Making good portraits relies heavily on photographers' personal perceptions and judgements, neither of which is related to the technical aspects of photography. Good portraiture is a display of who the subject believes himself or herself to be as well as an interpretive expression of who the photographer believes the subject to be.
Sometimes these perceptions can end up on the opposite side of the spectrum. This is why it's important to get to know a subject before a session. It’s important to build raport. Get to know the individual and your photographs will exude more authentic personality.
My approach to celebrity portraiture is finding a side to my subject that people aren't accustomed to seeing. My main objective is to capture the character and qualities of the individual. This can sometimes make the session challenging as trust needs to be established to create honest and accurate expressions. Often times, I have a limited amount of time to work with these subjects.
There can also be an added element of the personified public figure—how the public views the individual. Focusing on this presentation of a person is often the safe approach to portraiture, but it isn't necessarily the most interesting. I like to challenge myself and even push subjects emotionally to see what they give me before pressing the shutter release.
Accuracy and consistency through lighting are hugely important in portrait photography. This is especially relevant in nailing skin tones. A color calibration chart guarantees that what I see in my monitor from the onset of capture is accurate before sending it off to an agent, art director, or publication. This takes guesswork out of the equation, especially during post-processing.
I use two simple lighting principles: Place light on what you want to show, and take light away from what you don’t want to show. Through the amount and quality of light placed on a subject, you can give the viewer an idea of what the subject is about. My goal is to showcase the face using light and contrast, eliminating distractions and concentrating on expression. Of course, you can't rely on one standard lighting setup because you need to craft your lighting to each individual, choosing what best suit them.
Lighting can be adjusted to suit you or your client’s needs, or it can be used to create the narrative of the portrait and its appeal to the viewer. So why should white-balance be any different? The most successful photographers are the ones who pay attention to details. Great portraits don't arise from doing what's automatic, so why would I set my white balance to auto?
Color will likely always dominate my work. I enjoy using either saturated colors or subdued colors to convey my message or invoke a certain mood. To ensure that what I see on my computer screen is accurate, I make certain to calibrate my screen every week or just before I begin post-processing.
I begin with a proper exposure meter reading, especially on the face, and set my camera to this. I then take a shot of my gray card with every lighting setup and either upload this as a custom white balance in my menu options, or if time doesn't allow, then I shoot the card in each scene to use as a reference image later. This is done in raw format.
A lot goes into the production of some of my celebrity and commercial shoots. My clients really don’t know what goes behind my shots, and they probably don’t care to know. But they do care about the final product, which is an accurate representation of the individual being photographed. It all begins and ends with proper white balance and accurate color calibration.
Hernan Rodriguez is an international award-winning photographer and Datacolor Friends with Vision ambassador.