Choosing a Niche: Introduction to Formal Portraiture
Formal portraiture is arguably the most common form of photography, with people paying to have their photos taken professionally once a year during their school years and families gathering annually for family portraits. Oftentimes formal portrait studios take a variety of clients, from school children to weddings to engagements to boudoir. In fact, the span of a portrait studio’s client base can be as vast or as narrow as they would like, with some focusing on one specific portion such as portraits of high school students in their final year of school and others offering services across the board.
Of course, portrait photography can actually be the large umbrella category that would include all of the niches we have explored thus far (fashion, photojournalism, and stock photography), so for the sake of this article we will focus on studio portraits, predominantly student portraits.
A typical day in a student portrait shoot starts with the photographer and their assistant setting up the lighting. Typically, there are measured distances that the studio has figured out for the photographer, so by the time the photographer is setting up, all he has to do is measure the distances from the stool where the subject will be, and put the lights at these distances and the indicated angles. To check that this is done correctly, the photographer will often have their assistant stand in while they shoot a series of test shots. After this is done, they will usually put tape on the ground to indicate where certain lights, stools, and the subject need to be so that if at any point something falls over or gets accidentally moved, it can easily be placed back in its designated location.
A gray card is shot to adjust for any colorcasts that the camera may get from the ambient lighting in the school gymnasium or location they have been assigned to use. The photographer will take a photo of the assistant holding a grey card, and will use their white balance tool in camera to indicate that this is middle grey and should read as neutral.
With student photos, there is a certain amount of uniformity required, and with a high volume of students, many of whom may be rather unruly kids constricted into their mother’s favorite button down, speed and efficiency are important. To attain this sort of speed, the photographer and their assistant must be able to manage a crowd, and entertain the students. Many photographers carry toys with them to keep the younger children entertained. This technique can also be effective when working with families. If there is a small child in the family, they tend to not look at the camera, and so to keep their attention, toys can be used directly above the camera’s lens. The assistant’s job is to get the next child or subject in line ready to be photographed, managing the line to ensure that the subject doesn’t sit without being prepared—hair fixed, shirt cleaned, or make-up fixed, depending on the age. It is also important to remember that while the child might be okay with a photo where they are making a funny face, their parents probably won’t be, and since their parents are the ones who will be ultimately paying the bill, it is important that the photos be taken to please them as opposed to the subject.
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While this mass style shooting of portraits may seem like it lacks creativity, it can also be quite lucrative, and many photographers use this as a means to fund the rest of their photography endeavors.
As with all of the aforementioned photography niches, formal portraiture requires a certain level of business aptitude. To ensure the uniformity of their yearbooks and streamline the process of “picture day,” schools tend to forge contracts with specific portrait studios. If this is an industry that interests you, being in contact with people in charge at your local schools can be a great place to start.
While portraiture can feel a bit formulaic, it also has its own advantages. Firstly, the photographer gets to engage with kids of all ages, giving them a variety in their daily routine that isn’t achieved at many other jobs. Secondly, they will be regularly interacting with other people, which for most photographers is an aspect of their job that they seek to enhance.
Picture day was always an exciting day at school; everyone dressed in their favorite clothing, woke up a little extra early to fix their fair, and got to skip out of class for 15 minutes so that someone made them feel glamorous in front of the big, fancy cameras. The day the photos arrived, students traded their portraits like baseball cards with their best friends, scribbling notes on the back. Parents were always happy to hang the new photo over last years, and with the two sitting next to one another, the child’s yearly growth and changes could be noted. Picture day is an exciting day for students, and a great advantage of being a school portrait photographer is getting to be a part of that small, yearly adventure.