Keith Barraclough: Portrait whisperer

Keith Barraclough’s most challenging recent session? One hundred sixty portraits of 80 employees in eight hours. 

It took mental preparation, admits New York-based Barraclough of the corporate job. “You really are a conveyor belt.” Shooting with an assistant, he had roughly one minute with each subject and just seconds between them. As one subject moved over to the computer to check out their portraits, Barraclough was photographing the next. “You have to know that you aren’t stopping,” he says—no leisurely coffee or bathroom breaks. “You just have to think: I’m going to be shooting from 8 to 11:30 a.m., and we’re doing it again from 1 to 4, with maybe a few tiny breaks. But you have 80 different personalities coming in, and you have to figure out, What is this personality?”

“It’s all about the person and making them feel comfortable in front of the camera,” says Barraclough, whether that means cracking a light joke or simply being thoughtful of their busy schedule. In fact, quickly assessing a subject’s personality and mood and adeptly coaxing them into a true-to-themselves portrait is Barraclough’s greatest strength. It’s the strength that’s built his business.

© Keith Barraclough

Portraitist standout 

Barraclough began his work like most photographers: dabbling in various niches before settling on a specialty. “I tried a little bit of lifestyle photography but always went back to portraiture because I just love that one-on-one interaction and the intimacy you can capture from taking a portrait of someone, especially someone who is not used to getting their picture taken,” he says. In the Washington, D.C., area, where he lived for several decades, he did PR work and events as well as portraiture. He moved to New York, where he felt it was important to concentrate on a niche, and so he tightened his focus on corporate, editorial, and commercial portraiture. He revamped his website portfolio to be 90 percent portraits. To elevate his profile to stand out from the pack, he began a personal portrait endeavor, “The Redhead Project.”  

“The Redhead Project” started out simply enough: Barraclough captured the portrait of a redheaded subject during a corporate shoot and loved the look of his alabaster skin, striking blue eyes, and red hair against a white backdrop. He began replicating that style with other subjects. The series became popular on social media and in the news, and before long Barraclough had acquired a ginger following. He now puts out a social media call for redheaded subjects when he’s traveling on assignment, renting a suite at his hotel and staying a couple extra days for the sessions. He enjoys working with subjects who aren’t used to being photographed and bringing out their individual personalities via props and kooky, carefree sessions. A number of the portraits feature subjects doused in food products, like noodles or flour.

“‘The Redhead Project’ has separated me from other photographers,” he says. “That is the one thing I want to be known for: that I can make everyday people feel comfortable in front of the camera, whether they are a lawyer, a kid, a model, or an actress—anybody.”

Emotional intelligence

Making people comfortable in front of the camera isn’t a hard thing to do, says Barraclough, but it does take some learning. “It’s not necessarily an extravert versus introvert thing, but some people are better at making people feel comfortable,” he says, and shyness from the photographer tends to elicit shyness from the subject.

© Keith Barraclough

It’s up to the photographer to gauge the personality of the subject and the attitude they’ve brought to the session. Take, for example, a corporate session with numerous subjects. “You have a minute or 30 seconds to see who that person is, what kind of personality they have. Can you joke around with them? Do they have time to chat for a minute to find out who they are?” If a subject seems extremely busy talking on their cell phone, Barraclough keeps it simple: asks how their day is going, acknowledges that the company seems busy right now, and makes the portrait. But if a subject is chatting in line and joking around with coworkers, he adjusts his behavior to allow for light banter.

And if they mention they hate having their picture taken, Barraclough might quip, “That’s OK. I hate taking pictures,” to lighten the mood. “It’s nice for a photographer to understand that this is not the most comfortable thing for them to be doing,” he says. If you can get that across with your mannerisms or a joke, it goes a long way with a reluctant subject.

When Barraclough makes portraits of CEOs, preparation and efficiency rule. “Ninety percent of the time you can get to the shoot an hour early to set everything up,” he says. “You have a mark on the floor where this person will stand. You know how tall he is, so you know what the lights are going to be like. And you talk to their assistant so you know how much time they have, whether it’s three or 15 minutes.”

While you don’t want to rush the session, you do want to be conscious and appreciative of the time you’re given. “You acknowledge they are busy, say, ‘Thank you for your time. We will get you in and out as quickly as possible. But we’re going to have some fun.’” CEOs want to have control, says Barraclough. So he presents some options and asks for the CEO’s thoughts. He always shoots tethered to the computer so the subject can see the results immediately. Sometimes the session ends in five minutes; other times, the subject is having a good time and tacks on another five. “Those are the kinds of situations I like because then I know they are comfortable enough to want to shoot more,” he says.

© Keith Barraclough

Speaking animal

Barraclough’s portrait work isn’t isolated to the human species. One of his longtime commercial clients is Discovery Communications, which taps Barraclough for dog and cat portraits to advertise Animal Planet’s “Puppy Bowl” and other programming. He landed the work with Discovery through savvy networking: He served on the board of the American Society of Picture Professionals, where he got acquainted with the lead art buyer for Discovery, learning that she had two black labs. He offered to make a black-on-black portrait of her with her dogs—she wore black clothing and stood in front of a black backdrop with her labs. “What I wanted was to make a nice picture of her and her dogs to show them that I can take really nice photos, and this is how I can do that. And she got an idea of how I work,” he says. His plan succeeded. She tacked one of the prints to her bulletin board in her office, and other employees took notice. Soon enough Barraclough was doing commercial portrait work for Discovery.

“Becoming a member of PPA or ASMP or APA, becoming a member of an association and then actually volunteering for them, being a board member somewhere in the state or city in which you live, I think is very important. That is how you meet a lot of people—both photographers and creatives.”

© Keith Barraclough

His assignments with Discovery have been challenging and fun, he says. When Animal Planet needed portraits of dogs and cats of various breeds, Barraclough worked with Discovery’s creatives to photograph 140 dogs in five days at a dog show in central Virginia, and 40 to 50 cats in two days at a cat show in New Jersey. With the dog portraits, the lighting and backdrop were the same for all of the pets, but the owners were told to move the pet around so Barraclough could capture more personality. The cats were photographed one by one in a closed conference room, where they were placed on a table banked by two cat wranglers. “If they ran and jumped off the table we would have to let them explore the room,” he says. It took 100 photos per cat to get just one image that worked because they were so active. 

Happy place

Creating a comfortable environment is important for any subject, human or animal. For portrait subjects at advertising shoots, Barraclough always provides food, making sure to keep the subject’s dietary preferences in mind. “If somebody likes soy milk in their coffee, you make sure you have some of that there,” he says. For his redhead sessions, he uses his home studio, a loft in New York City with plush couches and homey furnishings, or a hotel suite when he’s traveling, which is a cozier environment than a rented studio, he says. (Plus it’s cheaper since it doubles as his accommodations.) Music is key to having an upbeat session.

© Keith Barraclough

Perhaps most important is the photographer’s mood, which should be positive and at ease. “I’m sure you’ve heard this before that if the subject is having a good time at the photo shoot, whether it’s lasting 15 seconds or a couple of hours, if they’re having a good time, they are going to like the photos when they see them.” If the session was unpleasant because the photographer was a grouch, the subject’s perception of the photos will be tainted no matter the quality of the product. A crew that’s easy to get along with, a studio that’s cozy, and a photographer who’s relaxed and able to laugh when something goes slightly awry is a winning combination.

Once Barraclough puts all his tricks into motion, he finds that a formerly tentative subject might even eat a flower or balance a doughnut on her head.  

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Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.