Painterly Portraits: Barbara MacFerrin’s New Take on the Old Masters

Barbara MacFerrin fell in love with photography when her father gave her a Minolta X-370 on her 17th birthday. But it would take her more than 20 years to realize her dream of becoming a professional photographer. “Looking back, I never thought that I could make a living taking pictures,” says the Boulder, Colorado-based, fine art portrait photographer.            

Portrait photographer Barbara MacFerrin
© Barbara MacFerrin
Portrait photographer Barbara MacFerrin

After earning a bachelor’s degree in information technology, MacFerrin, the daughter of an Argentine-born photographer and retoucher, landed a well-paying tech job and, as she remembers today, “I put my dream of being a photographer on hold.” Big mistake.

“I just wasn’t happy doing what I eventually came to feel was a soulless job in a field that I was not the least bit passionate about,” remembers MacFerrin. “The money was great but I felt stuck. And the panic attacks didn’t help.”

Needing a change, she sold her house and car and took a job in social work. But that too proved unfulfilling. She got married, had a child, and then went back to school and earned a master’s degree. But the dream of becoming a professional photographer never disappeared. “It was as if photography was this subconscious thing I had always wanted to do since I was a teenager,” she says. “It kept pulling and driving me.”

© Barbara MacFerrin

In her early 40s she stumbled upon an online photography platform that offered lessons in how to start and run a photography business. “I knew I couldn’t make money selling landscapes but realized I might be able to make a living taking portraits of people,” she explains. She continued the online learning, dipping into photography business courses as well as tutorials on lighting, posing, and editing. She began photographing family, friends, and friends of friends, building up her portfolio.

Soon, thanks to her growing presence on social media, especially Facebook and Instagram, work began coming in. First, head shots, then portraits. Because Boulder already had many successful portrait photographers, MacFerrin knew she had to develop her own style, something that would set her apart from the competition. “I was working to finesse my style when I remembered how much my father had loved looking at the old masters, especially Rembrandt and Vermeer, and the way they handled light,” she says. “That was my aha moment; I decided to try to make my photos look like their paintings.” She studied the way they used light and shadow and started including classic props in her portraits to give them a timeless quality.

“I am always looking for a story in my clients’ faces that can be portrayed in my images,” she says. “I hope to capture that intensity.” She dubbed her first attempts painted portraits and eventually labeled her work fine art photography. She admits her work appeals to a particular client niche—not everyone is willing to pay her premium. “The challenge is to find your customers who want what you are offering,” says the 45-year-old MacFerrin.

© Barbara MacFerrin

In just the past four or so years MacFerrin has produced an award-winning body of work—much of it inspired by the old masters—that has been described as painterly, moody, and soulful. Indeed, flipping through her portfolio feels like taking in an art museum; many of her images could almost be mistaken for paintings. Her favorite compliment? “That’s when someone tells me that my photographs show people’s souls,” she says. “I want to bring out the real, raw person in my work.”

MacFerrin admits she’s still learning and evolving and has seen a continual improvement in her work over the past four years. “I owe so much to other photographers who have shared advice and tips and techniques with me,” she says. “I continue to pick up editing tips, and you learn different tools from different people.” Inspired by the many requests she’s received from photographers who’ve seen her work on social media, she’s begun offering online and in-person fine art workshops that cover topics such as lighting, editing, and posing. She offers the following advice to photographers:

Post your images to social media. The benefits are two-fold. One: Posting a client headshot or family photo on Facebook or Instagram can catch the attention of the client’s friends, which is especially useful when they think, She looks great. Maybe I can look like that. Two: Posting a creative shot, say of a model or a personal project, and sharing your lighting and editing techniques is a nice way of giving back to the photographic community. Last year MacFerrin started her own Facebook group that has since grown to more than 5,000 members.

© Barbara MacFerrin

Enter photo competitions. Photographic competition lets you push yourself to improve your work. Finding out what other photographers think of your work and getting their tips will help make your photography better. Entering also challenges you to think outside the box. Says MacFerrin: “To score high in these competitions you need to tell a story, and it’s difficult to tell a story with a photograph in some cases. Creativity is a muscle that needs to be exercised, and you need to do something different if you hope to win a contest.”

Capture a variety of expressions. “I prefer the more natural look, not smiling. I love telling clients, ‘Smile with your eyes, not your mouth.’ But when I do a family session I guide them through a range of expressions, asking them first to look natural without smiling, then smile bigger and bigger. If they are nervous I tell them to relax and explain, ‘These shots are just for fun; we are just playing around.’ They can choose what they want when they buy images but for my postings on social media I may not choose the one of them smiling. But I always show both types of expressions to potential clients so they know they can smile if they wish to. I also often ask clients to bring a prop, such as a book or musical instrument, if they wish to add to the story and make the image more just a family photo where everyone is standing and smiling.”

© Barbara MacFerrin

Do an in-home reveal. “I prefer to do this at a client’s home rather than in my office because it is easier for clients and it gives me the opportunity to suggest things like, ‘This would look great hanging over that couch.’ I usually will edit three or four of my favorites from our session so they can see what final images will look like. I have learned that my favorites are not necessarily their favorites. I will also show the rest of the images unedited because editing an image can take from 30 to 60 minutes. I typically offer a variety of packages, such as collections of 10 or 20 images.”

Looking back on her long-delayed entry into photography, MacFerrin admits she’s often amazed by how far she’s come and how fulfilled she is with her roles as both photographer and teacher. Was there a specific moment she realized she’d finally found the profession that, as she’d always hoped, would feed her soul?

Two years ago she was paid what she calls “a supreme compliment” by someone who’d seen one of her pictures on social media and exclaimed, “That has to be one of Barbara MacFerrin’s images.”

“I’ve long had a goal of wanting people to know my work, my style, by just looking at it,” she says. “So that was a special moment ... very special.”  

Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.