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The Quest for an "Iconic" Portrait: Intimate and Polished


After a couple of months in the winter doldrums, I seem to be finding my way back via music portraiture. In this tutorial, I'm going to look at the whos, hows and whys of my quest to create iconic portraits.

I'll be doing two separate shoots with the same subject. In this first session, I hope to achieve a look that is intimate and polished, and in the second session, I want a look with more editorial distance and a final image that is more raw and real.

Why Music?

I've always been into music. I've played various instruments over the years, I studied it in high school. I've always had musician friends, and it's always been a source of visual inspiration and a frequent soundtrack to post-processing. So naturally, I've wanted to shoot music on and off for a while now.

I'm not really much into concert photography (though done well, it looks amazing). I'm more after the quieter energy of commercial portraiture. Not only do I get more control over the aesthetic, but I get to capture the person the music comes from, rather than the persona performing it. This is a vital distinction to me.

Virginia, where I live, the southeastern US, and the East Coast has a strong musical culture, so not only is commercial music portraiture a personally fulfilling genre for me, it also seems practical business-wise.


What I was particularly looking for for this shoot was to start off with some iconic, black-and-white shots. I'm a huge fan of black and white, and I have a tendency to think and see in that more than colour. In portraiture in particular, I feel like it has a way of cutting through all the excess and getting to the heart of things.

I often feel like colour is a character in its own right taking attention away from the actual subject
I often feel like colour is a character in its own right, taking attention away from the actual subject.

To a certain extent, this is what I mean by iconic. When you think of iconic portraits from the last 50 years, whether colour or black and white, musical or otherwise, they all have one thing in common: the subject's character and emotion are front and center. 

To me, this is what makes a portrait, portraying a person means more than simply replicating their appearance. The more iconic portraits are the ones which emphasize character and emotion the most successfully. This is a rather substantial hurdle to overcome, but that's precisely the job of a portrait artist.

These types of image seem to rely primarily on very simple lighting, usually highly modeling, bringing out every last detail of the subject. This is certainly the case for male subjects, and frequently for women too, as "unflattering" as it can be. This brings me to the "who."


My subject is Brad Taylor, a bassist who I recently shot for a personal project unrelated to music. However, he was an interesting and fun person which, combined with my interest in commercial music photography, led to the inevitable result of another shoot based on his music. 

Obviously, a well-connected musician isn't typically going to fall into your lap, but if you hang out in the right places (universities, bars, music halls) and online circles (following local creatives on Twitter), there's a good chance of meeting at least one.

Brad That physique is P90X apparently
Brad. That physique is P90X, apparently.

He had actually wanted to work with me again anyway, though I suspect he figured I would be doing more sports/fitness shoots, rather than following his particular interests.

How do you get a model to work with you? Well, first, have good work. The better your portfolio is, the more people will want to work with you.

Second, once your portfolio has you through the door, be fun and engaging. Ask relevant questions, but don't interrogate. Respond with relevant anecdotes or thoughts of your own, chit-chat about local news, whatever. Also, be excited about what you're working on. No need to be bouncing off the walls, but if you're visibly enthusiastic about the project, others are more likely to be as well.

So, to get your "who," be in the right places at the right times, have good work to show to generate interest, be genuinely interested in them, and be enthusiastic about your projects. Kinda like dating!


So, now they're in front of your camera. How are you going to light them? You're not trying to attract attention to the lighting, but at the same time you want them to look interesting, so that if you do manage to get them to expose their "soul," all the conditions are correct to capture it in an aesthetically interesting way.

While content should be front and center, it's not the be-all and end-all. The most amazing photograph, poorly lit, isn't a great photo. Conversely, a shot bereft of content but lit fantastically is, at best, a teaching example. Content and aesthetic have to work together to seamlessly create a coherent message.

My aim here was to spend 10-15 minutes at the beginning of the session figuring out exactly what lighting I wanted, which I kept light and fun, no pressure, just playing and seeing what I liked.

Playing with light swapping props in and out
Playing with light, swapping props in and out, seeing what poses worked.

Brad had also brought props, and we used them to see what worked and what didn't.

I started off with the beauty dish from top-center, which I pretty much kept throughout the shoot because I love the way the light falls off from it. I had Brad forward and used a couple of strips to light the seamless in the background, to get a more even field behind him. 

This was working ok, then we moved onto having him a little further back and using the dish to light both him and the seamless. I tried it gridded, which was interesting for a short time, but for the most part, I wasn't really feeling the "classic" white background.

Cool but I dunno I wasnt really feeling it
Cool, but I wasn't really feeling it.

So, I got out a V-flat, stuck it black-side-out against a different wall, and used that as a background instead, and popped the grid back on the dish. This looked much better to me, but the light wasn't quite doing what I wanted it to do.

It lacked a certain presence, so I introduced the smoke machine to give it something to interact with, and give the scene a bit of depth. It was at this point that Brad remembered he had a vaporiser too, so he grabbed that to play with as a prop as well before I smoked the whole room.

So a reggae bassist vapes Go figure
So a reggae bassist vapes. Go figure.

This is where I was getting some very cool images, but I remember realising that we were getting rather off-target, and I was playing around with cool-factor rather than soul. Apparently at this point my wireless triggers heard me and decided to start working intermittently, so that I could focus on simpler lighting!

This was pretty frustrating, but I rolled with it. I gave the beauty dish highlights more attention whilst moving it slightly to the right for a touch of Rembrandt, and focused instead on the communication aspect of the shoot...


I was completely open with Brad about exactly what I wanted and was looking for, and also let him be part of the process of creating the "iconic" image. Since the subject must be completely open and laid bare to be able to get anywhere near an iconic image, they really have to be an integral part of the process of creation. They know themselves better than anyone, though their self-perception may not be what you necessarily want to present in your image.

This is therapy and persuasion time. Get their life story and how they got started, understand what makes them tick and why they do what they do, get them thinking about important moments that have brought them to where they are today.

These moments when they're focused on something fundamental to their core and briefly unaware of the camera, these are the fleeting snippets of truth we have to capture for a real portrayal.

Mid-life-story I think I just made a quip to one particular part Interaction interaction interaction I cant say it enough
Mid-life-story. I think I just made a quip to one particular part. Interaction interaction interaction. I can't say it enough.

This is what I did with Brad, who had a pretty interesting, almost rags-to-riches story from over the last ten years or so. I listened and shot, while he talked. Basically, my main job was to interact and try to predict, or react to, his movements and emotions.


You may be wondering why Brad doesn't have his bass guitar in any of these shots. The intent of this session was to capture Brad's personality. The second session is instrument-based. I'll explain my reasoning then.

Back to this session, let's look at the shots!

Image Shortlist

Classic musicians stage confidence
Classic musician's stage confidence, but with a hint of vulnerability.
Smoke and backlighting Whats not to love
Smoke and backlighting... What's not to love?
Post-RAW-adjustment version of the final image Check out the processing below
Post-RAW-adjustment version of the "final image". Check out the processing below.
He decided to look up at the beauty dish I loved the falling light combined with the smoke
He decided to look up at the beauty dish. I loved the falling light combined with the smoke.
I didnt stop shooting when the backlights started stuttering Gridded beauty dish is a wonderful one-light setup by itself
I didn't stop shooting when the backlights started stuttering. Gridded beauty dish is a wonderful one-light setup by itself.
A spot of pensiveness which I brought out by accentuating the DoF making it a little more medium-format-like
A spot of pensiveness, which I brought out by accentuating the depth of field, making it have a medium-format feel.


Final Image


I had an absolute blast doing this shoot! I hope the article's been interesting to potential portrait shooters out there. The most important thing to keep in mind is that it's all about the photographer-subject connection.

Without that moment of intimacy and openness, there's simply no shot for a portrait. It's not simply about what the person looks like. I think we all need reminding of this from time to time.

Be sure to check out my second session, where I attempt a more editorial look that focuses on a more raw and real look.

Questions? Thoughts? Hit up the comments below!

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