Who Are Your Photos Really For?

(By Olaf Blecker, via The F STOP)

When you make a portrait of someone, who are you trying to please? The subject? Yourself? The editor of a publication?

All three? (Heaven forbid.)

As an editorial shooter, I was always trying to please me first and the publication second. And if I made the subject happy, too, that was fine. But I never expected to please all three.

More after the jump.

Olaf Blecker, who is featured in the current edition of The F STOP (and who shot the above portrait of author Phillip Roth) is absolutely not trying to please his subjects. In fact, some people specifically request that they not be shot by him. Which, IMO, is one of the main reasons why his photos are so interesting.

Magazines (WIRED comes to mind) do not exist only to be filled with namby-pamby, flattering photos of people. (How boring would that be?) And yet, if your first goal is to please the person sitting for your photo, that is exactly where you might be headed.

Finding a unique (and perhaps less-than-flattering) lighting style can be the first step in defining a new look for yourself. In its current issue, the F STOP magazine interviews Blecker, who shares lighting info, post-processing techniques and weaves a very interesting discussion on the different forces at play in creating an interesting portrait.

For instance, in the photo above, he is working with two lights (one in an umbrella, one in a diffused reflector) with some very simple post processing. I wouldn't shoot my mother-in-law like that, but I find Blecker's approach very interesting. And it has me thinking about my own lighting.

See the full interview at the F STOP mag here, and see more of Blecker's work at his website.


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger righteye said...

When i worked for a newspaper this could be true. Please us and who cared about the subject. Working now for commercial clients in a small town I try to please me first but have to be very concious of how the client will like the shots. I do like repeat business.

February 26, 2008 11:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Dave:

I just experienced taking 90+ portraits for a local youth basketball league. It was one of those volunteer things that if I didn't do it, it probably wouldn't have been done. I was sort of dreading it. Rarely will I wake up in the middle of the night. But there I was about 3AM - picking through lenses-trying to decide which one to use in a couple of hours. Then the" curve balls" not inst individuals, but team pictures & lil cheerleaders. But, I let myself get into it & produced decent, sharp pics. one mama later thanked me for helping create memories. Any way, hats off to you guys & gals who do this for a living. Think I'll keep to my day job... no! wait! I forgot, I'm retired.

Pablo (flickr: pmsswim)

February 27, 2008 12:09 AM  
Anonymous Ryan Carver said...

I very much enjoyed that interview, and used the lighting diagram and style as inspiration for a self portrait experiment a few days ago.

Coming from two generations of family portrait photographers, the idea of explicitly doing something that the subject won't enjoy is odd, but somehow liberating.

February 27, 2008 1:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the answer is simple. You try to please the one who pays the commission.

February 27, 2008 1:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the article at F-Stop
Olaf Blecker has antennae, but don’t think that makes him special. “I think everybody has these antennas. In German you would say, menschdenken, which is the knowledge of man.”

Even though my native language is German I've yet to come across the word "menschdenken".

"Mensch" means "man" or "human being" and "denken" means "to think" but the word menschdenken does not exist in my opinion.

February 27, 2008 4:54 AM  
Anonymous Wojtek said...

Absolutely great interview and really interesting (and valid) point of view. Thanks.

February 27, 2008 5:04 AM  
Blogger tschnitzlein said...

Very interesting interview - especially the aspect of getting the subject to be portrayed involved in the shoot.

I have often wondered why on my (amateur)portrait shoots, always the pictures taken in the very first minutes of the shoot turned out to be the most intense (not that improvement wouldn't have been possible, but the shots just didn't get getter). Getting the subject involved in the process of shooting and keeping him/her concentrated by making him busy with instructions (even if those aren't important in themselves) is a very interesting point.

Thanks for the link, and for an interesting suggestion for my future portrait sessions.

February 27, 2008 5:19 AM  
Blogger Akis D. said...

Hello Dave..
I saw this on the flickr pool and i just want to know your opinion about this equipment.


my blog..

Thank you Dave

Akis Douzlatzis
(excuse my teribble English..I am from Greece)

February 27, 2008 5:20 AM  
Blogger Henrik Høy said...

Good question! There is no doubt about the importantance of keeping focus on who the pictures should please, but I understand it is easily forgotten during the shoot. Fortunately the things are a bit simpler on an amateur level without a publisher and only the models and I to think about :-)

A couple of weeks ago I did a Strobist/Chase Jarvis inspired project where I mainly tried to please myself since it was for my portfolio - see the result here:


I applied a lot of techniques and inspiration learned from Strobist during the shoot.

To mention a few:
*Only available light and manual strobes (cactus triggers)
*Bert Stephani home made strip lights. One is directly visible on the "dance pictures".
*Straw snoots
*Swatch Book Color filters
*Smoke machine (not Halloween version, though)
*No money involved, all participants in it for free or new portfolio shoots (location, makeup, models, photographer, soundtrack from podcastsafeaudio)
*"Light-painting" inspired by http://strobist.blogspot.com/2007/11/little-light-painting.html
*The movement on the dance pictures was frozen with a strobe (umbrella) since I needed a shutter speed of 1/60 to get enough of the ambient, moody light.
*The entire project was started because of Chase Jarvis' saying something like (in relation to his Ninja portfolio shoot): Before anyone will hire you to shoot a certain assignment you must first show that you can do something like it.

Thanks for all the things you have learned me until now... I'll keep reading :-)


February 27, 2008 5:36 AM  
Blogger ..th said...

you brought it up.. now let's see that mother in law portrait, olaf blecker style ,-)

February 27, 2008 7:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

his photography is certainly very 'northern' european, has that modern frosty look. his photos are certainly powerful but at the same token my opinion differs from most of what has been said. in most cases i like to treat the subject with respect and not make a caricature, unless that is the intention of it all. however, a good photo or portrait in this case shouldn't serve as a selfish tool to create something which is far removed from the individual and only serves one purpose: to make me happy as a photographer. i know many photographers work like that. however, in my role as a photographer i try to make powerful images leaving the dignity of the people intact. not saying that many of you don't but that is something i try to adhere to.

i guess i am not cut out as a news photographer : )

sorry for posting an anonymous post, will create a user name soon.

by the way, hats off to this wonderful strobist site !

February 27, 2008 7:33 AM  
Anonymous Jason said...

Who should you try and please when taking a portrait?

I thought it was simple: You always try and please whomever is footing the bill. Be it an editor, a client, or your aunt Matilda.

February 27, 2008 7:33 AM  
Anonymous My Camera World said...

Ultimately I have to please me first.. It has to meet artistic and quality standards, whether that be pretty enough or weird enough. If I am not happy with an image then the client will not be able to get it.

I do understand what the client needs are for the images and I hope my interpretation will fully meet those needs, but not always.

Niels Henriksen

February 27, 2008 9:40 AM  
Blogger shawnpix said...

There is a fourth set of people you forgot to mention that you sometimes have to shoot for and try to please: Your audience/the readers. Good luck trying to please each and every one of them collectively!

Shawn Lynch

February 27, 2008 12:21 PM  
Anonymous Pierre said...

Hey David,

I wasn't sure how to contact you anymore, but your readers might find this article interesting:


it's a tutorial / explanation on how flash durations work and why they are important to consider when shooting fast action sports.


February 27, 2008 1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post seems almost like a follow on from Chase Jarvis' one recently (yesterday, the day before?).

He said pretty much "it comes from within" (forgive me if it's not a correct quote, but it's certainly the gist - read his recent blogs to get the full story).

It's what I love and hate about doing art in general and photography in particular. Getting the "within" angle for a particular picture.

Because it ain't got nothing if it ain't got soul. And that means (for a purely art point of view - and I understand that there may be reasons to do a soulless picture; we all like to eat occaissionally) the bottom line is you.

Great work David, technically inspiring and full of soul!

February 27, 2008 1:38 PM  
Blogger ogalthorpe said...

I shoot for myself. I would should for someone who would pay me to shoot for them. But I haven't asked anyone to pay me yet. But even then I would probably shoot for myself first.

BTW, I just shot some fancy raw artsy ad-type stuff of some hawt models with a setup almost exactly like that. I used either a bare flash or a DIY beauty dish instead of a diffused reflector. But the angles were very similar.

February 27, 2008 1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If only he could design a website 1/100th as good as the portrait above.

Holy. Worst website ever.


February 27, 2008 4:15 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Excellent article, much appreciated.

Does anyone else find lighting diagrams, like the one in the fStop article, to be a bit frustrating? Why is so much effort expended to illustrate the lighting setup in two dimensions - and record the distances, height, and modifier type for each light source in the diagram - when the real data we need are lighting ratios?

There are just too many variables with reflectors, strobe power, umbrella materials, etc.

Am I just whining unnecessarily, or would it be more useful to know that the lighting ratio was 2:1 or "key light was f11 , fill light was f8?"

February 27, 2008 5:24 PM  
Blogger Cecilia said...

Just so you know, www.strobist.com will not resolve for me, even though www.strobist.blogspot.com will.

February 27, 2008 6:34 PM  
Anonymous Rex said...

You shoot what you show in editorial. The subject is a component of your composition. If part of your aesthetic involves engaging the subject either getting them to do something and elicit a particular gesture or reducing them to a prop in your image, that depends really on your ability to direct people. I'm not saying any one owes anything beyond simple altruism to their subject, but the idea of treating them with total indifference, which is very easy and currently trendy, runs the risk of abuse. Quiet observations are one thing "Krupsing" them for sheer effect is another. Challenging the complacency of the viewer is the goal, knowing how far to go is the key.

February 28, 2008 7:28 AM  
Blogger MASilva said...

Great interview on F Stop. Here is my "Self Portrait by Olaf".


It was an interesting experience. I think everyone should take a bit of time and shoot themselves this way. First thought for me: "Great, prison orange". After a bit, though, the image becomes, dare I say, heroic.

Set up was harder than it looks. Mine still needs work. I think my balance was pretty good, but the lights need to be farther away or focused a bit more to get the pop that's in Olaf's images.

Fun. Thanks!

February 28, 2008 9:19 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home