The most important thing in portrait photography is not the camera, the lens, or the lighting. It’s the subject. Working with the person in front of the camera and finding out just how to capture their unique presence is a critical skill.
In 1941, Yousuf Karsh took one of the most widely reproduced images in the history of photography, the scowling, defiant portrait of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill. Karsh had set up his lights and camera hoping to capture a photo after an important speech but nobody had told Churchill.
‘You may take one.’ Churchill said. I’ll defer to Karsh’s telling of the moment that followed…
“Churchill’s cigar was ever present. I held out an ashtray, but he would not dispose of it. I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically. I waited; he continued to chomp vigorously at his cigar. I waited. Then I stepped toward him and, without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, ‘Forgive me, sir,’ and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”