Skip to main content

Advice on making portraits

Lesson 39 from: Masters of Photography

Albert Watson

Advice on making portraits

Lesson 39 from: Masters of Photography

Albert Watson

buy this class


Sale Ends Soon!

starting under


Unlock this classplus 2000+ more >

Lesson Info

39. Advice on making portraits

Learn from Albert that the way you communicate with those you’re photographing is always visible in a shot. In this lesson Albert suggests tips to capture your perception of a subject into a single picture.


Class Trailer

Meet your Master


Learn from the journey


Using inspirations


Photography is stopping time


Albert's library of ideas


Tips on preparing for a portrait shoot


Setting up the studio


Understanding studio collaboration


The importance of casting and hair & make-up


Foreground studio set up


Studio session with a model - set up 1


Studio session with a model - set up 2


Studio session with a model - set up 3


Picking the best shot


Working with photoshop


Creating a portrait of Alfred Hitchcock


The gigantic question... Colour or black and white?


One day with Kate Moss


Learn to have your ideas ready


Using Polariods


Creating beautiful photographs of hands


Controlling natural light


Shooting a monkey with a gun


Choosing your format


Composition and lens


Shooting landscapes. The Isle of Skye


Planning and ideas for a landscape shoot


Creating still life images


Photographing the Lost Diary


Shooting album covers


The Strip Search Project


Shooting Las Vegas landscapes


Photographing Breaunna


Balancing daylight, God bless America


Creating the Maroc Project


Creating the Maroc shoot


Photographing sand dunes


Photographing Moroccan children


Advice on making portraits


How to be alert to finding photographs


Making a portrait of Mike Tyson


Creating intense colour in a photograph


Portraits of rap stars and a Golden Boy


Photographing Jack Nicholson


Creating a portrait of David Cronenberg


How to light only using two $10 bulbs


Studio fashion set up 4


Studio session with a model. The geography of a face


Look inside the picture


Creating memorability in an image


Combining nudes and landscapes


A perfect print


The business side of things


Conclusion and farewell


Lesson Info

Advice on making portraits

I parked the car in Fez which is an ancient city north of Marrakesh. We were going to the hotel we were staying in. You usually have to get some help sometimes to get in to these cities 'cause they don't allow cars. The driver got this porter to carry our bags for a couple of dollars basically all the way to the hotel. So we kind of followed the porter and he had all our bags on a cart. When I got to the hotel I said to my assistant and to our translator I said let's see if I can photograph this guy. So we got into the hotel and we asked the guy would he be photographed. He said he would you know. And the reason I picked him was he looked so, so strong, you know his face was so strong. And he was, his shoulders were straight. The way he kind of pushed the cart and he didn't bend over even though it was heavy. He seemed very definite and very proud even though all he was doing well he was a luggage guy. But I saw something in his face that was very very nice. So just in almost in the co...

urtyard of the hotel, I always travel with a bit of canvas which is always handy. And I put that behind him. And I just pulled out a little tiny strobe. From a slightly low angle with a 120 lens I did this portrait of him. And I just didn't give him too much direction. I asked him just to stand straight, the way he approached us in the beginning which he did. I went ahead and did that portrait. So it joined you know, all of the other photos on the project. And later I came across it and decided that it would be a good one to translate onto an internegative. And to do it in this kind of technique that I was using of doing platinum prints on ancient papers that had writing on them. That's what you're seeing in front of you right now is that image. It was a great compliment I got later from the King of Morocco who was still the prince. But he looked at that picture in the book and he said my God he said you made this porter look like he's a king you know. And I think that's one of the nicest compliments I got about a picture that I had felt that the guy was very proud to be a porter. And therefore I treated him that way. And the way you treat people, and the way that you interact with people, is a gigantic part of being you know a photographer. Even though you're not speaking Berber, that how do you work through a translator to work with the guy somewhat physically as well that you move him with your hands and interact with him. And get his attention a certain way. Sometimes I was working with a small mag light and I would be working behind the camera. And I would ask through the translator that the guy would follow the mag light. I would hold the mag light and move the guy so I said just follow the light. And I would then find a nice piece of light where it hit him perfectly. But the communication you have, I've said many times you're photographer's best weapon to work with somebody is his own personality not a nice word weapon. But is his own personality and how you communicate with people. So therefore in the end, the fact that the king looked at this and said my God you made him look like a king. I think was a real, it was a nice compliment for me that, that's the way I saw this guy. Everybody I'm always photographing I'm virtually always treating them the same. And that's why I had no trouble with later or before that photographing celebrities and important people. Because you basically treat a porter in a market in Fez the same way as you're treating the King of Morocco. It's the same way you're treating a President of the United States of the Queen of England. So I'm not sure of how much people know regarding platinum printing and how that works. But in the case of platinum printing you need really an internegative. Because Hasselblad negatives are only of course two and a quarter high. And therefore and of course maybe you want a two and a quarter high image. But usually you want something a little bit bigger possibly maximizing maybe about eight by 10. Or five by seven inch in size. So you make an internegative in the darkroom. And an internegative's made by putting your original negative in the enlarger, projecting it onto film and then doing a contact negative. So you get it back to a negative. If you go negative, positive, positive back to negative. And then you use that as your negative and you coat the ancient paper with platinum emulsion. And you put your internegative on top. You put glass on top of that so you have a good, sharp contact with the paper. And then you expose it. And then it's developed out in a similar way to the way that you would do a silver print. So that's how this particular image was done. That's why you see brush strokes there. The brush strokes are from brushing on the emulsion. The portrait of this lady is quite interesting because it's, she was actually preparing a lunch on the second day in Fez. I noticed her and I thought she had a really good, strong face that she looked really Moroccan. I asked her if it was possible just on the balcony outside the house we were in to pose for a portrait. And of course there is a slightly different thing in Morocco to approaching the women to photograph and also the men. Morocco is a very, you know it's obviously Islamic country and is a very liberated, that's one of the fabulous things about this country. That it has a liberal modern way. The women in the country are very modern and very definite and play a gigantically important part in the country. But you're still always approaching them in a slightly different way you would approach a model in New York City. It's a different thing. So I spoke to her a bit but I spoke to her through the interpreter about how much I enjoyed the lunch that she'd cooked. So of course she was very happy that I liked the lunch but it was part of the fact that I spoke to her for five minutes before I took her picture. And that way she was easier with me, more relaxed with me, and she really was happy that I wanted to photograph her. So she was you know, certainly cooperative. As I put her there one of the assistants said but there's a bit of sunlight here. Do you want me to take out that little bit of sunlight? And I said no, no, I think we can use it. And that also like the other portrait, was also done with a strobe you know. You have to be careful with strobe in a project like this. That you don't, I don't mind fueling the strobe a little bit, you have to be careful that you don't fuel the strobe too much. So you have to handle the strobe in a delicate way. But in this case here the picture is really helped by the fact that there's some natural sunlight coming across her scarf on the left hand side of the picture. And it just adds a little bit more dimension to the picture and actually adds a little bit of needed contrast. There's already some contrast there from the strobe but the sunlight on the scarf just adds a little bit more dimension. And there's also another thing when you're doing portraits like this. That people often overlook. It's the balance between how much of that background behind the person is there with regard to density? How dark is it? How light is it? Is it a medium gray? Is it a dark gray? Is it a pale gray? When should a background be pale? When should it be dark and so on. Unfortunately all of these things you have to at least be aware of and your mind has to be going at about 100 miles an hour to be analyzing all of this. In the end this picture is a combination of strobe and sunlight and it's actually in this case it's a 150 millimeter lens. It has a little bit more compression. And there's this mixture of sunlight and strobe. I used the second strobe in the background 'cause the background was actually a little bit too heavy. It was actually two strobes on this with a little bit of sunlight which I was fortunate enough to get.

Ratings and Reviews

Richard A. Heckler

"Unless you're Mozart"...this course is an invaluable asset. I'm a pro, humanitarian/documentary photographer, & wilderness...and I've learned much from the 40+ sessions here. This is truly a Master best thing to being with Albert. And although I could watch studio sessions forever, this course offered a very balanced curriculum of technical information, artistic encouragement and guidance, and a open, generous window into the thinking of a gifted artist and photographer, sifted from decades of first class experience. Kudos to all involved. Excellent!

a Creativelive Student

I purchased my first CreativeLive class in 2011 and have continued to purchase many classes over the years. I have learned so much from the many great instructors. This one is not a technical class that will tell you to set your camera at f4, 1/60, ISO 400 and you can get this shot. If you are looking for that, there are many other options. If you have a solid working knowledge of photography, this class is so much more. The way it was filmed is like you are there with him in conversation or in the room with him watching him shoot. To see and understand the how and why he does what he does. Not to take anything away from other classes that have helped to give me a strong understanding of photography, this is my favorite CreativeLive class so far.

Student Work