What does it take to make it as a portrait photographer? Sometimes it seems like the leading professionals have always been at the top of their game, but everyone started somewhere, and for the most part everyone learnt through trial and error, successes and struggles. We spoke to two Canon Ambassadors – Lorenzo Agius and David Turecký – who specialise in portrait photography, and asked them for their practical insights.
Based on their experience, what advice can they give about building a portrait photography business? What do they wish they'd known about equipment, managing assignments, and promoting themselves?
"There isn't a guidebook on how to become a portrait or celebrity photographer," says renowned fashion and commercial photographer Lorenzo Agius. "It's just a lot of trial and error. Especially in what I do, you really just have to get out there. Once I had a portfolio together, I would go to see publicists, agents, magazines and film companies, and slowly you get to know who's who and the creative side of things."
Lorenzo began his career shooting the iconic images of Ewan McGregor and other cast members of Trainspotting for the film's promotional ad campaign. Since then he's taken portraits of international A-listers including Madonna, Beyoncé and Tom Cruise, and a number of his photos are included in the UK National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection.
"When I got my biggest break, it wasn't like I was the best; in a way it was chance," Lorenzo continues. "People say, 'Well, you're very lucky,' but it's not even luck, it's just constantly knocking on doors. You might be knocking on the wrong door, but that person might say, 'Why don't you see so-and-so? He's working on a campaign you might be good for.' Persistence is the key."
David Turecký has extensive editorial photography experience, having worked with Forbes, Elle, Maxim, Esquire, Wallpaper and Newsweek, among other publications. He also shoots commercially, as part of the photo agency Grove Productions in Prague.
David echoes the advice to get out there, adding that it's useful to stay up-to-date and involved with your industry generally. "It's important to keep track of your competition, following trends, checking magazines and being able to learn from what's out there," he says. "Don't forget to send out your portfolio, [but] try to meet art directors in person."
Should you choose a specialism from the start? Although Lorenzo believes that most photographers know quite early on what they want to pursue as their specialism, he points out that you can still learn a great deal from everything else you do while you're getting started. "I started out doing still life and then got into fashion and portraits, which was a slow transition, but at that point [it was] what I really wanted to do.
"You should be aware of every aspect, really – if you shoot cars, it doesn't mean you wouldn't ever shoot landscapes. I worked with everybody from trade photographers to fashion, car and still life photographers. I learnt a lot that way, as I had quite a broad spectrum of information I could then use in being a photographer."
What about your equipment? Are there any essential lenses, for example, that you should invest in from the start? David says having the right kit – and particularly lenses that suit his work – is crucial. "I like to use the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens most often because of its sharpness and depth. And it's light so it almost feels like you're only holding the body throughout the shoot," he says.
"I like the Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM when I'm trying to incorporate the background. I also often use the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM; it’s an all-rounder with quick autofocus and, thanks to its robust construction, it withstands accidental knocks."
Lorenzo is known for his trademark photographic portraits of cultural icons, which have become iconic in their own right. He tries not to be influenced by trends in contemporary photography. "Trends come and go and it's important not to get to caught up in these trends and to keep things simple, honest and classic," he says. "That way, the work will stand the test of time."
Lorenzo prefers not to do too much preparation before a shoot. "As a rule, I tend to do very little research on my subjects," he says. "It's good to know the basics and have an idea of their interests, but I prefer to have no expectations or preconceived ideas about them. Shoots don't always have to reflect that person's interests, but of course it helps to know certain things."
When it comes to choosing cameras and lenses, Lorenzo believes it's a question of what's right for the job in hand. "An issue that a lot of photographers have is that they don't feel adequately equipped," he says. "They feel like they have to have an array of lenses, and that's not really necessary. I've probably got about five or six lenses, but I tend to use only one or two – one for 70% of the time and the other 30% of the time. Occasionally I'll be using a long lens, or a super wide lens. It's about confidence and knowing you're going to get what you want from your lens."
How do you know what sort of shots you're going to want? David recommends doing some preparation to work that out. "Before the shoot, try to establish if your subject is an introvert or an extrovert and choose how you will handle the shoot accordingly.
"If you can, it's always good to have a meeting or phone call with the person prior to the shoot where you can talk about your vision. If they're public figures, study previous interviews and photographs. And never try to start with the cover shoot, because people are usually a bit stiff to start with – apart from supermodels!"
David adds that a good portrait photographer must keep the shoot's editorial requirements in mind, if there are any. "When styling a shoot, I always try to find a location that will enhance and complement the theme. For example, if the interview is with an actor but the theme is his love of cars, I won't do the shoot in the theatre, but rather find an old garage or racing course depot.
"You also have to have in mind the mood of the theme – whether it is a happy or sad shoot, for example."
"The most important thing is that you don't want to break the run of the shoot," says Lorenzo. "For that reason, a zoom lens works brilliantly. If I'm shooting with a big actor such as Will Smith and I've got a limited amount of time, I want to get the attention of my subject, connect with them and just shoot away. You don't want to be going, 'Hold on, let me just change my lens,' as it kills the flow and energy of the shoot.
"I tend to use the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens a great deal, because the range is amazing and the quality is the best. It can be your go-to lens most of the time because it gives you so many options."
Is it enough just to do the work? How important is your social media presence, compared to local networking or word-of-mouth? "Social media is a very real source of business marketing, along with having a website and producing cards," says Lorenzo. "A lot of people, myself included, don't spend enough time doing things like Instagram, so your content is constantly out there. You should be expressing yourself with your pictures and your lifestyle, so people get an idea of who you are as a person, as well as your work.
It's important to remain excited by your work, and for Lorenzo that means being interested in the person you're photographing. Although he does very little research, he enjoys getting to know his subjects on the shoot. "To capture an actor or musician's personality rather than their persona, it's important to get under their exterior as much as possible," he says. "In order to get the subject to relax, I try to spend as much time as possible talking about life and their interests. It's the best way to disarm them, and in turn they are usually more honest with me. Laughter and music always helps too."