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Identifying and Capturing Personality in Your Portraits

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Read Time: 6 min

The next time you shoot a portrait, think about how you can truly portray the unique personalty or a special characteristic of your subject. We need to go beyond saying to yourself things like, "I’ll have them smile and jump in the air because they have a happy-go-lucky personality." In this tutorial, we hope to show you how to get away from these overdone strategies.

To help get ideas going, think about yourself for a minute. If you were to shoot a self portrait, what would you have yourself doing? What would you wear? If you enjoy playing tennis, you may think to photograph yourself on tennis court.

Whether you’re hired as a portrait photographer or you find friends, family members or models to pose for your own projects, here are some tips to help you portray personality in your portrait photography.

No Need to Say "Cheese"

Getting your subjects in action, doing what they like or do best, or just candidly, is essential to capturing something unique. Not only does a natural pose create a story, it also brings magic to a still image.

A common way to shoot a family portrait is to line up everyone in front of a nice background and say "cheese!" But it’s hard to see the personality of each person if they’re all doing the same contrived pose. If you want to experiment with shooting portraits that have life to them, then shoot your subject doing something they enjoy.

For example, a family photo on the beach can have more interest if you ask the family for a fun scene. The kids building sand castles, Mom and Dad relaxing in beach chairs, the dog running around… If you think about capturing your subjects enjoying themselves, you’ll achieve a photo that has a lot more life and personality to it.

The key is just to remember that this is a portrait shoot and not simply photos with people in them. For that reason, stay close on your subject. Capture moments where the person’s expression or action stands out to whatever the background is.

Photo by Sharon Pruitt

Think Technically

Cinematographer Gordon Willis was called “The Prince of Darkness" for his distinct lighting techniques for films such as The Godfather. He understood that the way a character is lit tremendously affects the portrayal of their personality in the film.

Consider technical aspects such as lighting, color, use of black & white, and background in order to tell the story of your subject.


Are you photographing someone who would better appear in bright, natural light or dark shadows? Personality comes out visually in the way we dress and the colors we gravitate towards. Think of lighting as an element to enhance a characteristic.

Someone who is very serious could be very minimally lit. Keeping to flat light and minimizing drama by minimizing shadows would help to portray a serious personality. On the other hand, use the sun as bright natural light to enhance your subject's positive attitude.

Photo by martinak15

Black and White

Eliminating the color from a portrait is like taking away a thin mask of the person. The mood changes significantly and their characteristics are exposed without the distraction of color. Try black and white for images that hold good shapes, textures, and light. Use it to add glamor or drama to a portrait.

Photo by hipnshoot


Black and white isn’t the only way to enhance the personality of a portrait. Colors represent moods and moods are a key part of personality. When shooting portraits, pay attention to the colors your subject is wearing, the colors of the background, and how these two sources of color complement each other.


Where your subject is can be just as important as what they’re doing. A lot can be said about a person by looking at the background of a portrait.

How does the background relate to the people you photograph? It could be the place where they work, do sports, or somewhere that implies what a person is going to do, much like the image below.

Photo by Cliff

A Home is Where the Heart Is

A person’s home is a great location to portray their personality. It’s a common technique used by celebrity portrait photographers in order to portray the celebrity’s "real personality" and not their varying on-screen personas. This is where you’ll see them most relaxed and open to giving their personality to a photo.

Photo by Vickie Cook

A photo of someone in their own home gives you a much better picture of them than if they were in a common setting. Knickknacks on the table, the color of the walls, and the style of furniture are elements to look for when setting up a shot. These elements are unique to your subject and will better portray their personality.

Ask your subject what their favorite room in the house is and why they like it so much. Do they love to cook? With nice indoor lighting and good composition techniques in mind, photograph them cooking in their own kitchen.

Collaborate with your subject on how you can achieve an image that they couldn't achieve on their own. Having them do something (playing music, gardening, sitting by their pool), or even holding a prized possession or trophy, will add a nice background story to the image.

Photo by Vincent Tsui

Look at the Objects around Them

Things around us change the way we see the world. Music, people, travel, and, of course, photography. Well, the same idea applies to taking portraits with personality. Sometimes it isn’t the person that’s exuding a persona or mood, but rather an object or scene that surrounds them which enhances their personality.

Take the following image as an example. The leaves in the wind create movement and are swirling around the subject. Life is moving around her. Her gaze suddenly becomes a gaze with impact and meaning.

We think about what her thoughts are more so than if the chaotic movement of the leaves wasn’t there. The addition of objects creates meaning, draws analogies, and brings attention back to the person in the photo.

Photo by Jack Batchelor

Think about this next photo as well. How would the personality of the portrait change if he wasn’t reaching for the branch? It wouldn’t be as strong of a image because we wouldn’t know anything about his personality.

Because the subject seems to be interested in something, whether it was candid or posed, personality is being portrayed and the portrait has more interest.

Photo by Jack Batchelor

Little Things Count

Instead of trying to capture an entire personality, you can focus on a particular characteristic. Everyone has a quirk, talent, or aspect of their personality that separates them from the bunch. Even if it doesn’t define them, it sure will make for a better photo.

It could be a gap between their teeth, their pink hair, or just a simple gesture or posture that’s unique to them. What would make them smile looking back at your images twenty, thirty, forty years from now?

Photo by Rolands Lakis

Remember that portraits are just as much about the person themselves as they are about you being creative as a photographer. Keeping this in mind will help you portray the personality of someone through beautiful portrait photography.

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