The Photography Show 2019: Rory Lewis on creating captivating portraits | Profoto (UK)

The Photography Show 2019: Rory Lewis on creating captivating portraits

18 February, 2019

Written by: Ailish Cook

Joining us at The Photography Show 2019 is Rory Lewis, who has spent 14 years as a photographer capturing portraits of both famous faces and highly important individuals. Combining his love for history and photography, Rory has perfected his approach to cultivating an effective shoot concept and lighting to create compelling and powerful images.

Rory's journey through portrait photography

As a self-taught photographer with 14 years behind the lens, Rory has been able to develop his own style of working without interference. It started whilst Rory was studying History of Cinema within his History course at Kings College London, exploring German Expressionist Cinema with films such as Nosferatu, the Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Metropolis.

"Metropolis features special effects and set designs that still impress modern audiences with their visual impact. The Maschinenmensch, the robot character played by Brigitte Helm, was iconic. I was amazed by the visual effects of cinematography and set design. I started to explore my interest in photography even further as the influences of German Expressionism were fresh in my mind. I had a hunger to become more creative."

Alongside studying the History of Cinema, Rory worked at an electrical store which gave him the opportunity to play around with the latest computer and camera technologies, ultimately leading to photography becoming his foremost passion. 

"I finished university with a good degree and returned home to continue developing my work. To my surprise, I began to receive commissions, at first individuals needing portraits, then models requiring model portfolios, and eventually businesses requiring advertising and campaign photography. In 2007, my success allowed me to start my own photography studio, working with clients both locally and nationally. When my work was first acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, I knew I was producing something amazing."

Portrait of Britain: Creating a winning portrait

Much of Rory's work has been focused on capturing individuals in the military, and in 2017 he submitted his portrait series 'Soldiery', focused on documenting the modern British Military, to the Portrait of Britain.

"Each image depicts the unique identity of the regiment and rank. My initial aim was both historic and ambitious, and succeeded in capturing the changing face of the British Army."

Rory's winning image was that of Captain Anani-Isaac, with the sitting taking place on location at The Royal Lancers barracks in Catterick.

"For me it is essential to be mobile, I prefer the Profoto B2 To-Go Air TTL Kit for its durability, portability and power. As a professional photographer on the move, I have found the more lower end lighting less durable, needing regular repairs and maintenance."

With two B2 heads, two OCF Softboxes, a Large Black Reflector as a backdrop and a Small White Reflector, Rory captured the winning portrait of Captain Anani-Isaacs, representing the modernity and diversity of the British Army.

"Winning the Portrait of Britain in 2017 was a great honour especially with a portrait from my Soldiery series. Choosing the right equipment for your photoshoots can make your life much easier. For myself portability is key, with more than half of my portrait sittings taking place on location."

Capturing famous faces: Finding inspiration

Whilst the faces of the British Army require thought-provoking and powerful portraits, Rory's work with famous faces takes a more theatrical approach to portrait photography, creating vivid and thought-provoking expressions, with some elaborate projects in-line with renaissance artists. This was evident when Rory captured Sir Patrick Stewart, taking inspiration from a 16th century painting of Sir Thomas Moore by artist Hans Holbein the Younger.

"Painted in 1527, Sir Thomas More would have been a very compelling and controversial sitter for Holbein. In this three quarter length portrait, the inclusion of a strikingly shallow backdrop intensifies the harshness of Moore’s presence. What makes the portrait even more arresting is Holbein’s use of colour. By incorporating bold areas of green (as a symbol of revelation) and red (signifying power and importance), Holbein was able to perfectly portray his subject’s status as a strong, intellectual figure."

Using Holbein's painting as a muse, Rory began to think more about the subject of his own portrait with Sir Patrick Stweart, with this portrait setting bieng a key development in Rory's approach and method to photography, with research being a critical component. 

"To begin this pre-emptive research, I look to photographers who have captured the subject previously; grappling with the mathematics of the portrait (head shape, good side, bad side, that kind of thing). If the subject is an actor, I’ll take the time to binge watch any movies and TV Series, watching relentlessly for any details or angles that haven’t caught my attention before. 

To prepare for his sitting with Sir Patrick, Rory began studying his previous portrait sitting with Nadav Kander, before watching his iconic role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek the Next Generation and looking through a multitude of video clips of his stage performances.

"Studying his profile, I had repeatedly found that Sir Patrick had primarily been photographed as if still embodied by one of his characters. However, Holbein’s portrait had given me the inspiration to portray Sir Patrick quite simply as himself – the thespian. No greens or reds, but simply a black backdrop, pierced by the harsh lighting that I knew would amplify every detail of Sir Patrick’s intense gaze. 

To light the portraits of Sir Patrick Stewart, I set up two Profoto D4 2400 Air, equipped with Umbrella Shallow White M. One was used to light the foreground and the other to light the background of the subject. A black poly board was used to the side in order to create definition."

The essence of a captivating portrait

Rory's aim is to bring his subject into a space where they can lose themselves and completely disconnect from the moment.

"So much of the portraiture commissioned in the press and print industry is reluctant to take risks. I want to challenge that safety and introduce moments of spontaneity and awkwardness. Too often portraits of people, famous or even notorious, are aggrandising and sycophantic. I want to strip back the artifice and enforce strangeness and quietness in its place.

The people I work with - the most famous and most recognisable - are often guarded, very reluctant to reveal themselves. Part of the joy of portraiture is getting them to a point where they feel safe to let that guard drop. It’s an accidental moment that I look for; that moment of accident is really important; it can be found during the shooting process or in the editing process. I find it’s often something you didn’t expect to work that will yield the most evocative images, be it messing around digitally or physically editing the image. I was raised on digital but more and more I value the presence of a tactile image, one that you can hold, bend and tear."

The Photography Show 2019

Thank you to Rory for featuring in our Profoto Stories! You can visit us and Rory at The Photography Show 2019, where he will be talking about his portraiture and presenting his top lighting tips and techniques alongside a variety of other incredible photographers. More information can be found here. To follow Rory and see more of his amazing portraiture work, visit his website or follow him on Instagram.


Written by: Ailish Cook

Products used in this story

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