Portraits + Workshop

I have an upcoming workshop regarding “Documentary Portraiture.”

Based on a few comments I thought it might be a good idea to show a few images and talk a little bit about portraiture, and more importantly the idea of what a portrait really is. I’ve thrown in a few standard portraits here, but the project I’m primarily featuring, “Paradise, America” is a long-term story I started a few years ago. There are twelve towns in America named “Paradise,” in twelve different states, and I thought it would be interesting to have a look at what it was like to live in one of these towns. I made my way to five of the twelve locations before realizing I wasn’t entirely happen with how I was working, and that I liked the story so much I wanted to start over and begin anew. I was working with a Pentax 645, in black and white, which is a look(and camera) I really like, but I wanted to start the project over with a bit of color, as well as a more mobile format which would allow for quicker pictures. So much of this story was about landscape and context, in addition to the portraits. I also wanted to spend more time in each location, and I feel the Leica is better suited for getting close and reacting to life. I think color will be better in setting mood and place.

When the world ends, the financial markets close and we are all living in looted rubble I’ll have plenty of time to get back to this story………………………………………………………

The information and ideas I speak about in this clip will play a strong role in the portrait workshop. Shooting tight portraits with a 70-200 is a fine endeavor, but might not tell the story you are looking to tell. Sometimes context and story need to be created, and these might be better served by making images that provide a sense of place. A few things to think about.

Isn’t a landscape a portrait?
What transitional images might you need to tell a story made with portraits?
How do you engage someone you don’t know?
How will your equipment effect your portrait style?
Do you need audio or text to help tell the story?

For those of you signed up for the workshop, if you have specific questions…hit me up and I’ll address them.

37 responses to “Portraits + Workshop”

  1. Been following your blog for quite some time but have never commented. Just wanted to tell you that I really appreciate it. Great stuff Dan!

  2. Neil Holmes says:

    Hi Daniel, like the video, and I can see were your coming from, to me a portrait has to include people (or a living thing at least) but thats just my interpretation. I always see you as a visual storyteller, and I find your stories interesting, they show me places and people I’m unlikely to visit or meet. Cheers Neil

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Neil,

      Thanks for that. I think the key here is that idea of story. Storytelling, to me, is the heart of the issue. So when I make a picture, those surrounding images become a part of the person, that place and that story. I do think, at times, there is a connection that happen when you work with someone on a portrait. Something happens. Heck, I think something happens in reality based imagery that doesn’t get a lot of love, but it happens nonetheless.

  3. Karen says:

    I don’t want to turn this into a gear discussion, but I have to ask since I thought you were a Leica/Hasselblad kind of guy–why the Pentax? Is there something specific that you were after that caused you to go that route?

    And I’m ‘in’ for the workshop. Looking forward to meeting you in person.

    • Smogranch says:


      This project was started several years ago, and at the time I was loving the mix of speed and size that I got with the Pentax. 645 is an incredible format. The Pentax lenses are super sharp and I love the imprint on the film rebate where you can see what lens, body, aperture, etc, It’s almost three times the size of 35mm and much faster to use than the Blad.

  4. Andreas says:

    Workshop/ Canada? Where!?!?

  5. Paul Joyce says:

    Very interesting video and I’m pretty sure that attending one of your workshops would be a great experience and a lot can be taken from it.

    It’s just a shame I’m the other side of the pond in Europe (Munich)…

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Paul,

      I keep having close calls with German trips….been that way for the past few years. Munich, Hamburg…but then it falls through. I have a few friends and co-workers over there that I would love to see and meet. Maybe someday….

  6. Mark Griffin says:

    Another great clip, thanks for sharing. Btw I received my “test” colour trade books today and was blown away, really great stuff, now just need to put a few proper books together with a lot more images. Mark

  7. mike a. says:

    Great post Daniel, I enjoyed the video as always. It’s funny in my travels I’ve heard the ” I can pee in my backyard quote” many times but I chuckle every time I hear it. I thought it was just a southern thing but maybe it’s just a guy thing.

    • Smogranch says:


      We like to pee. It’s maybe one of our best skills. And yes, peeing in ones backyard is a good feeling. One of the first things we taught the young nephews, how to make your territory.

  8. Karen says:

    I hear you on the speed issue with the Hassy. I’d use mine for portraits more if I could focus faster. But I tend to reach for my MP more often than not.

    I’ve been trying to capture more environmental context in my portraits lately, and it’s hard. Much harder at least for me than the way I used to shoot — blur the background, get a headshot, and don’t worry about the setting. But those pics haven’t stood the test of time (for me at least) to the ones where I tried to capture more.

    • Smogranch says:

      Well, I think if you look at the portrait market, the 50mm, wide open look has not only taken hold, it’s taken over. Those can be great images, but depending on the kind of work you are doing, they might not give the reader enough information.

  9. Yann says:

    Hi Dan,
    Any plans for a workshop in London? I would attend since I became a regular reader of your posts.

    • Smogranch says:


      Not at the moment. February is my last workshop on the books. After that, not sure I’m going to be teaching for a while because I’ve got a few long-term things I need to work on and have to really put every free moment into those. We’ll see however, things have a tendency to change rapidly…..

  10. Takki says:

    Very good thoughts, I enjoyed it and learned a lot. I think photography in the digital age has changed so much – also the way we approach people and tell the story. The more I think about storytelling, the more I want to go back to my old Nikon F3 and b/w film. I am missing the soul and the magic of film. It’s just more honest and true. btw I am also one of your blogreaders from Germany.

  11. Don Denton says:

    Hi Dan. Thanks for that. Looking forward to the workshop. dd

  12. Charlene says:

    That was an informative video, and lots of food for thought. One day I’ll attend a workshop of yours, if I’m ever in the right place at the right time.

  13. Tom says:

    Thanks again for the audio presentation. Always very thoughtful in approach.

  14. David,
    A couple of things, first I love the way you explained that a portrait can be more than a tight shot of someones face.

    I have been building myself up to do a project containing portraits (both person and environment) and audio interviews of the people of Northern New Mexico. here is my first blog about the idea. http://iminphotos.blogspot.com/2010/01/long-term-goalproject-of-mine.html

    I started my idea with a group of African Americans in Albuquerque last year for Black History month, here is that: http://iminphotos.com/Walls_That_Talk.html
    I showed it in a gallery for a couple months in Albuquerque, I put together these little videos with Animoto, I need to redo them as I don’t like the animations.

    I then started with documenting artist in their studios. I just finished my second piece in the series, check it out here: http://iminphotos.com/Docuarting.html
    I feel I am getting it in the right direction for the Northern New Mexico project finally.

    I am just trying to figure out how the information should be used in the end. I want the body of work (images, audio, written word, etc.) to be the cultures, not mine, but I am just trying to really round out the entire idea before starting.

    Any thoughts or ideas that you have from your own project that you can share would be helpful.

    Thank you,

    • Smogranch says:


      Looks like we are both aiming at Northern New Mexico. Nice to hear and see. I was up there yesterday…snooping around but also went to Ojo Caliente. I will take a look at this when I get a chance…just got back here so digging out. Also not sure if you have seen Karen Kuehn’s work, but she has a long series on New Mexico artists in their studios.

  15. Great video Dan, some great ideas and thoughts about storytelling that I look forward to learn much more about in Peru.

  16. Ramon says:

    Hi Daniel
    I really love and appreciate your work and have recently gone back to try and use film again. Would you consider coming over to the UK to run a workshop or two?
    Kind regards

    • Smogranch says:


      I would consider doing that, but I’m not sure how many folks think like you and I………might be more difficult to fill than you would imagine. I try to get to the UK at least once a year, but I might miss my shot this year. Next year looks like France for sure, so I’ll be close.

  17. dj says:

    Great post- nice work Dan- !

    How do you market these?

    How does one turn a profit on these to be able to pay the bills?
    [or cover trip costs related to the travel, film and processing for these projects]

    Do you give prints to the folks who are in your photographs?

    Thank You DJ

    • Smogranch says:


      I market workshops in a variety of ways, but mostly with those folks I’m partnered with. Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, PhotoExperience, and Latitude 34 South. As for profiting, you have to figure all costs vs number of students. I would never want workshops to be my primary source of income, not from the photography side, so I don’t have to worry about that. I only teach once or twice a year. Yes, I give prints whenever possible, in some cases I will give entire books.

  18. dj says:

    Hi Dan-
    Sorry for the confusion Dan-
    How do you market and cover costs of the Documentary Portraiture projects you work on?

    I have been self – funding my shorter,closer to home projects- but funding long term projects is a bit daunting.
    [self funding is coming from my other photo work of sports/event coverage and fine art prints,I do not like the crowd funding or as some have called it cyber -begging]

    Are you doing the workshops in order to fund the projects?
    Or are your documentary projects producing enough revenue to cover their own costs and expenses?

    I am planning to make fiber prints for some small/local gallery shows as well as using Blurb for some books. I would like to turn enough profit from smaller projects in order to fund the longer projects.
    “Seed money ” if you will; not sure what to call it.
    I am staying in the Southeast[U.S.]so no plane fare– project costs still involve film, chemicals, paper, matt and frames etc and travel expenses of gas, tolls, food and hotel/motel/camping fees.

    The scope of my documentary projects are coastal environmental issues, and will include some portraiture. I will also be doing some writing/interviewing for the projects and plan to cross market for publication to magazines.

    Is my business plan correct to raise the funds “before” the project or should I be thinking more along the lines of doing the projects and making them profitable on the back end with print sales?
    Then reinvesting those funds back into the next project.

    Thanks again – your insight has been invaluable to me and I am sure many other folks. DJ

    • Smogranch says:

      Ah, okay, a different story. Well, if you can raise money up front, I think that is always better than on the backside. At least you are guaranteed of having the money to do what you need to do. At this point in time, making money on the back end is quite difficult. However, if you have a following, a gallery, collectors, etc it can be done. I realized a long time ago I no longer wanted to work for anyone while doing documentary work. First of all, I felt the overall work relationship with clients, and budgets and time allowed were all decaying. Plus, I just prefer being on my own, not having to think about anything other than the work.
      I have a full time job. This is new for me, but I am MUCH, MUCH happier and better off photographically. I get a lot of emails from people asking about how to be a pro, and my first question is “Why do you want to be a pro?” “Why do you want to try and make your living with photography?” “Why not just go shoot what you love and do something else to make your living?”
      People have a romantic notion of what a photographer’s life is like, but in most cases I think they would be surprised. There is a lot chasing.

  19. dj says:

    Thanks Dan!
    Great insight as always.
    I do not want to work for anyone while working on projects either. I do not want them to dictate to me what to shoot -how to shoot or where to shoot-. And when I tell them I am shooting film – they think I am nuts. Hence me desire for self funding my projects.

    Your 3 questions sound like the great beginnings of a blog post.

    “Why do you want to be a pro?” “Why do you want to try and make your living with photography?” “Why not just go shoot what you love and do something else to make your living?”

    As someone who spent nearly 10 years as a staffer on a daily newspaper I can tell you I did not go into photojournalism for the money. Most of us don’t. We do it “to tell the story”. To “tell the truth”. We do it not because it is what we do – it is who we are.
    So many nights it is the last thing we think of before falling alseep and one of the first things we think of when we wake up. “Telling the story”. It consumes us. It is in our gut, it is in our hearts; tugging, pulling and pushing us every day. We miss birthdays, graduations and family outings.We have a very high divorce rate and it takes a toll on our relationships. We work long hours and don’t even notice the day has flown by and it it now 10 pm and our children have been asleep for hours. We try working a regular day job- and after a few years we are so miserable and cranky we can’t stand it-so we try to find something half way between being a staffer and being on our own. “To tell the story.” It is something insane within us – this need to” tell the story.” To make people ‘see”. If you do not have this burning passion and relentess desire to tell the story- your advice is right on target-
    Go shoot what you love and do something else to make a living- there are lots of creative jobs out there that do not put you in harms way, cause rocky realtionships, or put you at the poverty level. It always comes back to “To Tell The Story”. For me – it is a calling.
    F8 and be there!

    • Smogranch says:


      Yes, I think most of us are driven by some inner thing…….
      Not working as a photographer is far more beneficial today than ever before, at least in my opinion. I had a client call me yesterday and say, “I know why you are not doing this anymore, because good enough is now all that anyone is looking for.” I said, “You are on the right track.”
      I’m enjoying the idea I don’t have to sell anyone any longer. It makes a HUGE difference in the work. And, photography is a lot more fun. I miss the clients, but think I would rather be friends than clients any day.

  20. dj says:

    Hi Dan-
    yep the state of the industry certainly has changed quite a bit-
    as has most industries in this economy; and the upgrades in technology gets faster and faster. No doubt about it.
    Keep up the good work I love your blog!

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