What Makes A Great Portrait?

To the untrained eye, photography is all about superficiality. Apply make up on your blemishes, do your hair right, light up certain areas and downplay the unattractive elements.

Not so, according to Russell Hoover, celebrated American surf photographer, who has decided to turn more attention to his portrait ventures honed over the past 12 years. With his camera lens he sees into the heart of people, it’s their truth, not superficiality he can see. Taking a successful portrait is a work of art, it is a serious process. “Every portrait is different, it’s like being in a mental tug-of-war”. He explains he has always had a sixth sense to see beyond what many can’t even see right in front of them.

 Russell uses elements of the portrait sitter’s own face to make the story and defines a successful portrait as one capable of bringing emotion to the viewer.

 Like much of life, failure is a big part of success in portraiture. Patiently taking photo after photo, requesting the sitter to move their chin, eye, shoulder, forehead, inch by inch is a painstaking affair and like anything spiritual, it can be difficult to articulate or define. I don’t see ‘it’ till I see it, but WHEN I see it, I bring what I see to life. I try to make images that once you see them they are etched in your mind forever”.

 Intriguingly, Russell’s most essential piece of equipment he’d recommend to photographers starting out “is an open mind and a willingness to fail”.  In regard to portrait photography, specifically, he is fond of Virginia Wolf’s quotation “Portraiture becomes a  negotiation between parties, a dance of wills that results in a collaboration of sorts”.

“With portraiture you can etch out a piece of time. Time is always a hamster wheel, it’s a made up thing, it’s a societal construction, but for a brief moment…I can actually capture it, and it allows people to hold onto it forever”.

 A desire to never stop learning pushes Russell to capture amazing shots, all around the world. For lighting his preference is profoto “I love everything about their equipment. It’s more expensive but it’s worth every penny”. Camera-wise Russell uses Canon, “It’s the first brand I ever took a photo with and always have (taken photographs with Canon)”.

A former senior staff photographer for Surfer Magazine, Russell has lived life out in the elements of nature, getting intimate with the winds, waves and sand as his office and fine tuned his sense and timing for outdoor conditions to get the best shot. His ability to get it right awarded him his photo on the cover of Surfers Journal Volume 1 Issue 1.

He still enjoys surf photography but admits he’s getting to an age where he’d rather be the one out in the surf enjoying the surfing “portraits have always been a fascination because they’re so timeless. Anyone can learn to shoot surfing or any other sport for that matter, but a portrait is a relation between the photographer and the subject and requires a lot of patience”.

 Visit Russell’s web page to see some of the familiar faces he has shot with his camera. Follow Russell on instagram and Facebook and book your portrait session with him in California. Email him and make sure you don’t miss out.

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