A Magazine Photographer’s Secrets to Successful Portraiture

Photographer Jeffrey Salter loves two things: his motorcycle and photography. Why? Because both activities cause him to experience wind-in-his-hair freedom. Photography, in particular, gives Salter the opportunity to relate to many different types of people and to creatively express his soul and the souls of his subjects in new and compelling ways—but for a vast majority of professional photographers, the craft is anything but seamless.

In fact, for an inexperienced professional, finding the correct lighting placement and white balance and aperture settings can seem downright impossible, especially when subjects are pressed for time and can only spare a few minutes for a photo.

In the following video, Salter discusses his love for portraiture and emphasizes the crucial role that lighting and relational skills play in determining the success or failure of a commercial photographer:

Originally based in Miami, Florida, Salter spent a good portion of the beginning of his career doing photojournalism for various newspapers all across the United States, but he eventually burned out. To Salter, photojournalism often necessitated photographing subjects “as victims,” while he actually wanted to find ways to dignify his subjects and make his work look more refined.

Instead of throwing in the towel on magazine photography, Salter made a wise move: he changed his approach. He began treating every photo assignment like a celebrity portrait session. Not only did he switch to shooting with a medium format camera, but he also brought a full studio spread to every photo shoot and he took great pains to master advanced lighting techniques that would give his portraits more of a high-end magazine look.

“One of the ways to grow as a photographer is to constantly look at how light is hitting things,” said Salter. “Look at light [at] different times of day and learn about lighting. And that way, when you only have a little bit of time, you’re able to know… what type of lighting to use to bring out the subject in a nice compelling way.”

magazine lighting newspaper interact subjects photojournalism studio lights strobes distinct style

If you want to refine your style, you have to first refine your understanding of light.

Now, Salter has developed a distinctive style for his work — a style that is highly sought after by some of the world’s top magazines, such as Sports Illustrated, Forbes, and People. Salter does attribute those types of commissions to his craftsmanship, but he also mentions another key factor at play in his successes: relational skills. Simply put, even if you are the greatest photographer that ever existed, if you are incapable of pleasantly interacting with subjects and coaxing them to drop their guards, then you will never succeed as a portrait photographer.

“Sports Illustrated commissions me not for my knowledge of sports,” said Salter. “They commission me because they like how I interact with athletes.”

lebron james sports illustrated jeffrey salter phase one

Slam dunk.

It also probably doesn’t hurt that he can deliver in a big way even when subjects only have minutes to spare for a photo shoot. In his cover shoot with LeBron James, Salter had only 12 minutes to sink a perfect shot—and he dunked it.

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