What is a Portrait? or How Much do you Charge?

What is a portrait?

This is going to be one long post. If you aren’t an artist you’ll probably be better off skipping it. If you are an artist you might still be better off skipping it but you may find it interesting anyway as you may have had some of the same considerations. If you’re a prospective client you might gain an insight into some of what is different about me as compared to other photographers.

This is going to ramble a bit. I’m thinking it through as I go along. If I thought it through and then re wrote it I think it might lose something in translation.

What is a portrait? Well many dictionaries say it is a “likeness of someone, especially one showing the face, made by a painter or photographer.”

Hmm “especially”? Does that mean a picture could still be a portrait without showing the face?

Maybe. If I accept the idea of “likeness” first then I might be able to make a portrait by showing other parts of the body but excluding the face. That might be an interesting challenge. But it isn’t what I wanted to write about.

For some a portrait is any picture showing the head and shoulders of a person whether it be formally made or just a snap of the moment shot.

So it obviously means different things to different people. That could just render the word useless because none can agree on what it is.

But then it does mean something to me and as this is my website and as you might be looking at this site with a view to possibly having me make a portrait then my opinion on the subject, it seems to me, perhaps, maybe, is worth writing about.

Where am I coming from? Well I have studied some art history and I have looked at a lot of paintings and photographs and I have looked at the business practices of a lot of photographers. The end result was a bunch of confusion and the writing of this post is supposed to help me clarify my own thoughts on the matter and perhaps start a discussion on it.

The most obvious and clear distinction between a photograph and a painting is that a painting takes a lot longer to make, usually.

That is not always the case. I’ve made images that began with a 160th of a second in the camera but then took two or three days of work in processing to complete the image to my satisfaction. But that isn’t the usual case in photography, especially “professional portrait photography”.

On the whole the length of time to process film and then to make prints in the chemical age of photography was still a lot less than it took to create a painted portrait. Why is this important? Well time is a scarce resource.

If a painter was going to take the time to create a portrait he could not use that same time for chopping firewood or for baking bread. He therefore needed to get an exchange for his efforts in order to eat. So, if he was skilled and his work was well liked, he could offer his services as a painter to create a painted portrait. He would not as a rule create a series of painted portraits and have his clients choose which one they liked. He was not paid for his time but for his final painting.

In a sense this was a good time for portraiture. It took a lot more than buying a camera and some lenses and having some business cards printed to say you were an artist. Because of the effort and time involved there were fewer incompetents in the field.

In photography it has been very easy to be click happy. We can shoot at 5 frames per second or more during a session. We can have the subject take up several different poses and shoot dozens of frames of each of them. We can go to different locations and do the same kind of thing again and again. In the course of a couple of hours we can make hundreds of different looking frames. Even before the age of digital we would likely shoot several rolls of film in the same way. What this has done to the idea of a portrait is quite profound. It has gone from a one off once in a lifetime proposition to something you could have several times per year with a set of prints for each one.

I am not trying to debate whether this is a good or a bad thing. Economically it is obviously a good thing. It means people can have as many or as few portraits as they want. It also means a photographer can sell more than one image from a session. But I do believe, or perhaps it is just a fixed idea, that a portrait is supposed to be one image that rises above all other possible images. This is the idea I want to examine.

On the one hand it is ridiculous to think you could capture the essence, the ultimate image, of a person at one sitting and have that be the final word on the matter. People change from hour to hour let alone day to day or year to year.

On the other hand you could make an image that many would recognise as capturing the essence of a particular person and I think that is a valid pursuit. Or another goal could be to make a picture that no one will ever surpass. I’m sure that is a valid undertaking even if you never succeed as it pushes you to aim higher.

This discussion also has considerations to do with my pricing model which is very different to most other photographers. I like my pricing model and am very comfortable with it as a pricing model but it creates a conflict in my head nonetheless.

My pricing model is very simple and goes like this; The session is free. The client only pays for those images they want to buy. The session is my investment of time to produce images the client will want to buy. Why on earth should a client have to pay me for my investment without knowing they will get something they like? And why should a client pay for my time at all? They can’t hang two hours on a wall and admire it for decades to come. My time is valuable to me but it is not valuable to my clients. They just want good pictures.

Does this mean I’m cheap? It does if I don’t produce much of value to the client. Whereas if I produce many pieces of work the client just has to have then we both win and the client doesn’t have to take any risks with their money.

This model keeps me sharp. It forces me to work as hard as I know how to produce top notch work. It also forces me to study and work on all aspects of my technique. It also forces me to get into very good communication with my prospective clients to find out what they would really like to have and to let those clients go somewhere else if all they want is a passport photo.

So I like the philosophy behind the pricing model and I think it is morally right.

And I have achieved my purpose in writing this post!

Because the next step was to say that the pricing model says I need to produce lots of good images whereas my ideas on portraiture seemed to say that I must focus on making one exceptional image.

The resolution is this; It is a false purpose to go for making one exceptional image that will surpass all future attempts by anyone else. In order to do that I would have to know far too many things about the future that I couldn’t possibly know. That would lead to a freeze of indecision about how to proceed. My image may one day attain such a status but it is largely out of my hands if it does or not. Another and not unimportant factor is that I am making pictures for clients and not just for myself. It is they who must value the work and not some notion of posterity.

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  1. […] wrote some time ago about shooting portraits and at the time I pondered the idea of making one ultimate image that would be the last word on […]

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