You may not know his name, but you’ve seen his work.
The images of portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh, are everywhere. You’ll find them on book jackets, bank notes and postage stamps, and of course, in art galleries and photography books too.
Over his 67-year career, Karsh photographed some of the most notable thinkers, artists, entertainers and leaders of the 20th century, using a lighting technique he himself pioneered. You know those iconic portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway (just to name a few)? Those are Karsh.
Today, in our first instalment of Lessons from Photography Masters, we’re hooking you up with important lessons you can learn from Karsh.
Not a portrait photographer? Not a problem. There’s something for everyone!
1. Learning About Your Subject Makes for Better Photos.
When your subject is uncomfortable, getting a good shot can be tough.
Karsh had a strategy.
Before he met with his subject, he’d study up. He’d learn as much about them as he could and, if possible, even observe them at work.
It was in London that I started the practice which I continue to this day of ‘doing my homework,’ of finding out as much as I can about each person I am to photograph. – Yousuf Karsh
On the day of the shoot, focused though he was on his work, he used what he had learned to keep the conversation between him and his subject flowing.
The point of it all? To put his sitter at ease.
When your subject is comfortable, they share a range of genuine emotions. Your job gets easier and they enjoy the experience so much more.
The take home: Get to know your subject before you photograph them. Meet them for a coffee or have them fill out a fun questionnaire to suss out their interests. Use what you learn to prep questions so that you can keep the conversation going through the session.
2. Being Open to Inspiration Will Help You Find Your Style.
Though Karsh was training to be a photographer by the time he was 18, he never closed the door on other kinds of art. He learned about light and composition by studying famous paintings. And when he joined a local theatre group to do a bit of acting, he saw the potential to use theatrical lighting in his own photos – a technique that he’s now famous for!
The take home: It can take a bit of effort to draw connections between photography and other art forms. But when you’re open to being inspired by all kinds of stuff – nature, science, painting, movies, etc. – you give yourself more to work with and more opportunity to find a style that’s distinctly yours.
3. Light Isn’t Just Illumination.
Karsh knew that the lighting of a scene could influence the way we interpret an image, from where we look and in what order, to how we feel about what we see. So he used light strategically.
Sometimes, that meant sticking to simple window light. Other times, that meant a setup so complex it would boggle your mind.
The take home: Don’t feel like there’s only one way to light a shot, or that natural light is the only light there is. Think of light as another tool that you can use to tell your story.
4. Reputation is About More than Marketing.
Reputation comes from the consistency of your work.
Whether his sitter was a famous actress or a controversial leader, Karsh looked for the good in the person he was photographing. And in choosing which portraits to display, he always respected the dignity of his subject.
Because of the consistency in his approach, Karsh gained a reputation for having a kind eye. And that led to some pretty incredible opportunities.
Karsh was considerate and kind to all his subjects, always looking for positive values, even in such unyielding communist adversaries as Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, both of whom cooperated on the basis of their trust of Karsh, something no other photographer managed to achieve. – David Travis
The take home: If you want to be sought out for a particular kind of photography, make sure that your work and your approach are building the right kind of reputation for the job!
5. Being Unprepared Can Be a Good Thing.
Karsh made it a practice not to envision the specifics of a shoot before it actually began. No preconceived poses or props.
Instead, he would let his interactions with his subject on the day of the shoot guide him, drawing ideas from their personality and appearance (and sometimes their suggestions too!).
The result: No two Karsh portraits look the same. That’s pretty astonishing, when you consider the man specialized in photographing people’s faces.
The take home: When you draw inspiration directly from your subject, you create a portrait that’s more personal and a body of work that’s more varied. Double win.
6. Stealthy Photographers Make Expressive Photos.
How did Karsh manage to capture such emotion in people he had just met (snazzy conversation skills aside)?
He watched carefully for moments of real emotion in his subjects. As soon as they appeared, snap! He pressed the shutter release without warning. No heads up, no countdown from three.
Any moment was fair game.
That steely shot of Winston Churchill? Taken just after Karsh had plucked a fat cigar out of Churchill’s mouth. The thoughtful portrait of singer Marian Anderson? Captured as Anderson hummed along to a song her accompanist had, at Karsh’s quiet request, just begun to play.
There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record. – Yousuf Karsh
The take home: Genuine emotion can pop up at any time, not just when you’ve staged a shot. Be watching for it and ready to press the shutter when it appears! Don’t spoil the moment by telling your subject you’re taking the shot.
7. Success Comes Slowly.
Karsh credits his photo of Churchill for launching his career.
You know how long he’d been a photographer for before he took that photo? 15 years.
15 years of learning, experimenting, making contacts with the right people, being dedicated to his dream. And after his big break? He spent another 52 years creating those incredible images he’s famed for today.
The take home: Experiment, refine your ideas, send your stuff to people who might care. Get rejected and try again. Repeat, year after year after year. You’ll get there.