Almost anyone can acquire the technical photographic skills to produce good portraits; the particulars of lighting and posing can be taught in a classroom. However, it’s a less frequently taught skill that often makes or breaks a portrait photographer; a photographer’s interpersonal skills—what might simply be called “a good personality”—are impossible to teach yet necessary to forge the meaningful connection between photographer and subject that leads to exceptional portraiture.
Speaking with Hernan Rodriguez about his portfolio of celebrity portraits, it quickly becomes clear that he’s a real pleasure to talk to. A natural, even. One helluva nice guy. And that’s no coincidence. I’m sure he had personality before he became a photographer, back when he was an art student and graphic designer, but I have no doubt he has enhanced his charm as the inevitable consequence of photographing people for a living.
On Lighting And Celebrity Portraiture
“Your personality has so much to do with it,” Rodriguez says. “Photography comes down to an extension of you as a person. Really everything else, you know, we can learn technical skills of apertures and all that; we go to school for all that stuff. But you as an individual, you don’t go to school for that. People like you or people don’t like you; it’s plain and simple. People like doing business with people they like. Eddie Griffin was kind of like that. He came in a little stern, but you need to establish that trust. Once you gain that trust, they’re with you. What started as a two-hour shoot ended up being a good time hanging out for all of us.”
Rodriguez is referring to a portfolio of portraits of actor and comedian Eddie Griffin featured on his website. It appears, based on the couple dozen portraits on the page, that Rodriguez and Griffin go way back and that the photographer and subject must have worked together on many occasions. In fact, what appears to be a collection of the best of several sessions was made in a single afternoon. Rodriguez made it fun, so Griffin said keep going.
Aside from the fact that Rodriguez turns what celebrities often see as a necessary evil—the promotional photo shoot—into a downright enjoyable experience, what’s all the more impressive is the creative and technical muscle he flexes in order to create such a high-level and diverse body of work from a single session. Sure, anybody can learn the basics, but masters like Rodriguez elevate the art form.
“Coming from an art background,” he says, “I carry a sketch pad with me still to this day. I draw my assignments, because whatever I can do on paper, then it allows me that latitude when I’m there with the subject. I have five or six changes, and we say, okay, we transition from this, we pull the background and we transition to that, we put a lot of light behind him, and we go high key. I try to do it all in my sketches to capitalize on our time. I always have to have at least two changes that are a little bit more dynamic and fun. Once you get your money shot and you’re there, then you have to do that. I’ll throw in colors and different things to have fun with, because maybe for the main shot it might work, or you have it as a backup.
“Lighting should not establish the photographer,” Rodriguez adds, “because it always comes down to the individual, the person. [Griffin] is just so colorful, and he’s so bright, and he’s happy—everything you see there, that’s him. It really is. And I’m just there trying to tell this story with him.”
Rodriguez’s portraits of the actor serve as a microcosm for the photographer’s entire body of work. It’s unified by meticulous attention to detail and the creative use of light and color to set the tone, yet the whole is diverse and completely devoid of any technical crutch that would denote a lesser craftsperson with only one trick up their sleeve.
“You hit the nail on the head,” Rodriguez says, “because that’s exactly my style and my view. My lighting approach to people is their personality. That establishes my style. I had an interview years ago, and they said what’s your style, and I said it’s not something set where I like more high key or low key, because I do everything. And my background helps me see the nuances of light. We would have exercises of drawing a model and you’d have to paint light with a couple of light bulbs, but then you’d have to see those nuances of where the light falls off, because you’re staring at a flat, two-dimensional white piece of paper. So to see all this detail of where the light falls and what you want to take away, it’s very specific to the client’s and the subject’s needs. That’s what it is.
“Just last week,” he continues, “that’s what I taught my class. We talked about this photo shoot we did for Elle magazine. We shot at the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, and they were like, ‘You can’t bring any lighting equipment; you just need to light according to what’s there.’ Someone shot next to a porch light; just find where the light is and make it work for you! And that’s what I do. Sometimes I might light with as many as 16 lights because I want to create something fun, and I want to create all this detail, but sometimes I might just use one light. I might just use the sun. And I can use it as a three-point light system. You’ve just got to make it work. It’s not just one style.”
Equally adept at manufacturing light or working with what’s available, Rodriguez says the trick is often in stopping to see what’s right in front of you.
“Sometimes you go into a set,” he says, “you go into a lobby, you go into a place, where everything is beautiful as is. So all I tell my students is, you need directionality, because there’s always got to be some kind of focus that you want to draw the viewer to. Sometimes it’s as simple as turning the subject’s face toward the light or to the direction of brightness, that creates the light, that creates the falloff, that creates the shadow, the style of lighting you want. It’s funny, photography sometimes is so complicated, and we try to find all these things that, solving these things, that it’s really simple sometimes. There might be light coming up, and you’re, like, ‘Oh, gosh, what do I do? Do I add more fill, do I bring more light in?’ I say, no, simply just turn the subject’s face toward the light. Oh, my gosh! The obvious is not always the obvious, know what I mean?”
When he photographed boxing champion Evander Holyfield at the W Hotel, Rodriguez had planned exactly how he was going to light each scenario and every step of the process. But when he walked in and saw a beautiful chandelier and natural light in the hotel lobby, he knew he needed a new direction.
“We took a lot of gear,” Rodriguez says. “Be prepared: You don’t know what you’re going to use and not use. And we walked into the lobby and it was beautiful—it looked painted, the light coming in behind the chandelier. I just said, ‘Sit on these steps.’ I put myself in a certain perspective. We can do this as photographers, whether you’re shooting fashion or portraits, you can sometimes change the whole presentation, even your background, by simply changing your position. If you’re looking at your subject dead-on and you don’t see it, lay on the floor and all of a sudden there’s a beautiful chandelier behind him. All I did was put a little LED on his face to make his face a little brighter. I go back to the idea of making the face the most predominant thing in the portrait. And it was, like, wow, the heavens opened.”
When dealing with celebrities, Rodriguez says it’s typically all or nothing—they’ll give him a few hours or no time at all. One of the hallmarks of celebrity portraiture, which may not be obvious to the average viewer, is just how quickly a great photographer is often required to pull off a great shot.
“That was the Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson reunion portrait,” Rodriguez says. “We were back and forth, and after we cut all through the red tape and your people spoke to my people, and we had all the permissions and it’s all settled, they gave me an hour and 15 minutes to set up. ‘And you’ll have at least 30 minutes with Mike.’ So I’m finding out all the details as much as I can: Where is it? How much time? How big is the room? They said he’s got a green room, it’s 1,000 square feet. So I’m planning how we can do it. And then when it was time for him to come off-stage, his security guard forgot about me. And he was, sorry, ‘but you have 15 minutes to set up. Mike is really tired, and that’s it.’ And I’m prepared. I’m more of the school of you prepare as much as you can, if not over-prepare, because the actual photo shoot was five minutes with Mike. We did these reunion portraits and we had just five minutes to get it. It’s the intersection of opportunity and preparation. It’s what we go to school for, this is why we test. We test, test, test. You learn all your mistakes because something will go wrong while you’re shooting—the possibility is always there—so I simplify it. When I have a situation where we only have five minutes with the client, or you’re in transition to someplace, I simplify my setup. Get a big light, a big umbrella, put the light as close as you can to the center to get cinematic lighting, pull the light as far back as you can to get nice wraparound lighting, and that’s my approach.
“That’s my go-to,” Rodriguez says. “We did a workshop, and people were like, oh, my gosh, because you have that beautiful transition of light, you have that dynamic range in the skin tones, but then you can create the lighting a little more ‘contrasty,’ a little more focused, you can have the falloff, the shadows come in wherever you want them, so you’re creating, like, a three-point lighting all in-camera by just the placement of your light, that umbrella.”
In the end, though, Rodriguez reiterates that light is only a means to an end. The portrait is about the subject; it starts and ends with them—aided, of course, by his ability to connect with them under trying circumstances.
“Psychology has a lot to do with it,” Rodriguez says. “Somebody walking in your front door and seeing where they are. You’re almost profiling, in a sense. I started studying a lot about this. How they sit down and how they sit, their feet are pointed toward each other, perhaps, or their eyebrows. The eyes are the windows to the soul, but they found out after a 10-year study that the eyebrows are just as important, if not more so. Just the shifting of someone’s eyebrows—just speaking anatomically, where the indentation is, the frown, the expression of the eyebrows—that will communicate a lot about the individual. You start studying these things and you get a feel for the person, especially if they don’t tell you much. You get a sense of how they’re feeling. They don’t know you! They don’t know what to expect! You have to meet the individual where they are.”
Adds Rodriguez, “This is how I do my portrait work. I find the people where they are. You have to meet the people where they are.”
Hernan Rodriguez is finishing two new photography books. “Color Master Class” and “The Power of the Face”, both published by Amherst Media, will be out next spring. See more of Rodriguez’s work at hernanphotography.com.