How to shoot a portrait


How do you shoot portraits? My old writing guru John Vorhaus once told us “If you really want to learn something, sign up to teach it”. Boy that’s true. So that’s one of the reasons I teach photography online via SIT2Learn.  Occasionally I fire off a lengthy epistle to my students on a subject before (or sometimes after) they have an assignment.  Thought I’d share a little my latest one on portraiture here.

For those of short attention spans or who are afraid their heads will explode if they fill them with knowledge, or are easily offended by the memorable examples I offer, I have summarised this into one line at the bottom. Skip to there if this is you.

First let’s examine the word Portrait. That’s the result, not the process. We’re learning process. Portraiture is not something that is. It’s something that is done. Shift your mind to focus on the verb Portray. As the photographer, you are going to portray someone. Feels like there’s more work to be done here than just aiming a camera now, right?


Portraiture is not just a picture of a person. I see it as a shot of someone who usually knows they’re being photographed, although you can certainly have candid or action portraits. Like all types of photography, a portrait does something. Landscape reveals geometry, beauty, drama etc in landforms; Architecture reveals something interesting about buildings; Portraiture reveals character.

Character… what is that? Well, think about words that describe character… cute, bored, dignified, confident, handsome, sexy, authoritative, professional, lazy… Camera owners capture that when they get lucky. The right combination of factors align and they’re just there to press the shutter. But we’re photographers, we want to do it every time, we want to do it with intent. To do that, we need to know what’s working in a successful picture to communicate those qualities to a viewer.

The first answer is of course your subject. They may well bring their own character and express it clearly… the cute kid, the sexy 20 something, the gracious mum.  Photographers recognise character and work with it, support it where they need to. Just like removing or reframing to take distractions out of your landscape, you remove distractions and mixed messages in your portrait, to make the message about that character clear.

Reveal character. Include what’s helping you. Remove what’s hindering you.

The camera is not your only tool here. These are your other tools, with some examples:

  • Setting: If you want to reveal your dad’s dignity, you’re not really going to shoot him as he comes out of the toilet are you? If you are, you need to at least warn him.
  • Expression: If you’re portraying a determined MMA fighter, are you going to ask for a coy girlish smile?
  • Pose: You could shoot that fighter sitting down, her arms folded, or standing up, fists raised. What’s going to portray her better?


  • Hair, clothing, makeup, props. I shouldn’t have to tell you what effect these can have, but just to be safe, I will with an extreme example. You have just two items in your prop box. Your kid is going to look a lot cuter holding the balloon. For pity’s sake, leave the rubber dildo in the box.
  • Don’t even let them see that thing. How the hell did you think you’d explain that? I don’t even know why you put that there. I’m watching you!
  • Light: Hard, bare bulb light from below in a dark space? That’s called Frankenstein light. Don’t shoot your mum in that light unless it’s halloween.
  • Lens: Wide and close distorts the features. It can be clownish or threatening. That can work for Killer Clowns, but your husband will never [insert intimate, pampering activity of choice] your [insert body part of choice] if you shoot his mother’s picture like that and share it on Facebook. Never. On the up side, she may never talk to you in that tone again once she knows you can actually be that nasty.
  • Camera angle: Low angles don’t flatter women. They make men look taller, or can make kids look like giants. Shooting on the same level as your subjects eyes puts the viewer on an even level with them. Shoot from higher and the subject is dominated by the camera and the viewer.









Now take all of those factors, and manipulate them along with your camera settings and eye for composition. Whoa! So many things to think about, it’s scary.

Acutally, it isn’t. These are just the possibilities, the tools you have available to use any way you want. If you’re going all out to portray a character from scratch, you might want to plan and control each and every one. Most of the time, you get your subject, give them a quick read for the character you want to portray and just eliminate the things that get in the way…

So it might be as quick and simple as…

  • Take your kid, give them a favourite toy, put them in some flattering open shade, make sure you’ve got a fast shutter speed and just chat away, get down to their level, engage with them while you shoot lots of frames.
  • Put your Mum in flattering window light, make sure there’s some bounce or a soft fill light pulling up the shadows on her face, move the b/g vase a little so it doesn’t distract, open up the aperture for max bokeh, make sure those eyes are sharp, shoot at eye level, look up from the camera from a moment, let her know you really love her, and get that spark of loving pride in her eye.
  • Get your wife to pull that sheet off her shoulder a little, get yourself a little higher, make sure there’s lots of flattering, even light on her, get her to tilt her near ear down to her shoulder just a little, squinch those eyes just a bit, and whisper to her what you’re going to do once you’ve got the shot you need. Wait a minute… Is that the kids? Did you not organise a baby sitter first? What did I tell you about removing distractions? Put your shirt back on and go feed your children. Plan to do this properly next weekend. And think seriously about a glass of bubbly to make up for this disaster.



Think about it, practice, develop good habits, build confidence, and then you shouldn’t have to think about it too hard any more, unless you really want to.

One more note about my examples. Do you see how they all involved you relating to your subject? Don’t be a robot. Be a human being. People don’t relate to cameras. They relate to good photographers, real people. You’ll get such a better shot if you relate a little.

For me the key is doing my homework so I know what I’m doing on the shoot. I’m not thinking technique because I’ve already thought about that. I’m thinking of relating to my subject, getting them to a place where they’re going to show me their best self, the character I want to portray. I’m creating the situation for them to do that, guiding them gently or invisibly to give me what I want.  Like all the other technical and creative elements of photography, this is a never ending journey. I teach this stuff because I want to learn more about it.


And remember the golden rule: keep it simple! Just because you can control stuff, doesn’t mean you have to control everything. Here’s something incredibly valuable I learned through many exciting years in documentary TV:

Simple is good; Obvious is best.

OK, so… long story short:

What is the character you see before you? What do you need to add to support it? What do you need to remove to reveal it? Get to work. And relate.

I hope this helps.

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