If I could be Mark Seliger, I would. That was the case almost 20 years ago, when I finally discovered who was behind all those phenomenal Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair magazine covers. I learned that it was Mr. Seliger and, more than anything, I wanted to be able to make the kind of gorgeous and timeless portraits he made. Even today, as a professional photographer with a firm grasp of portrait lighting, I'd be tempted to sell my soul for half of Mr. Seliger's talent and success. So, I started thinking about it: What photographic talents would it take to become a successful a portrait photographer like Mark Seliger? Here's what I came up with.
Controlling ambient light separate from strobes. This is, to me, one of the hallmarks of a great photographer, and one of the things Mark Seliger does so much better than most. And he makes it look effortless. He creates glowing outdoor ambience to make studio-style portraits with the grandeur of nature as a backdrop. I still remember the day in photo school when I grasped the concept of controlling flash and ambient illumination independently within the same exposure. My first thought was "Aha!" and my second was, "So THAT'S how Mark Seliger does it!" Get control over ambient and flash in a single frame, and you're on your way to greatness.
Have an ambitious goal. The Red Hot Chili Peppers in their birthday suits, or the cast of Seinfeld dressed as characters from The Wizard of Oz. These are ambitious concepts that sometimes require ambitious costuming, locations, makeup and props, and they've helped Mark Seliger make his name as a modern master. Even if you don't have his budget, there's no reason you can't have his imagination and inspiration. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are on a simple white background with zero props and wardrobe. The gorgeous Jennifer Aniston is simply elegant in a field after sunset. While the celebrity subjects themselves may be hard to get into your frame, the technical restraints are nothing to hold you back. That, as much as anything, illustrates the power of a great concept.
Simple light can do amazing things. Remember when I mentioned separating ambient from strobe and controlling them independently? Mr. Seliger excels at this, especially outdoors at sunset. How are they usually lit? With a single, simple softbox. (In fairness, I don't know how all of his subjects are lit. But I know what I can see in the frame, and that's a subtle, nuanced light, but not one that requires a fortune in lighting equipment and overly complex setups. He lights simply and beautifully, and he lets his subjects—and some naturally beautiful light—shine through.
Keep the postproduction simple, too. Again, since I haven't had the privilege of accompanying Mr. Seliger on a shoot or into his postproduction editing sessions, I don't have first-hand knowledge of his exact approach. But what I do know is what I see in his beautiful photographs, and that tells me that Mr. Seliger prefers that you see his photographs first and his technique second. Actually, when it comes to postproduction, it looks like he'd rather you not see his technique at all. He's not relying on digital effects to create his images, he uses the computer to refine the greatness he creates with his camera and lights. In this day of hyperrealism and fantasy images, Mr. Seliger still makes attention-grabbing photographs the "old-fashioned" way. Maybe this is why his style seems so timeless.
Photograph interesting subjects. In Mr. Seliger's case, his interesting subjects are the most famous celebrities and musicians in the world. Not everyone has access to celebrity subjects, but there are lots of subjects who are interesting in their own right. If you can't photograph an Oscar winner, photograph a talented, important or simply an interesting person in your own community. If you're unsure of who might be interesting, just pay attention. Turns out lots of people have great stories to tell, and they're just waiting for someone to ask. (And if you've got a cousin on a soap opera or a friend who's a teenage idol, it might be the perfect time to call in a favor.)