You’re in a mall with a couple of hours to kill. What do you do?
Faced with this scenario one sunny Hamilton day, I spied an exhibition by Seddon Portrait House which included a competition for a free portrait. That took care of a few minutes and I thus promptly forgot about it. Until a couple of weeks later when, checking my voicemail, I discovered I had actually won.
I had just moved to Auckland but, considering this was my biggest win since that dinner at Cobb & Co with the Nelson Giants, I returned to the Tron to find out how this portrait process worked.
A few days before my appointment I received an email from SPH with some instructions.
“It’s all about you!” it began. “When you arrive at our studio, our Photographer will further discuss your design ideas and any unique preferences that you have for your photo shoot. One of our experienced photographers will create a series of beautiful images for you that captures you and your family’s true personalities.”
I could choose to have my photos taken inside or outside in the urban or green surroundings. SPH also do commercial, family and glamour shoots (check out their galleries for more on their capabilities). It took me until Shooting Day to decide what to do; with it being a little chilly I decided to keep it indoorsy.
With all the whiteness and brightness, the studio could have been mistaken for heaven if not for the fact I was there. In there with me was Rodrigo, the lucky photographer tasked with making me look beautiful.
Before moving into family and commercial portrait photography six years ago Rodrigo was a photojournalist in his native Brazil. This job entailed one exciting assignment after another; he even got to shoot the Brazilian president – albeit not in the sense many protestors might have liked.
It may not seem quite as thrilling but the portrait is an art form with a tonne of history behind it. Many of the techniques used by Rodrigo can be traced back thousands of years.
Take the ancient Egyptians. They understood how light could be used in portrait paintings to create that extra dimension – bringing an added sense of authenticity to the subject. Rodrigo agrees, saying the use of light was “important to bring out contours in your face”.
Leonardo da Vinci helped start the ‘sfumato’ craze, which required overlaying varnish and paint to soften colour transitions in facial tones. Today’s photographers, Rodrigo included, use softboxes to achieve the same effect. Rodrigo had me hold another reflector in several close up shots to add a touch of light to the other side of my face. A dark, umbrella-shaped reflector replaced this light with some contrast when we turned the white studio black for the final shots.
That saying “never work with children or animals” applies to photography about as well as it does to creches. You have no choice in this profession. Photographing children can be “the most frustrating or the most rewarding” experience says Rodrigo – but he’s quick to add “almost always the latter”. He is well equipped for those little people with even smaller attention spans: the studio has plenty of toys to keep them occupied and smiling for the camera.
A crucial part of the photographer’s job is to help the subject, no matter their age, relax and get used to the camera. Being a terrible photo subject I entered the studio with a fair few nerves. I was too old for the children’s toys, alas, so Rodrigo had to rely on his natural charm. Luckily he has this in spades, so it didn’t take long for me to feel able to pose for a photo without feeling like a total idiot. No mean feat.
Rodrigo snaps off about 70 photos in a shoot, “sometimes more, sometimes less”. In my case we shot about this number in a variety of positions – standing, sitting, leaning, smiling, and pondering.
In this instance I was pondering what would happen if, even after 70 photos, there’s nothing in there worth keeping. Never been a problem for him. In every shoot, Rodrigo said, there’s always at least one shot that stands out. I was to return that afternoon for the ‘viewing’ to see if he was right.
Fast forward a few hours and there I was in the viewing room; essentially a comfy couch in front of a very large projector screen.
At her table, with slide show trigger finger at the ready, was Rebecca, one of SPH’s owners. Her task was to show me the 30 best photos, as selected by Rodrigo, and gauge my reaction.
To my surprise, considering what a harsh self-critic I am, there were a dozen photos I could be more than happy showing to others. From there, Rebecca helps you narrow it down to the very best photos, by getting you to choose between similar shots, until there’s a handful left.
How many photos you keep depends on whether you opt for a single portrait, a series, or an album. Once you’re happy with your selection the portrait designer will assist you with framing and matt-board selection.
From there it’s back to the photographer for some post-production work before being sent to Melbourne for hand enhancement and printing. Once back at the studio it goes to SPH’s very own Guild Commended Framer, Stephen Oldfield, for him to complete the framing.
You can easily tell from a conversation with Rebecca just how passionate she is about creating, as she put it, “heirlooms for families”. All materials used are the same you’d find in museums and archives. No shortcuts are taken; the whole process takes up to eight weeks. When creating a memory that will “not look good for five years, but fifty years”, the long way is the right path to take.
But what if, in this increasingly digital world, you’re looking for a photo for a business card or your Facebook profile? Not a problem – they can supply those in hi-res for you too.
Framing a blog is not easy, so I bought a digital version of my favourite photo.
Portraits in the past have been made, at varying times, either to record history or to reflect people’s status. Today’s portrait photography borrows from both camps. Through the use of lights, reflectors, the environment, and creative ingenuity, it can represent you any way you like – but always with your best foot forward.
A special thanks to everyone at Seddon Portrait House for their help.