10 things to consider when shooting a portrait

I don’t think of myself as a portrait photographer but since I am an unashamed all-rounder I do frequently end up taking portraits, whether that’s just for fun or for work, writes Andrew James. When talking to photographers over the years, the idea of shooting a ‘portrait’ seems to instil the fear of God into many people and yet actually it’s one of the most accessible subjects we have. Family, friends, and even strangers, they are all subjects we can approach to get some interesting results. I could write all day and in utterly boring detail about various ‘technical’ aspects of taking portraits, however, for this little Skills article I just want to list 10 things I think you should think about when shooting a portrait, all based on personal experience rather than a photography textbook, though undoubtedly there will be some crossover!

1 What’s the point? In other words, why are you taking this person’s portrait? How you approach the photograph very much depends on the answer to this so it’s a question you really should ask yourself. Unless you are being paid to take a photograph for a specific reason, such as a business profile, the person being photographed must interest you for some reason. Have they got a characterful face? Are they strikingly beautiful? Are they unusual? Do they do something interesting? Once you’ve decided why you are taking this person’s photo then you can start working at how you’re going to do it because your ‘creative’ approach will undoubtedly stem from the why!

2 Keep it simple! I am pretty sure I say this every article I write and if I don’t, slap me. Keeping things simple means you won’t get yourself in a flap and start to panic. An overelaborate approach means there are more things to go wrong and more things to forget! Until you are able to have a support team running around and setting things up for you while your creative director helps to realise your artistic ‘vision’ don’t get too carried away. It’s amazing how good your portraits can be when it’s just you, a camera and a lens… Okay, a reflector might be good to have too but it’s absolutely not essential.

3 Background matters. So you are taking a portrait, but what is behind your subject if they aren’t completely filling the frame? Your background is as important as the subject itself. How does the background complement your subject or contrast with them? Yes the viewer will look at the subject first and foremost but the other elements within the frame and how they affect your main subject are important too.


This image was used as a cover for an Aussie photo magazine. All natural light and some Norfolk reeds as the backdrop. About as simple as it gets.

3 Background matters. So you are taking a portrait, but what is behind your subject if they aren’t completely filling the frame? Your background is as important as the subject itself. How does the background complement your subject or contrast with them? Yes the viewer will look at the subject first and foremost but the other elements within the frame and how they affect your main subject are important too.

4 Choose a large aperture. While I accept there might be times when you want to break this convention, as a general rule of thumb, when it comes to portraits and making your subject or even a specific part of your subject stand out, then wide apertures are the go to place. Nine times out of 10, I’ll choose f/2.8 or f/4 because I want a limited depth-of-field to make the subject the absolute point of attention. This really goes with No 3 – the background. By choosing a large aperture to limit sharpness, even a purposefully busy background softens well helping to throw attention onto the subject. While I have said how important a background is, it’s not the reason for the photo you are taking, the portrait is.

5 Focus on the eyes, and if it’s a full head and shoulders type of portrait, the lead eye – in other words the one that’s closest to you. Again, I’ll accept that occasionally there may be creative reasons to place your focus point elsewhere but on most occasions when it comes to portraits, the eyes have it. Forget all this claptrap about them being the window to the soul but remember how important eye contact is in everyday life and make sure that they are the sharpest point in your portrait.

Stepson and would-be racing driver Teddy who is now relatively chilled about me taking his portrait when required for press stuff. On this occasion the background was quite cluttered but I felt it fitted with his racing attire as it's one of those large trucks with all the engine bits stored on it. Shooting at f/2.8 (see below) was essential to diffuse the background enough.

6 Lighting! Yes I know I said keep it simple but lighting doesn’t have to be scary or complicated. If you are new to portrait photography then I’d suggest you avoid artificial light – although I did do a rather nice off-camera flash article here… 😉 I love working with natural light, whether that’s indoors or out. If in doubt, just make sure that your subject is positioned in relatively soft and even natural light. Somewhere in the shade is often better than somewhere in direct sunlight. Direct sunlight can be harsh and uneven, so avoid it. My best portrait accessory? That reflector I mentioned earlier. A small, circular reflector with white on one side and silver on the other can be incredibly useful to bounce light back onto a face and add catchlight to eyes. Avoid gold reflectors; they make people the colour of Donald Trump.

Left: Natural light from a single window and a dark room beyond creates a low key portrait. This is just a case of spotting the potential of the light pouring into the room, metering for the highlights and bingo, dark moody background. Right: Taken for a business profile, Katie wanted something simple that said 'I'm ready for work but I'm not too stuffy!' It was shot with a single studio flash light and a white wall background and I coaxed a hint of a smile without it being a cheesy grin.

7 What lens? Well, you can take a portrait with any focal length and I’ll often shoot my travel portraits wide as I want lots of environment in and I don’t mind a bit of distortion, but if you want to flatter people then opt for a medium telephoto lens in the 70-200mm region. My go to portrait lens is an 85mm prime.

A direct head-on shot of a Namibian miner who was selling rocks and stones on the roadside. I've use f/2.8 here as I wanted all the attention on that amazing face.

8 What mood do you want your subject to take on? I tend to go for a ‘pensive’ look that I guess could be misconstrued as ‘constipated’ but there are times when a little smile is also required. Getting your subject to give you something back does require a bit of chitchat from you and this is often key to a relaxed looking shot. If you are doing a smash and grab travel portrait, clearly rapport is going to be limited but if you are photographing friends of family there will already be a connection that’s easy to use. I talk constantly when shooting a portrait, partly to communicate what I want from them and partly just to take their minds off feeling self-conscious. The other option is to ask for nothing and see what happens. I’ve done this a few times and it can work.

9 Trust your instincts, not me or any other textbook. Actually I think I’m better than a textbook so trust me a little bit but what I mean is that portrait photography is quite a personal thing and if you have an idea or an approach you want to try then just go for it – do it. If it doesn’t work, do something else.

10 Don’t get upset! While sometimes you have to take the sitter’s perspective into account don’t get offended if they don’t like your shot of them. Nobody ever likes their own portrait – unless they are one of those Instagram selfie-obsessed over-filtered pouting wannabes. Hopefully though, if you digest 1 to 10 here and decide to try a few portraits, they will like what you do and that can be a really gratifying experience.

Left: Shot on the night of her prom, the background is her Grandfather's farm shed which contrasted nicely with her party dress. I shot some more serious looking photos but when she laughed at something I said her whole face lit up. Right: I know what mood this scene created among the Foto-Buzz female crew with me in Cuba but for me it was about grit, sweat and determination. I've processed it as a black & white to avoid the red and blues of the background over-dominating.
Published in Camera Skills

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