Perfect portraits are possible


All it takes is cash By Catherine Learned

Photo: Courtesy of SheilaRrutledge and David Suttont

At least once a year, you scrub your children spotless, drag a comb through their tangles, dress them up and then endure the frustrating experience of trying to get a decent portrait. How many times has it been a truly pleasant experience resulting in a beautiful, treasured portrait? How often has it resulted in portraits you’d rather hide in the hall closet than proudly display on the mantel? With a little homework, you can find a photographer who will suit your needs and make the whole experience a little easier.  First, you need to choose the type of studio you want to use. Your choices range from national chains offering hundreds of photos for a few bucks to high-brow studios charging hundreds of dollars for a few pictures. Sears, Kmart and other chain studios charge about $10 per 8-by-10-inch portrait sheet if you go with a special deal. Olan Mills, the portrait studio found in select Kmarts, has a $10.70 sitting fee, and each sheet of portraits costs $20. They also have portrait packages; the smallest package offers seven sheets for $69.95, and the largest package offers 30 sheets and a 16-by-20-inch canvas portrait for $269.95.  At Sears you pay a sitting fee of $9.99 per person. Sears has a standard package of four sheets for $24.99. Additional portrait sheets are $12.99 each. There’s also a family portrait collection, where you pay a $14.99 sitting fee and $79.99 for 10 portrait sheets. The Picture People chain of portrait studios, located almost exclusively in suburban shopping malls, is another option. With 300 nationwide locations, including 13 in the Chicago area, the Picture People are fast, affordable and pretty accessible. And the prints are done in just an hour, which definitely beats the two to three weeks you’ll wait for prints from most other studios. The Picture People charge a sitting fee of $9.95 per person, or $19.95 for three or more. Portrait sheets are $15 apiece. You’ll probably get decent portraits from these chain studios, but nothing that will knock your socks off. If you want to spend a little more money, there are independent portrait photographers aplenty.  This creates more questions. How to find one, and how much to pay? Going upscale When looking for a portrait photographer, Sheila Rutledge, a portrait photographer in Warrenville and the program chair for the Professional Photographers Association of Northern Illinois, advises against flipping through the Yellow Pages. "You should start the process with asking friends who they go to. If you see a portrait on the wall that you like, ask who did it," says Rutledge. Then visit the studio and look at sample portraits. "If you see anything out of focus, if any of the colors are washed out or there are shadows where there shouldn’t be, go elsewhere," says Rutledge. "If there are problems in the sample work that can be seen with an untrained eye, this is a bad sign."  Timothy Walden, the portrait chair for the Professional Photographers of America, is a portrait photographer based in Lexington, Ky. He agrees that going to meet with photographers and look through their work is a good idea. "You really need to see their photographs to know if their style is appropriate to your taste." He advises looking for "believable portraits that reflect the personality of the child. You want to get away from stiff portraits." Colin Westerbeck, curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago for more than 15 years and author of "Bystander: A History of Street Photography," also has some advice for choosing a good portait photographer. When studying a photographer’s book of sample portraits, look for photographs that exhibit the liveliness and personality of the subject, and don’t overflatter. "The picture that you’ll be glad you have 10 years later is one that captures some aspect of personality rather than the most glamorous," says Westerbeck. A good portrait photographer is someone who "can put someone at ease and also disconcert them enough to get an original response that reveals an endearing characteristic," says Westerbeck.  He thinks work that illicits the most spontaneous response from a subject will be treasured in the long run because it will reveal your child as he or she truly is in that moment and capture it for posterity. The interaction you and your child have with the photographer is also telling. "Find out if this person is actually a child photographer, see how they are with your child," says Rutledge. "If they don’t take time with you or are in a hurry, or don’t seem to want to deal with your kids, find somebody else." Backgrounds also are important to a good photo. Artificial backgrounds or those that are too busy will detract from the subject. Simple backgrounds where "the focus is on the person and their true character" are best, says Westerbeck. Also, steer clear of photographers who use lots of fake décor and props. Inititial investment Rutledge charges sitting fees of as much as $120. "The bigger chain studios are less," she admits. "Because of their volume, they can charge less, but they also offer less services than independent photographers can." Walden says a reasonable sitting fee can range from $10 to $200. "Spending a couple hundred dollars for one or two hours of a photographer’s time is reasonable," he says. "People often think that you don’t really get anything for your sitting fee. You aren’t getting any photos for that money, but what you get is that photographer’s willingness to invest time and film into getting a great portrait for you." David Sutton of Evanston is a prime example of high-end portrait photography. While the most you can spend at Kmart is around $280, the least you’ll spend for pictures with Sutton is probably around $750. At $400 for a sitting, and prints driving the cost even higher, his prices are steep.  But if you want superior portraits, Sutton can deliver. A tall, soft-spoken man of 44 with warm blue eyes, Sutton possesses a friendly, composed manner and easygoing personality. It’s easy to see how children would be at ease around him. There are no stiff children tugging at collars in his portraits, just laughing siblings and children clutching their stuffed rabbits. There’s no real formula for putting a child at ease, says Sutton. "It’s very hard work but it’s not like I have to figure it out. It’s pretty intuitive." Patience is necessary. "You can’t rush and push.  If a kid is having an ‘I need mommy’ moment you’ve gotta give them time," says Sutton. 


Catherine Learned is a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a former Chicago Parent intern.


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