Does a portrait need a face ?

Shot with an 85mm 1.8 lens, exposure was 1/160th at F 5.6

The Daytona 500 is the biggest race in NASCAR and in the 54-year history of the race they had never been rained out–until yesterday. The start of the 2012 season begins tonight and that seemed like a great time to talk about shooting portraits which I’ll illustrate with a picture from my book, “Faces of NASCAR”.

Does a portrait always include a face?

Most times that’s true but one my favorites portraits has no eyes, no nose and just a touch of skin.

Richard Petty is one of the biggest names in NASCAR and when I began creating a shot list for my book, “Faces of NASCAR” I knew I wanted a killer portrait of “King Richard”. Chances are you’ve seen a photo of him over the years and I bet he’s sporting that famous 1000-watt smile topped off with a black cowboy hat.

The first time I saw him at a track I stalked him like a big game hunter. First, shooting from a distance with a 400mm lens, then later with a shorter lens and then finally with a wide angle. Looking over my pictures that evening in the hotel room I realized it was easy to get a good photograph of Petty but I need something bold. My quest for something special began by looking over every photo of Petty in fine detail. It was at 100% magnification that I first caught glimpse of the buckle, “NASCAR Winston Cup, Seven Time Champion”. Seeing that buckle I knew the picture I wanted to make.

It would be a few weeks before I had another chance to photograph Petty so there was time to make sure all the details were nailed down. I chose my 85mm 1.8 lens because it would allow me to be work very close, maybe two feet away and it’s wicked sharp to show off all that fine metal work on the buckles surface.

Petty is like a rock star at the track and people are always grabbing his attention for one thing or the other. The racetrack is also covered with packs of photographers, so I didn’t want to make a killer photo just to see my idea stolen by everyone else.

When the next race arrived, I was prepared and again began looking for Petty. I knew I’d only get one chance but I was ready. Luck was working for me that day because it was cloudy and the light was so soft it looked like I had set up a huge overhead softbox. When I saw the king from a distance, I first looked around and didn’t see any other photographers so I hustled up to Petty, quickly told him about my idea and he said “why not”. I dropped down on one knee, framed the shot like I had practiced then made about six or seven frames. That was it. I stood up, thanked the King and walked away. I knew I had nailed it without ever looking at the camera back.

The Picture Coach says….

The idea for this picture began with a quest to do more than shoot another famous face smiling for the camera. Like a golfer putting in time on the driving range I practiced making the picture until I could almost do it in my sleep. I’ll be the first to say that not every photo is something you can practice for but this photo of Richard Petty is another example of what can happen when you pay attention to the details.


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