5 Stages of a Wall-worthy Portrait

Prints Charming Photography's 5 Stages of a Portrait

Truth be told, it would be cheaper for you to run down to Costco, buy the latest DSLR Camera kit, employ your neighbor's kid with a $50 Starbucks card and poof!.. Cheap family portraits, ready to mail.

The DIY obsession of the mid 2000's led newly engaged couples to believe in the same fantasy. You can now buy the surgeon's scalpal, and voila! You're a neurosurgeon. Okay, portrait photography may not be brain surgery, but bad photographs can certainly make you want to remove an organ or two.

Case: My former spouse and I were married before I had a studio. I didn't know of any professional photographers in the Portland area. (think pre-internet) We hired a studio & wedding photographer not knowing what we should look for. Tons of samples, he was president of a state photo organization, and frankly, he was cheap. Hired!

Cheap, we discovered, was very expensive. Cheap meant that he booked several weddings per weekend. Double-booking our date, he sent his assistant instead. The pictures were awful, the photographer stood behind them in defense and we left angry about our choice.

SOOC (Straight out of camera)

SOOC (Straight out of camera)

The day I saw a bride cry at bad wedding photos, was the day I told myself - "If he can sleep tonight, there's room in the business for a photographer with a conscious." That thought, in less than three years, caused me to cash in my Fred Meyer retirement savings in 1995 and birthed Prints Charming Photography in the basement of my house.

The question still remained. Why is it that we charge so flippin' much for a piece of paper? In short - we're not selling paper. You're investing in what we put on it. Time, talent, training, lighting, posing, experience, levity, empathy and countless other things difficult to measure.

I'm really not trying to hypnotize you into hiring me, really. Really!.. Just keep your eyes on the shiny pendulum... You are now getting VERY sleepy...


Okay, joking aside, I do hope that this guide will help you to understand the difference. It's the stuff I wished that I knew then, though grateful that my frustrated ignorance led me to this craft that I love more every day!

WARNING: Stage 2 (below) is the most informative, least-understood information about digital photographs. If you suffer from Vertigo, I recommend that you skip it and just enjoy your bliss of not knowing.

**Stage 1** - Push button.

There's a term in our business that represents "good enough". SOOC (Straight Out Of Camera) and straight to a disc. This is some great tax-free money for a teenager, but unlikely something you'll hang in your home, or brag about keeping in your wedding budget. Been there, done that!..


**Stage 2** - Color Correction

Matching color between camera, computer and printer is not as easy as you might think. In fact, it's odds are nearly as low as winning the lottery!

SECRET: My full-frame sensor, $3500 camera with a $2000 lens, $1200 portable lights, using custom white-balance will not look any better on the back of the camera display, than the iPhone in my pocket. (shh...)

Of course there are some big differences such as - Inside of my Canon 5D Mark lll, there is a tiny little microscopic digital artist making sure that faces weren't yellow, orange or Smurf! (or so I wish) Truth is, I can easily take a crappy photo with my DSLR.

The REAL biggest difference (besides creative/manual controls) is the size of the CMOS sensor. This is the recording surface (semicondutor) that you baby boomers and artists can equate to a film negative. Think of the smart phone as a 110 camera, and a pro DSLR as the medium format camera.

Color correcting images in the computer is necessary for 99% of the images we capture. WHAT? - but it looks so good on the back of my camera, right?..

In most cases, you won't know your color is bad until you've seen it corrected and compared.

This is where your head may begin to spin - feel free to skip to Stage 3.

Every camera, scanner, computer, monitor and especially printer - Each have this nifty little setting called an ICC Profile. (International Color Consortium http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ICC_profile) If you can get all four of those elements in sync, you're ready for the lottery. The fifth number is sometimes the most difficult adjustment to make - the paper color. "But it's white, right?.." If only it was that easy OR my clients couldn't see the difference - I'd be out of business!

Not convinced? - Try this for yourself.
1 - Send the exact same (sooc) image file,  to 3-5 different retail labs.

2 - After sending, duplicate and rename the same file.
Adjust the color until it looks like you want it, then send to the same labs. This time, check your lab's "Don't Adjust" option, since you've already adjusted.

3 - Write lab name and variables on back of all images and compare under color-correct lighting. (not flourescent or incodescent colors) http://lowel.tiffen.com/edu/color_temperature_and_rendering_demystified.html

I did warn you, bliss is in not knowing the difference. If you want quality, however, you must be willing to invest the money or the time that we did to offer color-corrected images to our clients.

I'd love to hear from you if you do this, and please do share your shock!

**Stage 3**  - Embellish

Stage two images are merely the canvas provided to our digital artist for stage 3 to occur.

Our Adobe guru has one mission assigned to her. To remove any "incidentals" that will make your image rock! What we seek are the circumstantial flaws, like the inevitable morning-of blemish, stray hair or dark rings under your eyes that say you worked too late.

Yes, we do the occasional head-swap, removing braces or coloring your hair pink, but simply stated - Stage 3 is art.

**Stage 4** - Wall-worthy Enhancements

My primary artist Maria pretty much makes me (okay, you) look great with her meticulous eye for details. If ONLY I could embrace the words "good enough...". (I hear a chalkboard being scratched each time I hear that!)

Vignettes, crop tilts, dodging, burning, color treatments (and yes, we've got 50 customized options for every simplified version in Instagram). There's always a good 15 minutes worth of detailing that comes to mind when I see the words Canvas or Gallery Wrap on our orders.

If you care enough to hang it, we're going to find even more to care about before we print.

**Stage 5** - Connection

In short, Stage 5 is to make all of the above second nature, so that you can forge a relationship.

I used to think that a photographer would be my nightmare client. Having shot many weddings and headshots for photographers and celebrities, I now disagree. Why?, Because I don't have to explain Stage 1 - 4 - They already get it, so we go straight to Stage 5.

Even if you understand the technical aspects of a Stage 2 and you're okay skipping Stage 3, there's still that *something* that makes you pick one photographer over another.

Chances are, it's that they crossed the threshold of what Malcolm Gladwell calls the "10,000 Hour Rule". I've had interns with more photographic education than myself, but they lacked that magical element that exceeds all technical skills like posing, lighting and composition.

The Stage 5 nugget... How to extract the TRUE essence or message of a subject.  Once a photographer masters the technical skills, they become second-nature. No more sock-puppets and corny jokes (been there, forgive me, done that too!)

Once you pass that threshold of experience, you get focus on what I consider my secret sauce... Authenticity!

When I see an expression that matches my clients' goal (derived from consultation), I'll ignore the wrinkle in her sweater and grab the real deal. Of course I'll avoid the error or adjust and reshoot, but often times the expression wins the clients vote. My artist cannot create authenticity.

Put it all together, and this is what you get.

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Brian GerathsComment