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Some people think of portrait photography as being just one thing but, for the professional photographer, it breaks down into different categories, depending on the client and the reason for the portrait.

You may be asked to do a model portfolio, a corporate portrait (for company reports etc.) or a family portrait. In technical terms, how you take these portraits is quite similar but, in reality, you have to approach these situations in very different ways.

On the surface, a portrait is a very simple thing - it's just a picture of a person. Nowadays, with the widespread use of good cheap digital cameras, it's very easy for almost anyone to take a well exposed sharp picture. So, when a photographer is asked to take a portrait, you can be assured that the client is looking for something different, something special.

Portrait photography

When famous portrait photographers are asked about their work they will often say that a portrait shouldn't just show the subject, it should tell you something about their character and personality, It should make a statement about them. This is definitely true and something you should always bear in mind.


On the other hand, this is something that mostly applies to commissioned portraits of famous people or celebrities. One reason being that those people already have hundreds of portraits and whoever is commissioning the work is actually looking for something different.


In the world of the humble social photographer, being asked to do portraits of ordinary folk, things are a little simpler. Whilst your subject might like the idea of the picture expressing their character and personality, what most of them really want from your portrait is flattery, pure and simple. They want to look good. That's what they won't get from a snapshot, however good the camera.


The 4 ingredients of a portrait

There are four items that the photographer has to consider in every portrait; the subject, the lighting, the setting and the props, which includes clothing. The approach to these things is quite different, depending on the type of portrait sitting.


The model portfolio

One thing that separates this type of portrait is that you are required to produce a range of images, usually between ten and twenty. In these portraits, character and personality are very important because this is what makes each of the pictures different.


Both models and actors need portfolios and the requirements of both are more or less identical. Models also act, they just act non-speaking static roles. An actors portfolio won't include their voice or movement, which is why these two groups end up wanting almost the same thing in a portfolio.


If you think of it as taking portraits of different characters in a play or film, all being acted by the same person, you won't go far wrong. In practice this means that the most important aspect of this type of sitting is the preparation. You need to discuss and decide with your subject which "characters" they will play during the sitting.


It is likely that your subject will be armed with a list of parts that they want to play. If not, then you can start by talking about their favourite characters from films and plays. You need to end up with a few well defined parts, and you should think in terms of a long shot and a close-up of each one.


For the most part clothing will be what defines the different characters. There may also be different hair and make-up requirements. If so, then hiring a professional make-up artist is almost essential. They should also be involved in the preparation because their input is vital when it comes to organising the shoot efficiently. Some make up changes will take longer than others and this is very important to know in advance.


Studio or location

Models may prefer all the shots to have a studio look, but this just means a plain background and can easily be achieved on location with the use of a simple paper or fabric backdrop. An actor may prefer location shots to suit their character, but even they will probably need some studio type shots. They are very likely to need at least one "head shot", which is just their face against a plain backdrop.


Even if you do location shots, the background should be understated and never obtrusive, a general rule for all good portraiture. It is much better to suggest a location rather than actually show it. Anything that detracts the viewer from your subject should be avoided.


Props can be useful but keep them simple and obvious, for example beach ball to go with a swimming costume. Props are also handy because they give your subject something to think about or hold. This can help a lot when it comes to posing your subject, especially if they are inexperienced.


Music is also a useful tool at the shoot. Choosing suitable music for each character can help both you and the subject get into the right mood for that character. It can take a little time for people to settle into a character, so take lots and lots of shots of each set up.


Corporate or business portraits

These are probably the easiest in terms of the actual work required. Usually only one shot is needed but you may be asked for a formal and a casual shot. However it has to be said that for some businessmen, taking their tie off is about as informal as they get.


These are normally location shots and typically this will either be at their desk or in front of their premises. Neither of these situations present any particular technical difficulties and usually, the most challenging aspect of this work is time. These are busy people. They may only allow you about 15 minutes to do your work.


If you are doing an "at the desk" shot, you will probably need more time than this to set up your lights. It's a very good idea to bring someone with you who can "stand in" whilst you set up your shot. Most busy people will not appreciate waiting around while you fiddle with the lights or camera. Your friend can also help you pack away your equipment quickly, which will also be appreciated.


When portraits are taken in front of an office or factory, this is the one time you should break the rule about keeping the background understated. It will probably be just as important to your client as their face. If you can feature the company logo in the shot, so much the better.


Family portraits

This can mean anything from a portrait of little baby to a posed formal shot of a large family group. Strangely the only real difference between these shots is a matter of scale. With babies of course, there's also the matter of having a lot of patience.


The biggest decision you have to make is whether the portrait should be formal or informal, but you will probably find that most families will want some of each. The only difference is that in formal shots, everyone is well dressed, standing or sitting up straight and looking at the camera at least in the group shots, anything else is informal. In terms of taking the photograph, this makes no difference whatsoever.


Even if you are only invited to take a family group shot, you should also take individual shots of each person. The chances are very high that these will be bought and they only take a few extra minutes to arrange.


The biggest challenge in family portraiture are those people who say that they hate getting their picture taken or they never come out well in photographs. This is a challenge because it's your job to prove them wrong. The latter point is down to your skill as a photographer (or maybe I should say flatterer), but the other issue is usually because most people don't like being stared at, which is exactly what you will be doing.


Anything you can think of to put these people at their ease will help. One of the easiest ways is to have them talk to a friend standing next to you. As they engage in the conversation they will gradually forget that you are there. In the absence of someone to talk to, you can ask them to do something. The only thing to avoid is reading, because that can make some people look cross-eyed.


With all these types of portrait work, flattery is your objective and you do most of that with the lighting. The most flattering light is normally a soft frontal light with some backlit highlights. Only in the case of an actor requiring something a bit more dramatic for the character should you need to deviate much from this lighting arrangement.


The only thing left is posing and this is an entire subject in itself. If you want help and suggestions with this aspect of portraiture then I can recommend this book which has a complete guide to the subject of posing.


Malcolm Boone has written this guide in digital format so you can download it instantly. It’s packed full of information and illustrations about all the different ways you can go about getting the best pose for your portrait photography. If nothing else it will give you confidence if you know exactly what you should be saying to your subject.


The book is called “Posing Secrets” and you can get more information about it on Malcolm’s web site.


Go to the Posing Secrets web site