At just 33 years old, it may feel peculiar referring to British photographer Rory Lewis as an accomplished portrait photographer.  Yet,the rate at which he has become one of the world’s most prolific portrait photographers reveals it to be true. His imaginative and thought-provoking portrait style has given Rory Lewis the opportunity to photograph a wide range of celebrities from political leaders to the casts of Game of Thrones and Star Trek.

Samy’s Camera Photo School is excited to be welcoming Rory Lewis to their Los Angeles classroom to teach a Portrait Master Class. Taking place on Sunday, June 26th, the full-day class will provide beginner to intermediate photographers with the skills required to improve their portrait photography techniques.

Ahead of his Portrait Masterclass, Rory Lewis did Samy’s Camera Photo Blog the honor of sitting down for an interview to discuss his career as a professional portrait photographer.

Rory Lewis PortraitQ: Professional portrait photographer is a bit of a leap from the medieval history and literature studies you undertook at university.  How did that transition take place?

A: It was a cocktail of Renaissance Portraiture, German Expressionist Cinema & The Work of Gustave Dore. All which inspired my desire to pick up a camera. It wasn’t until I was 22 that I started to take my photography seriously. After seeing the work of famous portrait photographers such as Yosef Karsh and Cecil Beaton. I decided I wanted to touch history like they did. A camera is a great excuse to meet someone famous, someone who moves history. I’ve worked with Former Prime Minsters, Army Generals, Ambassadors and many famous actors and celebrities.

Toby Jones Portrait
Toby Jones portrait shot by Rory Lewis

Q: Your portraits have an element of classical style which is difficult to ignore. Painted portraits of historical figures such as King Henry VIII come to mind.  Did you make a conscious choice to peruse this style?

A: The renaissance, in my humble opinion was the pinnacle of human expression. It was an awakening for artists such as Michelangelo, DaVinci & Raphael. Their use of expression, lighting inspires my work a great deal.

As a child, I visited The Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, and was very lucky to view their portrait collection of Hans Holbein The Younger, featuring none other than Henry VIII. It is Holbein’s use of expression, and the method in which he captured the mood and lighting that again influences my classical style of portraiture.

Q: Samy’s Camera Photo Blog readers are always interested in the camera setups of professional photography.  On your typical portrait shoot, what cameras and gear are you using?

Steven Berkoff
Steven Berkoff photographed by Rory Lewis.

A: After 12 Years in the industry, I made the move to Medium Format opting for XF IQ3 50mp. I prefer to use Phase One Schneider 110mm f2.8 lens for portraiture. The lens fills for the frame perfectly.

In terms of lighting portability is key, I recently invested in the Profoto B2 250 GO Kit and haven’t looked back. Lastolite collapsible backdrops also play a key role, they are easy to setup and carry round the globe.
Q:Have you always been shooting digital you entire career or do you also use film?

A: Alas, I have been solely a digital user. Medium format digital produces the time-like quality I need.

Q: You have managed, at only 33 years old, to put together a celebrity portrait portfolio that could easily be mistaken to be that of a much older photographer. How did you manage to get access to the level of celebrity subject at such an early stage of your career?

Natalie Dormer
Natalie Dormer from Game of Thrones photographed by Rory Lewis

A: At the age of 28, I had my pajama moment. Let me explain… Approaching 30 I asked the question, will I be a professional photographer for the rest of my life? If so, I needed to make it into something I enjoyed. At 28 I was being commissioned for all those things I hated, such as weddings, family portraits, model portfolios. I’d given up a pretty good job to become a photographer. So, I felt I needed to do something unequivocal to gain those assignments which inspired me.

Sitting in my pyjamas watching Game of Thrones, I came upon an idea. ‘Northerners’. If you watch GOT you will see their is an emphasis on where you come from North, South etc. Being from Britain, I’m a Northerner from Liverpool. I decided I would capture portraits of those famous people from the North and put on an exhibition.

I set about writing letters, firstly to the actor David Warner, himself from Manchester. It took some doing to track him down. Six letters and three phone calls. In the end, I hand-delivered him a letter at a science fiction convention, where he was signing autographs. To my delight, he accepted.

It was the beginning for me as a portrait photographer. David arrived at the London Studio and announced to me that it was his first portrait sitting since he sat for Cecil Beaton in 1967. The sitting before that was for David Bailey. Already I was walking in the footsteps of legends. The portrait shoot was a wonderful experience. David, a phenomenal actor, assumed wonderful expressions and responded to my direction effortlessly.

Directly after the shoot I contacted the National Portrait Gallery in London, who immediately acquired the portrait. So from a simple idea sitting in my pajamas I had actually achieved something.

The exhibition went on to be a great success. Resulting in  Sir Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and many more sitting for the exhibit.

Ian McKellen Portrait
Sir Ian McKellen photographed by Rory Lewis

The project gained International press and resulted in me gaining contacts from Pepsi and The London Times. I was also invited to teach for National Institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery in London. I was becoming an authority in the area I loved – portraiture.

Q: You’ve described yourself as a Nerdist with a camera. A quick glance at your portrait photography portfolio identifies actors from Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Red Dwarf, Lord of the Rings, Tron and X-Men, to name a few.  How much have those geek leanings  influenced you you have chosen to photograph. Who has been your biggest ‘get’?

A: Very much so, I have a love of science fiction. Imagination is important in my business and Science Fiction is the home of all things conceivable. As a child, I loved Star Trek, Kolchak:The Night Stalker, X-Files, and,yes, for my personal projects I always tried to opt for those actors I wanted to meet, a guilty pleasure to be honest.

My favorite sitting has been with Sir Ian McKellen, such a wonderful lovely man. In the same week, I also photographed Sir Patrick Stewart and Craig Charles.

Q: You have photographed many of the United Kingdom’s most prominent politicians. Are they are any differences in the approach you take to their sittings vs those of the actors and actresses you have shot?

A: Political portraiture, needs to be approached in a particular way. We call it the history portrait. You have to photograph your politicians with no opinion. Meaning, love them or hate them, you have to present them in a plain and emotionless way. In using this method, you then leave it to the person viewing the portrait to give their own judgement.

Rory LewisQ: We are in an age when many people have phones full of their own self-portraits. What does a portrait photographer bring to a subject that the “selfie’ does not reach?

A: The portrait photographer adds complexity and the personality of the sitter. Selfies seem very vain and pretentious, many trying to show off. This is nothing new in history. Many wealthy people in the past would have a portrait painted of them all their finery, with their positions and fine clothes around them. We have just brought it to a new level.

Portrait Master Class with Rory Lewis

When: June 26, 2016; 10:00 am to 5:00 pm

Where: Samy’s Camera Photo School, Los Angeles

Cost: $250

Click here for more information & to buy tickets.