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By Gary Bernstein


It is great to be with you photographers, and I am honored to be with Denny (in fact, I’ve been with Denny for a very long time). Let’s open with a blatant plug for Denny: The only backdrops I have ever purchased were produced by Denny. I said to Denny this morning that I’ve always believed that the less interesting the subject, the more interesting the backdrop has to be ;). I’ll claim I never said that!

Wait, there is one more thing (maybe 2 things)…
Denny’s quality is second to none; and it’s made in the good old US of A – 2 things very close to my heart!

Now, down to business:
I will be writing to you shooters about the portrait business and commercial shooting as well; and how you get those jobs. Denny told me that many of today’s portrait studios aren’t shooting heads (meaning headshots)—that they mainly shoot just half length and full-length images (and if they need to they just crop in on them to create a headshot). That is absolutely a huge (money-losing) mistake! There are many reasons for that which we will get to.

Here's a Rule:
In fact, it’s a rule to live by in this business (and I have many rules that have saved me and my business over many years (as you will find out)):

Rule: You can’t sell it if you don’t shoot it!
[and then, it has to be presented properly to your customer (we’ll get to that too)]

For example, Hasselblad hired me to shoot this ad:



After I knew I had the hero shot in the can (the “hero shot” is the feature shot an advertiser wants for its campaign)*, I moved in and shot a series of headshots and portraits. I ended up using one of them for the cover of one of my books (see below) and for other promotional pieces as well—so did the model. Portrait sessions are no different.


Here’s how: Let’s say you did a portrait shoot for Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Jones showed her pictures to Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith fell in love with a particular image you did of Mrs. Jones and says to you when she books her session that she wants to be photographed the “same way as this shot of Mrs. Jones.” Consequently, the hero shot is that image that Mrs. Smith wants. So, make darn sure you get that shot in the can (and shoot it a variety of different ways at that), so Mrs. Smith is a happy camper; and then shoot the heck out of the session in a lot of other ways (so she can make Mrs. Jones jealous, forcing Mrs. Jones to come back and book another session with you LOL). Believe it or not, I am actually serious because that’s how it works if you do it right!

Bottom line, you really MUST shoot a variety of images (we will go through the progression later) if you want to sell those pictures to your client—and remember that you have to shoot photographs in which the subject is making eye contact—and other images where the subject is looking away, but we’ll be getting to more of that as well.




Gary photographed the Hasselblad advertisement and the book cover image on Gelation Hand-Painted Backdrop (OM-2392).

Here’s another example:
I was hired to shoot a series of national ads with legendary singer-actor Kenny Rogers (he was a good buddy by the way. Here’s a quick anecdote from my forthcoming book reflecting on working with these amazing individuals and clients over so many years):

I was over at Kenny’s house one day (wow, what a house!) and I said to him, “You know, when I want some music to just mellow out to, I put on Kenny Rogers. What do you put on???” He looked at me and said, “I put on England Dan and John Ford Coley.” That was a long time ago—but their collective music sure lives on!)

So back to photography:
Below is one of the ads I shot for the client, Karman Western Wear, and below that is one of the pages from one of my books (that Denny will be republishing as a digital download soon) that shows how I made the shot. Below that is a headshot image I am still selling to this day (simply because I moved in and made the image (again, if you don’t shoot it, you can’t sell it)). Kenny bought it as well for himself! He is missed by the way—he was a really good man.







Studio photographers today have a problem—a big problem: There are a ton of photographers out there (duh ;)). In today’s world, anybody who has a cell phone thinks they’re a photographer. That’s until their wife, husband, or lover says “Honey, you’re such a good photographer…take my photograph!” And shortly thereafter, she starts hitting that delete button until there are no images left! That’s because people photography takes technique. It takes technique to create the image (other techniques to create a desirable image), and it takes additional techniques to market and sell the image. It is never just a matter of lighting and composition!

This is reality: It’s not creative unless it sells! I stole that maxim from David Ogilvy. In other words, if you love me, show me ;). It’s not good enough that your wife or your mom thinks you’re just great. You need to keep those clients coming back and talking about you and paying you! I can show you how to do that. Count on it.

I start every studio portrait session the same way:

I seat my subject on an adjustable stool (yes, of course it’s a Denny stool LOL). I place it in front of a table or a piece of furniture or the arm or back of a chair. There’s a simple reason: The client does not exist who is not up tight (and intimidated tremendously) in front of the camera – particularly at the start of a session…

Believe me—it doesn’t matter if I am photographing Hollywood’s biggest stars or a politician straight out of the White House—they are all up tight.  The table and the stool give them comfort and psychological support; and YES, start by shooting heads (lots more to come on this and how you start to control the subject and pace of the session). They can rest their arms and hands on the table (bring them up to the face), because, again, the studio environment—even a small studio (much less a huge commercial studio) is threatening at best.

The photographs below were made for Max Factor Cosmetics –

Obviously, I brought the hands up to the face for these images ;):




This next shot became the cover for a photography magazine.






Again, the subject has to be confident right from the start!

Back in the day, we were shooting film. Film had a cost associated with it as opposed to shooting pixels which have no cost. So, the cost reality flew in the face of trying to make as much money as possible without spending it all on film, processing and proofs!

But the psychology is the same today. So, this is the second tip (it may be the third or fourth, I’ve lost count) regarding the psychology of photographing people:

Let the subject know that you plan to shoot a lot of photographs; meaning that there is security in numbers—not just for you as the photographer (what good is it to "save some bucks or a few minutes" if you don't come away with the shot (?))—but it is great security for your subject as well who now says to herself (or himself) “Oh, I smiled too much on that first shot, but fortunately this guy is going to shoot a ton of images, and I’m bound to find one or two that I love.”

I always say to them: “We’re just looking for one image that is the most beautiful picture you’ve ever seen of yourself!” And then I sell them 10 pictures.

That security always results in beautiful images.  It makes your subject look more handsome or more beautiful--for real! Confidence absolutely changes the look of your subject physically! That is the power of the mind.

We will get to more techniques in every article, and note to self: continue with HOW to direct the start of a session to create subject confidence and great images (if I forget, remind me ;)) but let’s talk about what you can expect from these articles going forward.

These articles or columns will take many directions from the technical to the creative to the psychology of shooting and selling, and the marketing of images; and how to expand your business. It is really a stream of consciousness for me.

In many cases I will publish examples from my books and magazine columns (which are based on real shoots and having to come away with the shot when your posterior is really on the line meaning if you blow the shoot, you may not work again! That’s something you can really take to bank ;). In my early days in New York, a client actually said that to me. Maybe we’ll get around to that story as it is truly funny.

The bottom line is always written in dollars. Meaning that my articles will be dedicated to making you more money in the photography business. When my eye is up to the camera, I am dedicated to only one thing. Hopefully, creating the most beautiful images my client has ever seen. The moment I put down the camera, I want to know how much money I’ve made for the emotion, experience and dedication I’ve put into that effort. That’s a fact!

Denny would like me to do some online seminars, and maybe portfolio evaluations in the future—videos and other things—and that sounds good to me.

Great to be with you. If you have questions or comments – please contact me through Denny or email me (see below). If you want advice on a session, email me (and I’ll get to whatever I can handle or maybe we’ll publish some of them).

More to come soon…


© Gary Bernstein . All Rights Reserved


Gary Bernstein Studio
8539 W. Sunset Boulevard, Suite 4-125, W. Hollywood, CA 90069
Studio 310.550.6891 Direct 310.819.6508

Email gbs90210@aol.com





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