Dave Harrell: On Starting Out in Portrait Photography

All images and words by Dave Harrell. Used with permission.

My name is Dave Harrell. I am a portrait photographer just beginning to make a regional name for myself. I shoot in Northern Michigan and, while focusing on portraits, I am now also booking weddings (I have 5 this year).

I learned photography in the early 90s while serving in the US Air Force. I was stationed in Washington DC and fell in love with the museums, art, and architecture. I purchased a Minolta 7000i and several prime lenses and enrolled in photography classes offered on base. By 1993 I was transferred to Oxford, UK and my landscape/architecture photography love ignited.

After the military, I earned my degree in history with the idea of teaching. Instead, I found a career in the museum field. While primarily an exhibit designer and executive, I always had a focus on interpretation of photographs and photograph conservation.

In 2011, with my oldest child starting Kindergarten, I made a choose to end my museum career and move my family to Northern Michigan. After working odd jobs, I rediscovered the joy of photography. I decided to make this a full-time career. Today I shoot family, student, and wedding portraits.

I grew up on film, so my processing style tries to capture that look. I love the look of crushed blacks and desaturated colors. I do very little ‘photoshopping’ of people, preferring to capture the true essence of a person (meaning I will only remove blemishes like pimples or scrapes).

I have always been a storyteller, a gift passed down to me by my grandmother whose stories of her friendships with Detroit gangsters and celebrities are a thing of legend. I want my photographs to tell a story about the person, and to showcase their true selves. So I do very little posing, preferring to let my subject move freely around the frame.

My biggest influences in photography are Annie Leibovitz, Dani Diamond, Amy Carroll, Steve McCurry, David Lazar, and Phil Borges. I remember first seeing Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl in the magazine rack of my middle school. It was at that moment that I fell in love with photography. When I picked up a camera again in 2011, I focused on the work of Annie Leibovitz. It was enough to ignite a passion for portrait photography.

Today I shoot on Nikon, primarily a D750 and D7200. I use only prime lenses and tend to shoot wide open as much as possible. I do use speedlights and modifiers when needed, but I love the look of natural light.

I believe my work might be interesting to people just starting out in the business. While I took photography classes in the early 90s, I am mostly self taught. I have learned what works (and more importantly what doesn’t) by trial and error. While 46 years old, I am building a career that I am very proud of.