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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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