My Journey in Mastering Portrait Photography

24 Aug

I wanted to show the changes and evolution I have gone though in my portrait work. Right from the very first portraits I took nearly 2 1/2 years ago until the very recent. What a journey. Lots of mistakes. Lots of learnings. Lots of fun. Lots of pain and anxiety.

So ladies and Gentlemen, I present you ‘My Journey in Masteting Portrait Photography’.


One of the very first portraits I took was of a friend of mine, Vasu.

I can remember the moment when I took this image. I was using a Canon EOS 300D and a Tamron 80-200mm f/3.5-5.6 ( I still have the 300D and will never sell it off but I kept the Tamron for about 2 months before selling it off).

My technical knowledge of photography was to point and click. This one was taken at f/8 at ISO 800 and flash fired. With what I know now, I would have definitely made a lot of changes as to how this was taken. Still, what struck me as I look at this image now is that aside from the technical aspects (which I would change) at the moment of capture, I find the image stunning for the emotive quality and the timing. I knew, even then, that I had a knack for ‘seeing’ things but I was frustrated that I didn’t know what I was doing with the camera dials and knobs and stuff. Thus began a journey of mastery which consumes me even now.

The next milestone is this portrait of Johari,

which was taken about 5 months after Vasu.

I can talk for hours about this image and how much joy it was for me to take and how much joy it brought to the parents when I gave this image to them. This was a milestone for me in so far as I became technically more competent. As much as image making depends a lot on the image maker, the tools the image maker uses is also important. I bought myself a Canon EOS 30D and sold it 2 months later and bought myself a Canon EOS 5D and the EF 135mm f/2.0. The ability to throw the background out of focus with the f2.0 gave me more freedom to isolate the subjects. I began to realise the power of aperture control and the wonders of bokeh and would readily admit that I am an aperture freak. At this stage, I still consider myself to be more of a snapshot photographer,

– See something nice and take a picture
– Make sure aperture is opened up as wide as possible.
– if I use flash, put the camera on program mode.

At this juncture, I knew that I had something to offer as I committed myself totally towards mastering portrait photography. This decision herald what I would consider an explosive period of learning and growth which I am still experiencing.

3 things contributed towards this period of growth. Firstly, I got myself involved in a flickr group called ‘The Portfolio Pro‘. The groups founder, Tiny Malone, had seen some of my images and invited me to join the group. The special thing about this group is the system of feedback that it provides the members. We would all comment on each others work and give suggestions on what works and what doesn’t work. I grew a lot not only form the feedback that I received but also from giving feedback to others. I developed a more critical eye for my images and cultivated a deeper understanding of photography.

The second factor was an obsession of acquiring knowledge. I bought so many books on photography that it now fills up nearly half of my library shelf. I would go to book shops and flick through books explaining the technical elements of photography. After awhile, the contents would seem repetitious but that didn’t deter me. If there was just one section of paragraph which had new information I would buy it and read it and try it.

The third factor was a need for technically excellent equipment. I had bought a lot of equipment before then,

Canon EOS 30D (sold after 3 months) and bought Canon EOS 5D
Tamron 70-200mm f/3.5-5.6 (sold after 2 months) and bought Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM II Macro
Canon Speedlite 430 EX (sold after 2 months) and bought Speedlite 580 EX
Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 EX DG (sold after 2 months) and bought Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L
Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM II Macro (sold after 2 months) and bought Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS

The significance of this (very frivolous but necessary) period of buying and selling equipment could be summed up in one phrase- removal of mediocrity. All the equipment I bought was great. The Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 is a great lens. The problem was that I always said that I would buy certain lenses and equipment ‘when I am ready’. I could afford all the exotic L lenses but I told myself that I am not ready to use it. I realise I was sabotaging myself buy not allowing myself to buy ‘the best’. The very expensive lesson for me here was to get and use what is considered to be the best in the field and grow into it. Anything else represented a ‘mediocre’ mindset. This does not however mean that one can only take great images with exotic equipment as I believe that great images can be taken with any equipment. It just means that you have to believe you are a great photographer who just needs to learn some stuff.

The next image I will talk about is this one of Johnny Moreno,

Johnny Moreno

This image is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was one of the first portraits taken with my (then) newly acquired favourite lens of all time, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L which is touted by Canon as the ‘Definitive’ portrait lens. This lens has served me extremely well. A tough beast to tame if used wide open but when mastered is capable of the most unique and incredible portraits.

The other significant point of this image is that it is the first time where I requested a person to take his portrait. I called him up and told him I wanted to take his portrait (I choose him because he had an interesting beard). There were a lot of great images that came from that shoot but I considered it to still be an exercise in point and shoot. It was almost as if anyone with the same equipment would have taken the same picture. I was of the opinion that there wasn’t an element of a unique ‘style’ to it.

A few months later in February 2007 I took a series of shots (including a self portrait session) of different people at different location.

Reza Self Portrait



Again, some great pictures but to be honest totally by chance. Why by chance? Because I did not think I could have replicated the shot if I were told too. I felt that there were too many things that was guess work.

A breakthrough came when I was reading about Ansell Adams. He writes in a series of books (‘The Camera‘, ‘The Negative‘ and ‘The Print‘) that there are 3 things a photographer should master. The 2 technical components is to master printing and exposure but the most important aspect is what he calls’ visualisation’ which is basically the ability of the photographer to see the image in him mind before any picture is taken. Once that process takes place, then the technical components comes into play to bring that mental image to life. This had a profound effect on me as it lifted me out of my depression. Simply put, I had to begin to ‘see’ images and portraits in my mind prior to taking the picture. This is significant because before this, I didn’t see anything. I didn’t visualise anything. I didn’t have a vision. All I did was just to point the camera wide open and shoot. I would say that this realisation was the one that began to push me towards a more artistic use of photography to what I was used to.

I now had a plan.I was going to master everything I can in 3 areas:
1. The exposure which I defined as the knowledge I have to gain to help me control the technical aspects which takes place the split second before I press the shutter.
2. The printing aspects which I defined as mastering post processing tools (Photoshop) as well as the output (whether it be a print or as a web output)
3. the visualisation aspects which simply put is about having that image in my mind before anything else happens.

The next significant event with this new found strategy came a few months later with this image below.

To be continued….


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3 responses to “My Journey in Mastering Portrait Photography

  1. amri

    August 28, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    the 3rd pic after John Moreno’s looks like an x-colleague. Is that Sal ? If it is, small world…..:-)

  2. therighteye

    August 28, 2008 at 6:19 pm

    Yup Amri. That’s Sal all right.

  3. viktoryian

    April 29, 2009 at 8:23 am

    The picture of the boy (the second one from top) is my favorite one! So much character and life in the boy´s eyes! You managed to capture a great moment!


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