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The Best Way to Learn About Making Portraits

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Read Time: 8 mins
This post is part of a series called How to Shoot Perfect Portraits.
How to Shoot Perfect Portraits
How To Get Your Subject To Act Naturally

Portraiture can be a challenging subject, especially for newcomers to photography. There's something about asking someone to be a model that's a little nerve-racking if you're not accustomed to it. Not only do you have to find a willing subject, but you also need to figure out where and when the shoot is going to take place, and how to direct your model once the shoot gets going. All without coming across like someone who doesn't know what they are doing. Luckily, I'm here to help.

My first piece of advice is to relax and enjoy it. You'll get the best photos that way. Also, if your model enjoys the shoot they are more likely to work with you again. Once you've mastered the skills required and have some confidence, portraiture is tremendously rewarding.

The cool thing about portraits is that each shoot is a one-off. It's just you, your subject and a camera. It's not like landscape photography, where the subject is static and can be photographed over and over by other photographers as well as yourself. That means that the results of each shoot are unique. People change as they get older and portraits freeze moments that become more meaningful as time passes.

Find a model

Before you can start, your first requirement is a model. A good place to begin is with family or friends, as your relationship means that you are not dealing with strangers. But if you don't know any willing subjects, you need to look a little further afield. The internet's a good source – my favorite website for finding models is Model Mayhem. The standard of photography on the site is also very high and a worthy source of inspiration.

If you can't find a suitable subject, self-portraiture could be an option. Miss Aniela has found fame and fortune through her self-portraiture work. A look through her photos will inspire you. A couple of other self-portraits I like are Olivia Bell and Carmen Gonzalez. All three take photos of other people too.

When you approach your model, have an idea in mind. Also, it's important to realize that modeling is hard. Work out some type of compensation, even if it's just prints from the shoot.

Practice shooting indoors and out

Indoors (lit with portable flash)

Outdoors (lit with natural light)

Perhaps the first decision to make is whether your shoot will take place indoors or outside. I prefer to go outside, but if you are lucky enough to have a photogenic home or a room you can use as a studio then shooting at home frees you up from being at the mercy of the weather. If you are shooting inside, you can use either natural daylight or flash.

Natural light works well if you have a photogenic location with big windows to let in the light. For some inspiration take a look at the work of Jan Scholz, he has some of the best natural light work I've seen.

Flash can take a while to learn to use well but it means you can take photos whenever you like, even at night. The Lastolite School of Photography is a good resource for learning about studio flash and you can learn about portable flash from Strobist, Joe McNally and Speedliting. The last three websites have lots of articles about using portable flash both indoors and outside. There are also many resources available at here. Piet Van den Eynde has two more here.

Choose your portrait lens

Short telephoto lens

Wide-angle lens

Lens choice dictates the approach you take during the shoot. One approach is to use a short telephoto lens (around the 85-100mm range on a full-frame/35mm film camera). These lenses are traditionally called portrait lenses for a reason. You can take headshots, full body shots, waist-up shots and just about any other kind of portrait shot with them.

Prime lenses are also useful for portraiture because their wider maximum apertures let you take photos in lower light levels and also throw the background out of focus. You can experiment with selective focus with these lenses. A 50mm prime lens (a great portrait lens on a crop sensor camera) is the least expensive way to start with prime lenses. You can learn more about 50mm prime lenses here.

Another approach is to use a wide-angle lens. This lets you include more of the background and get more of the scene in focus. You need to take care to get close enough to your model with a wide-angle lens, else they may be too small in the frame. Wide angles perspectives are a favorite among environmental portraitists.

You can learn more about environmental portraiture here.

Advance your knowledge of camera settings

The simplest option is to set your camera to portrait mode (if it has one) and let your camera take care of the settings. This lets you forget about the camera settings as the camera is doing the work and concentrate on taking good photos. However, it doesn't give you as much control as some of the other modes.

My preference is to use either shutter priority or aperture priority modes, depending on the effect that I want. If I want a specific aperture (say I'm shooting wide open with the maximum aperture of my lens like in the photo above) then I use aperture priority and make sure the shutter speed is high enough to prevent camera shake.

Alternatively, if aperture isn't so important, I use shutter priority and set the shutter speed I want. I can then change the ISO and aperture if I want more or less depth of field

Take photos of your family

Taking photos of your family is very rewarding. As the years go by you will create a record of your family growing up and changing over the decades. There's no reason why you can't move beyond taking 'snapshots' and take some good quality portraits.

I admire Chris Orwig in this area of photography. Take a look at his blog to see some inspirational photos of his family. His book People Pictures: 30 Exercises for Creating Authentic Photographs is an excellent resource for learning about all types of portrait photography.

Experiment with fashion and editorial portrait photography

This is a genre of photography whose intent is to create photos, often of models or celebrities, to illustrate magazine articles, for fashion spreads or for advertising. It's a difficult area to get into as the top fashion and editorial photographers have access to resources the rest of us don't, such as top models, make-up artists, stylists and art directors to help come up with the concept of a shoot.

It's a team effort. However, that doesn't mean that you can't learn to do the same. All today's best photographers were once students and many started out with only basic equipment, a desire to learn and creative vision.

For instance, look at the work of Lara Jade on Deviantart. She started off as a beginner, and has gone on to be a professional fashion photographer. By going back to her earliest photos you can see how her work has progressed over the years.

Jingna Zhang's post "The equipment and where the money comes from" explains how she started out learning with minimal equipment.

Try to capture 'character'

Fashion photography takes place in a make-believe world. Capturing 'character' is almost the opposite approach. You are trying to capture the reality of your sitter, and express something about their personality in the photo. A tip is to ask them to wear clothes that they would normally wear in everyday life, rather than dressing up for the camera. If they have an interesting job or hobby perhaps you will take a photo of them doing that.

You can learn a lot about portraiture from some of the masters. Yousuf Karsh was an expert at capturing character. This photo of Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorites. There's an amusing story behind his image of Winston Churchill, too.

Alex Alexander is a contemporary photographer who is good at capturing the character of his subjects. Some of his models are artists and actors and he works with them to create beautiful portraits.

Experiment with alternative printing processes

Some photographers are using alternative printing processes to create some interesting portraits. Alternative printing processes can be difficult to master, but this also means that not many people will try them so they can be a good way of creating portraits with a unique look. Christopher R. Perez has some beautiful black and white portraits created with a variety of techniques and equipment.

You can learn more about alternative printing processes at alternativephotography.com. If you like the look of some of these processes, you can create similar effects using the Topaz Black & White Effects plug-in.

Try to make your early sessions encompass a lot of techniques

Early on, a lot of photographers get a model and try to replicate a specific technique with them. It occasionally works, but many times it just causes frustration.

I would encourage people to initially try out a lot of things with a model. This means if something isn't working out, you just move on to a new idea. It will keep both you and your model from becoming bored and frustrated.

These photos above of Abbey were all taken on the same afternoon, in a suburb of Auckland. I used an 85mm prime lens for them all. The idea was to take a simple approach and vary the portraits by finding interesting backgrounds. The post-processing treatment, a mixture of colour and black and white, has also added variety.


Portraiture, for me, is one of the most challenging and rewarding types of photography there is. But with so much inspiration available online and so many places to learn from, there is nothing holding anyone back from improving their portraits. All it takes is the desire to learn, a touch of creative vision and plenty of practice.

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