Over recent years there’s been a lot written about the technological advances already available in photography, and how they have affected professional portrait photographers. There’s also been some pretty wild speculation about where it might lead to next.
Personally I welcome all this progress – it’s never been easier to make photos and share them with others and there’s so much choice when it comes to buying cameras. We can document our friends, our holidays and our loved ones in multiple snapshots, and photos are produced in their trillions every year.
However I wonder if people still look for something different when it comes to portraits and professional photography?
Something to cherish
Even before the invention of photography there was a basic human need to own the likeness of one’s loved ones. This need was partially met by sketches, Victorian cameos (silhouettes) and, if you could afford it, a formal oil painting. The invention of photography, however, opened the floodgates and soon pretty much anyone could afford to have a professional portrait taken in a high street studio.
The daguerreotype, the tintype and the carte-de-visite were massively popular, simply because it’s human nature to want to capture ourselves in permanent form. Some of these early portraits were quite crude in execution while others emulated the look of traditional oil paintings.
At the end of the 19th century the arrival of affordable “snapshot” cameras such as the Kodak Brownie made it possible to take one’s own photos without having to pay a professional to do the job. The resulting snaps filled family albums which were handed down through the generations. There still remained a distinction between amateur and professional photography though.
On some occasions, such as weddings, graduations and other life events, only a professional portrait would do. Often this meant a visit to a studio and the acquisition of a large and expensive print to hang on the wall.
The future of professional portrait photography
In the late 20th century the introduction of affordable digital cameras, and later the smartphone, changed the rules again. Photography became almost universally available, but increasingly the photos remained as digital files stored on the camera or smartphone. As a result, traditional photo printing businesses began to struggle and in some cases go out of business. Professional photographers have also had to adapt to these changing times, trying to offer something that the amateur snap cannot provide, such as “styled” photos using lights or props. The example below demonstrates this last point – by isolating the subject from the background and using dramatic lighting it’s possible to create a look not available to the casual photographer.
There are now so many options available for shooting images: smartphones, compact cameras and DSLRs can all shoot still images, movies and hybrids of the two (“live” photos). The resulting photos can be shared instantly on social media, displayed on your TV screen, printed out in book form, on a mug, T-shirt, etc. It seems likely that in the future technology will continue to advance at breakneck speed, offering the consumer more and more options for interactive images, 3D displays, moving portraits, and more. But when you think about it, what do we actually want from a portrait?
What makes a professional portrait?
It’s been said that photography is more about the photographer than the camera. The camera records; the photographer visualises and then strives to get the technology to produce what they saw in their mind’s eye. As a rule any portrait needs to be an image that captures a likeness of the person, but at the same time shows them in a flattering way. This is one of the skills that a professional portrait photographer brings: the ability to look at a person’s features and know how to capture them at their best.
It’s partly down to the way light falls on the face, and also choosing the correct (“best”) angle to view them from. The sitter also needs to be sufficiently relaxed before shooting begins – being photographed can be a stressful experience. These skills are timeless, and nothing to do with the technological advances within photography – they are about observation and intuition.
I predict that although the technology will continue to evolve there will remain the desire to create an image that references the long tradition of portraiture in painting and professional photography.
People like to be made to appear “more than they are”, and it’s part of the photographer’s job to be able to capture them in a sympathetic, flattering way. The photo studio experience is partly about being made to feel special, and being “styled” through lighting, pose and camera angle to create something special. I don’t think that approach to portraiture will ever disappear, though it will have to adapt to changing times.
Enterprising photography studios now offer make-over experiences, “boudoir” sessions and extensive digital retouching to emulate the traditional oil painting. In a response to the dramatic scenes familiar from movies it’s now possible to have your kids photographed as if they’re superheroes flying through the air, dealing with falling buildings, etc.
The Future is here (almost)
The traditional framed print still has its place on the nation’s mantelpiece, though digital frames have been around for a while now and HD video screens are making inroads as alternative ways of displaying digital images – either still or moving.
Christine Templeton-Parker’s recent exhibition at Pickford’s House in Derby featured high resolution portraits displayed on large LCD screens. The images appeared to be stills, though every so often one of the subjects would blink or shift in their chair – beautiful, if a little unsettling. You can view one of her images on Vimeo here. These displays could show the way forward for the professional portrait photographer: “Living Portraits” may eventually replace the traditional still image on display in the home.
Another similar development is a revival of the Polaroid brand, but this time as an app for mobile – it shoots 1 second of moving image which appears as a still, but by swiping across it with your finger or mouse it comes to life. Click here to view a sample image
Photography and holography have now merged, requiring something more than flat screen displays. The FogScreen, whose patented “immaterial” display is a free-floating screen of dry fog you can walk through, offers a potentially interesting solution, though it’s still in its infancy.
Another technology that has been around for a while is 3D. Movies have been exploring the technology for years and Microsoft’s Hololens headset already offers sophisticated 3D environments that respond to the user. Ultimately there will be a successful means of producing three dimensional photos that can be viewed without the need for clunky headsets or goggles and this could lead to holographic portraits that you can walk around. At this stage it’s still a developing technology that requires serious investment before it becomes a commercial proposition.
Where to now?
The business of professional photography has gone through some dramatic changes over the past twenty years, especially since the advent of digital cameras. Many people now possess their own high quality cameras and new technology offers some very seductive alternative solutions to the traditional print.
As a professional photographer I obviously hope that the demand for quality portraits will continue for the next hundred years. I believe that it will, whether presented in the form of a holographic display or a digital implant directly into your brain, because there is still no substitute for a carefully staged, well-lit professional portrait.