What makes a Great Portrait?

Recently, I have engaged in a heart-wrenching, emotional process – selecting images for the Certified Professional Photographer Image Submission.  Two years ago I set a goal for myself to become certified, and last year I determined that 2011 was the year.  Well, 2011 flew by and I was no closer to my goal, so this year, I actually declared my candidacy.  Consisting of two parts, a 100 question written exam and a 15 image submission for review by a board, the CPP process did not tremendously worry me.  After all, I know about lighting, and styling, and posing.   I have been in business for six years – no big deal, right?  WRONG!!  Turns out that finding “near perfect” images is a very difficult task.  The light must be directional.  The pose must be spot on.  There must be separation from the background.  There must be NO mixing of color keys.  As I am submitting images for critique,  I am learning how attached I am to my images.  I looked through thousands of images and selected my very best, and the critics tear them apart!  It makes me question myself as a photographer and is a HUGE blow to my ego.  Admittedly, I was unprepared for the first onslaught.  I stepped away from the computer and cried when I read the comments.  My husband asked why I was putting myself through this.  My 11 year old said, “They don’t know what they’re talking about – you take the most awesome pictures in the world!”  This made me start thinking.  Why am I doing this to myself?  I do take pretty kick-ass portraits.  My clients love them, I love them, so why bother with this certification thing?

I have always had a need to excel – to be the best.  Driven by competition (usually with myself), I find myself in a constant race to learn more, do better, update processes.  In every aspect of my life this is true.  For homeschooling, I am constantly looking for new approaches or new curricula.  We will be in this house for another year, but already I am thinking about ways to make the move more efficient and expedited, so that I will be READY!  When I was in college, I was the only one of my classmates who took all SEVEN exams to become a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.  Why?  Because I knew this certification would set me apart from other job seekers.  It would not only show that I knew the “Microsoft Sanctioned” way of doing things, but that I did something that the other students had not.  It also proved to me that I was the best.  I needed that piece of paper.  This extra step landed me my first job.  The hiring manager told me that because I already had this certification it showed him that I was willing to go above and beyond what was required, and he was my champion and is the reason I was hired. Did the company follow the “Microsoft Sanctioned” methods?  No way!  But I was seen as a resource when something went wrong.  I was looked to for my knowledge and although we didn’t use all of the methods, I was seen as an expert.

Naturally, it just makes sense that I pursue the Certified Professional Photographer certification.  Already, in just the two weeks I’ve been submitting images for critique, I’ve learned so much more about portraiture.  I’ve learned how to “see” a perfect portrait.  I’ve learned that the hands have to be “just so” for a complete portrait.  I’ve learned that a “kicker” is essential to the classic portrait.  I’ve learned that the subject in a traditional portrait is NEVER in the center of the frame.  I’ve learned that the traditional portrait probably didn’t take into account an 18 month old.  I’ve learned that spontaneity is one of my strong points.  I’ve learned that I would rather capture a hearty laugh than a perfectly lighted face.  I’ve learned that I will not always practice the “perfect portrait” rules.  However, I will use what I’ve learned.  I will teach what I’ve learned.  I will constantly drive myself to become a better photographer.  Always.  Do I need the certification?  No – my clients love me, and I love them.  I capture amazing images of their kids through an unforgettable experience culminating in cookies.  No, I don’t need it.  But I really want it, and I’m going to keep going back for more until I have 15 near perfect portraits, and unmeasurable lessons learned that I will fall back on for the rest of my life.

I submitted this image of my daughter for critique to demonstrate "short lighting" (lighting the side of the face turned away from the camera), and this image is a great example of short lighting. However, I was told my "Posing is Off". Whatever! This is stinking cute! :-)