Donald Graham Makes Eye Contact: Establishing A Visual Connection

“Many of my portraits come out of the sense that it is a conversation with the person being photographed,” Donald Graham observes. “It’s important to look deeply into a person’s eyes and, in so doing, to understand better who that person is.”


Graham, who works around the world but primarily in Los Angeles and New York, did not arrive at this viewpoint overnight. A pro shooter since 1983, he focuses on fashion, movies, music, and advertising. “My specialty is clearly people.”

Client: Tongue Magazine

“I always engage my subjects in conversation. There’s always a dialog that goes on.” Donald Graham photographed Snoop Dogg (a.k.a. Snoop Lion) at the celebrity’s residence in suburban Los Angeles. “We set up a mobile studio with a white seamless paper background, adding a scrim for a soft light overhead, with an Octabank in front.” (Art Director: Kevin Robie.)
© Donald Graham

Starting Out
Graham originally worked as a collegiate swimming team coach, which gave him the opportunity to further challenge himself with a camera. Sensing he had the eye and reflexes of a sports photographer, he made the decision to leave coaching. “I took some photography classes at the University of California, Los Angeles, and also began assisting. Almost at the same time, I took a portfolio of photographs, featuring swimmers who I’d coached, around to ad agencies.” This was when the Olympic Games were coming to Los Angeles. “And they were interested. I probably talked to 100 different designers and ad agencies saying that I was a specialist in amateur athletics. And I secured a job with Sports Illustrated shooting Greg Louganis, a diver who went on to win Olympic Gold. As soon as that was published, I was able to secure jobs for Kodak and others shooting major ad campaigns focusing on amateur athletes who would be featured in the upcoming Olympics.”

Client: Pearle Vision

Graham shot this at Hudson Studios, in New York City, as part of a three-year campaign consisting of 125 ads. He used a Hasselblad with a Phase One back, originally shooting in color. The youngster stood on a cyc, illuminated by a floor-to-ceiling bank of windows and a Briese strobe with a very large umbrella positioned above and behind Graham, with black cards on each side of the subject. “The concept behind the whole shoot is that I was taking photographs of real moments, of real people. My objective was to pull out honest emotion and record that for the campaign. So I asked her questions, one of which elicited this response.” (Agency: Arnold Worldwide, Boston; Art Buyer: Sarah Doggett; Creative Director: Bob Pye; Art Director: Pamela Coatti.)
© Donald Graham

Realizing that photographing Olympic athletes would not entirely fulfill his vision for the future led Graham to pursue fashion photography, and that took him to Paris with a portfolio of model shoots under his belt, in hopes of launching a fashion career at an established studio. The experience proved to be an eye-opener which brought him back to the States, specifically New York, where he started to work with an agent he knew. “In Los Angeles, I was shooting celebrities for editorial and musicians and singers for CD/album covers; in New York I focused more on advertising.” And under the umbrella of his production company, Cerberus Productions, this award-winning photographer has worked for many Fortune 500 companies. His images are in permanent collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the International Center of Photography in New York.

Client: Paper Magazine

This image was shot as part of a 14-page editorial that depicted the many sides of the British socialite Leigh Bowery. Each shot in the series represented a distinct theme or mood. This photograph distinguished itself by being featured in an exhibit titled Men in Skirts at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The model was photographed at Hudson Studios, New York City, with a Hasselblad, on film. Graham used an Octabank with black cards on each side of the subject. (Creative Director: Bridget de Socio; Fashion Stylist: Timothy Reukauf.)
© Donald Graham

Camera Gear
Graham switched to Canon when he went digital, in 2004, using this gear for personal projects and low-budget jobs, largely editorial and some advertising. “However, whenever we shoot high-budget advertising campaigns, I work with Hasselblad and Phase One backs, which I rent.” He continues: “It’s always a budget issue. In a studio environment, if I had a choice, I would shoot with a Hasselblad. On the street I’d rather shoot with the Canon.” When shooting in the studio, the camera is tethered to a Mac laptop. More to the point, with art directors on set, any big campaign is shot tethered, so they can continuously evaluate the flow of the work. On location, Graham will shoot to a card. “I just shot a job for Esquire magazine, focusing on an individual’s random interactions with people on the street—that was all shot to card.” Graham consistently works with Michael Dos Santos, his digital tech, and uses Phase One’s Capture One software for Raw conversions.

His Canon camera is the 1D Mark IV. “If I’m going three-quarters and full length, I shoot with the 50mm f/1.2; if I’m coming in close, I use the 85mm f/1.2. I never use zooms. I like being able to shoot wide open, and using the fastest of both focal lengths.” He shoots handheld with Canon, but a Gitzo comes to the fore with medium format.

Client: American Gentleman Magazine

Graham rarely shoots composites, but, when he does, he goes all out, as in this instance, for which 14 elements came together to form this image for the magazine’s premier issue. The magazine wanted to portray a celebrity, namely Scott Elrod, as the epitome of the ideal successful American gentleman. Shot with a Canon 1D Mark IV, the first element included the subject in the picture, using an Octabank. He was then removed from the scene for subsequent elements that focused on creating highlights in the car with strip lights. For the final exposure, a water truck wet down the street so the asphalt underneath the vehicle would catch a glint of another strip light. (Creative Director: Lemar Johnson.)
© Donald Graham

In choosing cameras, “I don’t care whether a camera is noisy or not, in an audible sense. I care about things like how easy and quickly it focuses. And part of that is, how easy it is for me to see the focus point. I use autofocus about 50 percent of the time.”

Choices In Lighting
Although he owns Dynalite, Graham rents Profoto for assignments. He never uses on-camera flash. A very high percentage of his work is shot with the largest Octabank, which he rents. “Maybe 40 percent of my work is shot with daylight. By daylight, I mean open shade; or, in the studio, that would be window light through large bay windows.

Client: NonviolenceWorks

“This is an ongoing campaign for an organization that deals with domestic violence.” The photographs feature individuals who play a role in the mentoring program for youth at risk, in this instance a 100-year-old spiritual elder of the Taos Pueblo. This was shot at Graham’s studio in Taos, New Mexico. Graham designed this location as an available light studio, with 14-foot high south- and west-facing windows. Graham employed an 8x10 Deardorff, exposing Polaroid film that he sepia-toned using his own process. (Creative Director: Vishu Magee.)
© Donald Graham

“What I’m trying to do in lighting is to create as natural a light as possible so that when someone looks at one of my portraits, that person is not focusing on how things are lit. He is, instead, focusing on what’s going on inside the person. The ideal lighting is nothing but natural light with a scrim overhead to keep down hot spots and contrast. The impression of open shade is the ideal. It’s times when I need more light that I’ll turn to a large Octabank positioned behind me. The Octabank duplicates the look and feel of natural lighting.”

Client: Personal

“This was part of a series I shot on holy men in India.” Shooting outdoors with a Hasselblad, Graham set up a white linen backdrop (“it’s easier to transport than paper”), adding a scrim overhead. “He is a Muslim cleric who was allowed to marry, so in the course of conversation, I asked if he’d ever been married. That tear was his response. I find this to be one of the most powerful photographs I’ve ever made.”
© Donald Graham

One more thing that is a trademark of Graham’s lighting: he’ll use a set of 4x8-foot black or white cards on each side of the portrait subject to better define the subject. Specifically, for light skin he’ll use black cards to add dark edges; for dark skin tones he’ll use white cards for lighter edges and a defining contrasting tone.

To see more of Donald Graham’s work, visit:

BobBobby's picture

Amazing click,specially I liked the picture of the kid and the old lady.
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racksjackson's picture

Every eye in these photographs is appealing and saying something. I like the old lady's eyes due to looking expectantly from her family.


denii's picture

nice bro really amazing pic especialy that old women

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JayPalovor2312's picture

photography really opens up a whole new world wherein we could freely express ourselves without anyone holding us back. - Wesley Upchurch

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