that field is almost never modelling.
Not a professional model, though the career would definitely suit him, I had RIOT Hospitality CEO Ryan Hibbert vary his smile between frames and felt the soft smile and no smile takes were the strongest portraits, despite Ryan having a really great smile.


Those are some of the key points I’m after when I’m building a photoshoot around a subject or client. Because the commercial client is looking to tell a story with the images as much as the editorial client wants images to compliment an article about the subject, cohesion and details definitely do matter.
Shot for a two-page spread in a magazine about emergency medicine, the details are crucial because trade magazine readers can immediately recognize technical errors in photographs. The story being about police officers administering Narcan in cases of opioid overdoses, I added a needle and tourniquet to the foreground for added context.


For “look” I’m referring to both wardrobe and expression. The wardrobe is important because it helps create context, and context helps tell the story. Without knowing what somebody’s job is, a photo of them dressed for work will tell you a whole lot about it, think firefighter, pilot, chef, police officer, scuba diver, etc. Quite often, your subject's wardrobe is non-descript, like a business suit, nice dress, or just jeans and a t-shirt, so if you're looking to tell a story with this portrait beyond a simple headshot, context will have to be built up in your location, and other smaller details.

Not intended to be the type of portrait where you
smile at the camera, I had rope access technician
Rick Dillman look away with a serious face to add
gravity to the image.
Expression is also critical here. The subject’s expression will absolutely make or break the image and expression is a whole lot deeper than whether they’re smiling or not. What’s the emotion they’re displaying? Eye direction toward the camera or away? The finer details of expression and emotion add depth the image as a whole. There is not really a right or wrong “look” but there is definitely a look that fits the story or brand and one that will just seem out of place. A little tip here, anytime you ask your subject to look off camera during a portrait, give them a specific place to lock their eyes. A target for them to look at keeps their eyes from wandering all over while you shoot, plus as you make minor adjustments you have a baseline to work off of.
In addition to that, not everybody's smile is photogenic. There are many people out there who have a very awkward, or very forced looking smile, and that's a tough one to move past. The key to getting past it is absolutely not making them uncomfortable or self-conscious about it, and just to start shooting. Once you're a few frames into the shoot, the smile may change naturally as they relax, and if it does, great, just plan on throwing the initial frames away and start counting your shots when they actually relax a little bit. Now, if you've shot 20 or so frames and the forced or awkward smile hasn't changed, you tell them you'd like to vary their expression every few shots. Something I tell my subjects is that every time the flash goes off, change your smile a little bit, a little bigger, a little softer, a few with no smile.
Many of the strongest portraits don't have a smile at all, so don't be afraid to ask your subjects to make a soft smile or not to smile.


Location is one of the biggest context influencers you can leverage. Having the power to choose your own location, or having the wisdom to research a location chosen for you are equally important. Being able to schedule your chef in the kitchen, your architect near his/her building, your scuba diver near water is great…
A-10 Pilot  +  Subject Wearing Flight Suit  + Air Force Base  =  Amazing Context and Visual Interest

Arizona Coyotes owner Anthony LeBlanc photographed in
the Coyote's stadium in Glendale, AZ. Location plus Life
tell the story here, small details like the lapel pin, Coyotes
logo in background and the hockey stick finish the image.

However, knowing your less than desirable hotel location has hideous wallpaper and does little to convey the story of your race car driver subject, who happens to be staying there, will ensure that you bring your own background and use look + light + life to tell the story with a background that may not enhance, but at least won’t detract from the overall story.

Sometimes your location is a studio and you rely on wardrobe and expression and lighting to
Chef Charles Kassels photographed in his restaurant's
Paradise Valley Kitchen. There is no question in the viewer's
mind about what Charles does for a living.
shoulder the burden of context, and that’s perfectly acceptable. Not every great shoot happens on-location.  Working in a studio offers benefits rarely afforded with a location shoot, like full environmental control of light, ambiance, temperature, and so on. The studio can also may a composited final image easier to process, where you can shoot your subject with great lighting in a controlled environment, then shoot a background from a fantastic location and combine the shots later in post. Again, sometimes circumstances are out of your control, and if you get an assignment to photograph an Olympic snowboarder in Phoenix, in the summer... a studio will give you air-conditioning and a background that is neutral to the story.
The original plan was to photograph this in a conference room, but given the space limitations
and other challenges, I opted to set up a background outside and have the opportunity for a
much stronger image set. Had the weather not been so wonderful, I would have been forced to
problem solve the conference room conundrum.

Location should never be used as a crutch, however. A stunning and exclusive location will not save an unprepared photographer or disinterested subject.


Photography being the ‘Study of Light’ and all makes the usage of light awfully important to your image. Since I already have my location or locations chosen (or chosen for me), and probably already have a shot list in my head for this shoot, I can begin visualizing the type of light I want to help tell this story for me. Granted, sometimes your hands are tied because of your location, but for the sake of being a craftsman, creating an image based on a vision from the ground-up, let’s say all options are available to you.
A multi-light setup here to bring out the key parts of the image, there is a light on the firefighter operation the Oshkosh Stryker, a light to camera left illuminating the truck, and a light to camera right lighting the foam/water mixture exiting the nozzle. The nozzle lights being on plus several of the truck's lights being on add dimension to the final image.

No flash here, this environmental portrait of Ryan
Hibbert is entirely natural light coming through the
restaurant/bar's large bank of windows.
Light is either ambient or artificial, and of course you can combine them as well. Ambient light can be natural light from the setting sun, or in the shade of a building or tree, it can even be modified with the help of scrims and reflectors. Ambient light can be soft and subtle or harsh and direct depending on location and time of day. Plan your shoot around the light you want to use, not just on the light available. Artificial light can be a strobe or hot light, tungsten or LED, maybe even fluorescent, it can also be soft and subtle or harsh and direct depending on how and if you modify the artificial light. Now, this isn’t intended to be a ‘Lighting 101’ type of post, so I’m not going to go into much more detail of modifiers and lighting setups. I just intend to mention light’s role in sculpting a photograph.

Now, where lighting really becomes crucial is how it follows the story and helps, hurts, or is neutral to our context. You typically don’t light a dynamic portrait of an athlete appearing on a billboard the same way you would light for a magazine feature about a mother and young baby. That’s not to say you must sacrifice your vision at the altar of pre-conceived ideas, but knowing your subject and knowing your client, knowing your location, and having a story to tell will definitely help steer how you choose to light your set.
Nobody cares which celebrity you photographed if your lighting was poorly planned or executed.
This is a quick and simple one-light shot of Tempe, AZ Mayor Mark Mitchell. The location is very recognizable to those familiar with Tempe, AZ., shot at the Tempe Center of the Arts.


I use the term ‘life’ as a reference to all the smaller details that help tell the story and build your cohesive context. The details literally help bring the story to life or add interest to the piece. It can be something subtle like a lapel pin on a suit jacket, or an accent light on a background detail that may have been lost in the shadows. A detail I consider anytime I'm photographing around a vehicle, or anything with its own lights for that matter, is having all available lights turned on. Headlights, taillights, emergency lights on fire trucks or police cars, etc. That's a minor detail you'll see in all of my work that I believe adds visual interest to a scene.
Gilbert Fire Department Captain Dan Reynolds, now retired, photographed at Station 2 in front of Engine 252, wardrobe, location, expression and lighting are all complimentary to the story. The truck's flashing lights are all turned on to add a small, but supportive, element to the visual depth.


When I’m shooting images to accompany an article or a feature I will always always always ask the
client for a copy of the article in advance. Sometimes it’s not possible because the photographer and writer are on the same deadline, but anytime you can preview the article and use it as a guide, I highly recommend it.
ALWAYS shoot something for yourself. When a client is setting up an amazing shoot in an amazing location, don't miss the opportunity to shoot something just for you, even if it's not on the shot list. If you need to, nail your safe shots early, then get the trickier shots on the list wrapped up, but don't end the shoot until you've taken an image YOU want to take.
Your clients hire you with an expectation of quality and of the job getting done regardless of the challenges you faced on set. A big part of professional photography, especially on-location, is problem-solving. You have to deliver the final images, so do what you need to do.
Specialize in what you're passionate about. It's in our nature as creatives to be insecure and to be more critical of our work than anybody else would be, so don't make that worse by taking jobs you're not able to put your whole heart into. I really believe that the quality of image we put out is related to the amount of passion we put in, so I don't even accept shoots that I'm not able to dive into and put all of myself into it.


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