How Can You Force Yourself to Shoot Better Portraits?

How Can You Force Yourself to Shoot Better Portraits?

I’m rubbish at taking portraits. I’m definitely better than I was, but it’s very much a work in progress. Other than shooting more, how can you make yourself improve?

Much of my photographic career has been spent shooting buildings, often with people jumping between them. I’m completely comfortable telling someone where to leap to and from, how to create a position in the air, or how to adjust a dynamic movement to create the shape that I want. When it comes to telling someone how to stand or sit for a simple portrait, I’m at a loss. Realizing this massive weakness in my photographic ability, I’ve put a bit of effort into addressing it over the last year or two.

Getting Close With Affordable Glass

My tools of choice are my Sony a7 III and two very affordable primes: the Samyang AF 35mm f/2.8. FE and the Sony 50mm f/1.8. The wider focal length primes appeal to me for a couple of reasons: firstly, they’re typically cheaper than longer primes, and more importantly, they’re significantly smaller and lighter. If I’m to practice portraits, taking the camera with me on trips to the forest needs to feel like it’s not a chore. And yes, it’s something of a contradiction: I love full-frame cameras, but I also love small, lightweight glass.

Sony FE 50mm f/1.8 — 1/250, f/1.8, ISO 100. This was such a tight space that the 35mm would have been a much better option.

Secondly, the level of compression that 85mm and longer creates is something that doesn’t appeal to me so much, perhaps something that is shaped by the fact that so much of my photography is about presenting someone very much engaged with their surroundings while also being quite close to them. I’m usually sporting a wide-angle zoom, shooting at around 20mm or wider, and the space in which someone is moving is very much a part of the story that I’m telling. This seems to have carried over into how I want to create portraits, finding myself keen to present people very much within a context. However, I do wonder if I’m making learning a bit more of a challenge when it comes to posing people, as there’s so much more to consider when creating a shot, especially when shooting at 35mm. 85mm and above would allow me to forget the background a little bit more and focus more closely on the model.

Seeking Inspiration

Probably my biggest source of inspiration for this style of shooting is Julia Trotti, who seems to have a knack for finding great light and turning what would otherwise seem like a mundane location into something beautiful. She also seems to have a preference for wider primes, though she certainly has the advantage of working with experienced models. I’ve only had a brief taste of how much easier that can make things, but for now, I mostly have access to people who are not always comfortable being in front of the camera.

Samyang 35mm f/2.8 — 1/250, f/2.8, ISO 200

I don’t recall who gave me this piece of advice, but if you’re just starting out learning photography, it’s worth repeating to yourself, however obvious it may seem: if you want to get better at taking photographs of people, spend time photographing the people around you. I’m fortunate to have a regular stream of visitors to our home here in the forest of Fontainebleau and no end of people happy to sit for me while taking a break from climbing.

Gear Matters

Strangely, three pieces of gear have helped me to keep in the habit of taking the camera on every climbing trip (we often walk quite far with lots of gear, so extra stuff can be a pain). The first is a cheap camera pouch that I stole from my wife, which gets thrown into the top of my much larger climbing bag. The second is the aforementioned Samyang 35mm, a ridiculously affordable lens that I don’t mind using when my hands are covered in chalk. I’ll preface the third by expressing how much I hate camera straps while simultaneously being too paranoid to pick up a camera without one. This daft internal conflict has made me very appreciative of my Peak Design Cuff, a tiny wrist-strap that increases convenience for those days when the camera only emerges at intervals.

Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8 — 1/1250, f/1.8, ISO 100

For these casual portraits, I'm shooting using aperture priority with a minimum shutter speed set to 1/250th. This allows me to all but forget about what the camera is doing and focus on composition. I keep half an eye on my histogram, occasionally locking the exposure when required or tweaking using the exposure compensation dial. Sony's eye autofocus is worthy of the hype and gives me a much higher percentage of keepers compared to my old Canon DSLR.

35mm Is Weirdly Difficult

35mm is definitely a tricky focal length for me. Given how comfortable I am with 20mm and wider, this feels awkwardly in between what I’d use to shoot action and the 50mm that I’d typically use for a portrait. With a wide, I can make someone look heroic and find ways of using perspective to guide the eye, perhaps by getting low and looking up, and find foreground, mid-ground, and background layers to stack a shot and give it depth. With the 50mm, I can isolate the person a lot more and not worry about much other than how they look and maybe the odd branch sticking out of their head. With the 35mm, I find that I’m between these two things, neither one or the other, and for me, it’s a new and slightly awkward way of shooting. I’m definitely enjoying the challenge.

Samyang 35mm f/2.8 — 1/250, f/2.8, ISO 320

If I get too close with the 35mm, faces can start getting a bit stretched. If you have a stunningly beautiful model with bold features to work with, this can offer great results. I’m not suggesting that my models are not stunningly beautiful, but if I get too close with 35mm, faces can get a bit too narrow, chins too long, and noses wandering off to strange new places.

In looking through the results from my last couple of outings, I’ve realized that part of my struggle is a tendency to avoid center-weighted compositions when shooting these environmental portraits in landscape orientation. Check out this behind-the-scenes video from Julia Trotti, or better still, this ten-minute photo challenge from Taylor Jackson. The 20mm focal length to which I’m more accustomed has so much space that I’m used to subconsciously dividing up the frame geometrically, tucking people away towards corners. By contrast, almost all of Jackson’s shots have his subject very much in the center of the frame. This probably helps avoid lens distortion becoming a distraction while also keeping features feeling more natural.

Meh. Samyang 35mm f/2.8 — 1/250, f/2.8, ISO 160.

I’ve noticed that I tend to push people a bit too close to the edge of a frame, even at 50mm. This can be great for editorial content when text or graphics need to be overlaid, but not so good for standalone images if it undermines the overall impact of a shot.

The Power of Editing

Something I’ve always told to those who attend my workshops is that the editing process can be the most important part when it comes to learning how to improve your photography. I’m not talking here about tweaking levels and curves or discovering new presets; rather, it’s about looking at your results and trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t, why this came about, and what you can do to change things. At the moment, that's a key part of learning: sifting through the endless failures and trying to figure out what I should have done differently.

Your Turn

I’ve spared you from my shoddier efforts, but I'd be grateful for your suggestions — not so much feedback on specific shots but more ideas for getting more comfortable with the 35mm focal length and how to improve my ability when it comes to shooting portraits. I look forward to receiving your thoughts in the comments below.

Andy Day's picture

Andy Day is a British photographer and writer living in France. He began photographing parkour in 2003 and has been doing weird things in the city and elsewhere ever since. He's addicted to climbing and owns a fairly useless dog. He has an MA in Sociology & Photography which often makes him ponder what all of this really means.

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Getting comfortable with your gear is paramount as the last thing you need is the gear distracting you from the task at hand. I really like 35mm but the long FLs work also. It all depends what makes you feel right.

Sadly, rather than working on composition and lighting it seems the first order of business is to slap a bunch of presets on an indifferent image. The second order of business seems to secure a fast lens and glue the aperture wide open because bokeh.

As I started doing portraits, I invited a friend over here and there learning how to direct people. It was a great way to work out how I wanted it to look by taking my time framing it. As I got better, I started having friends over together and made it a social affair. I got faster with my posing for how I wanted it to look, set up lights quicker and this made for making faster sets with solid results. It was also a good time to bring new friends together. I still love it because who doesn’t like a nice after work soirée?

This is a great idea. Might be time to invest in some lights and hosting some post-food portrait sessions. :)

I find the most helpful aspect to portrait photography is to have a vision in mind before the shoot and how you want the mood to feel. That way you can directly communicate to your subject what you are looking for. It's impossible for your subject to know what you want if you don't. The ability to start out on the same page is infinitely helpful.

Good shout. I think as I get more comfortable with shooting, I'll being going into shooting with a clearer idea of what I want. At the moment they're casual moments in the forest, but with practice they will evolve into something more deliberate, and this is a good tip to keep in mind.

That’s just the never tell who you are shooting, you suggest. If you aim to take a portrait of someone that reveals something of themselves the last thing you will want to do is tell them to do anything, like put that there or look like this!......instead give them a situation or a thought or a movement and leave how they carry that out to them. That way you leave the decisions to your subject so what you end up with is a portrait of them. In my opinion taking a good portrait is 80% subject communication and 20% kit. From what I often read here on this site photographers spend more time fretting over kit than thinking about who the person is in front of their lens and what it is they are trying to achieve.
Someone mentioned in an earlier comment what I like to call gear transparency. While doing a portrait shoot your gear should be the last thing on your mind, that’s why a tripod and prime lenses in my opinion are the key to a good portrait shoot.

Great thoughts. Appreciate this. :)

Solid advice. Thanks. :)

Fun way to approach an article Andy.
Some will tell you that this lens or that kit bit is key to getting better at crafting portraits but in my years of experience the most crucial element is you.
Your ability to connect with your collaborator, aka subject, is the single biggest skill you can master.
After that, all the mm's, fStops, fractions of a second, ISOs and so on will only be what they should be... the tools you have at your disposal to help you tell the story you want to tell.
So how do you get better at it?
To quote an old friend, Dan Wieden... Just Do It!
Practice putting yourself out there. Practice letting your guard down. Practice giving your energy (not just expecting it). Practice connecting, really connecting with your collaborator. Practice being as curious about them as you can. Practice looking at light, composition, backgrounds, textures, and colours, Practice, practice. practice.
Enjoy the exploration and please do share with us your progress.

Ha. Excellent thoughts. I will take this to heart. :) Thank you!

I think what you doing here is more close to snap/documentary photography rather than a portrait. Though portrait became a stretch word. Same goes for Julia, though her work relies on beautiful models. This commercial type of portrait work is easy. But actually working in portrait with people is a little bit more complicated than snapping girls in beautiful light :).

"Other than shooting more, how can you make yourself improve?"
Try actually have a sitting with a model and just work with him/her. Talk with him/her. Try to work in an empty studio. Just you and a person. I am writing a few articles on portrait now, if you interested here is a part from it:
...the studio is just an empty space. Like a human heart — it is a very lonely empty place that is for you to decide how to use, and there is nothing to lean on — there is only you, your subject and your gear (I advise to start working tet-a-tet, until you feel comfortable to talk and direct person with many staff present).

Any simple place to work one on one is great. You learn to see and deal with uncomfortable act of portrait photography.

Than I suggest to work with feelings of a person and document their feelings. Forget about gear, light and all this... learn how to guide a person to her feelings. I dont do workshops, but I`ve been working as a celebrity portrait photographer for almost 10 years now and the best advice I always give to people who come for advice about portrait work is study human heart, study psychology, processual psychology, learn what drives and moves people. How to lead them with words or silence. Usually people, especially models and celebrities, gives you at first only what they give every other photographer and what they feel comfortable with giving, so you have to push em a little, guide them from their comfortable zone and get your own. Learn body language - there is a way to guide a person in such a way that they become more "naked" and open (thats when their eyes became alive and move viewer).
Same with friends. Friends has their own pattern. But they are all different with their lovers, mothers, and e.t.c, they have different faces and eyes. Knowing how to get there - is what you makes a great portrait photographer, a great director. Portrait photographer is always great director. If you working with a pro - less is needed, but sometimes more is needed (like when an editorial says to you - we want some famous guy have an expression nobody saw before in editorial).

What Julia does is just fashion posing. Has nothing to do with actual portrait work. Its commercial work and good as it is - but it is strictly based on her sense of beauty and that is. If you need to grow - I think you should study more serious portrait photographers.

Only then all this technical bullshit comes. Great portrait can be taken with very wide lens no doubt... lens and gear does not matter.

"At the moment, that's a key part of learning: sifting through the endless failures and trying to figure out what I should have done differently."
Yes, but dont rush with failures. Selecting process changes with your progress. Your tastes, talents shift and you come back to previous session and choose a portrait that was in your trash bin ;).

I use 35 a lot, actually I prefer 40-45mm range, I have a collection of 40mm lenses :) (I avoide 50, and go 55-135 later). 35-40 mm range gives you a slight edge of perspective. And small changes in your position can add more intent... you shoot below models eyes, or you a look at her a little bit from up. It can work for dramatic effect. And also it adds a body language to your shot... so if body language works into your intent - than you step back. If not, just come closer.

I really appreciate your thoughts. And you're right - these are often quiet moments in the forest, not dedicated portrait shoots with a clear vision. I think that's probably the next step — to be more deliberate in what I'm doing, with greater clarity of thought and intention. I am discovering a new world. :D

I know this was written a long time ago. But dear lord it sounds pretentious and snobby. I’m sorry but Julia is definitely a portrait photographer. Not a “snap/documentary” photographer. I would love you to show me a portrait photograph that you have taken yourself that is better. And no, what she does in combination with her models is not “easy”. This all comes across as someone who is kinda jealous of someone else’s success and popularity.

Lately I see alot of people who talk about shooting portraits but not using portrait lenses. 50mm is barely a portrait lens, and a 35 is not a portrait lens. You talk about getting better at shooting portraits but refuse to shoot longer primes. It's a contradiction, and you're not investing into the concept. You want to incorporate your surroundings then you're not shooting portraits. You're shooting landscape. Buy a cheap 85 and practice with it, the best portraits in the world are shot with longer primes and there's a reason for it. It's why your wide angle 35 portraits are not great. Don't forget about distortion either, how can you get a proper representation of your subject when the lens distorts them? The longer primes play back into this concept to give minimal distortion and gives your subject a much better flattering reflection. People who refuse to try something or buy into the concept fully because of how they feel means they don't want to truly do what they are trying to do. There's a reason long primes are a staple for portrait shooters and trying to be different by shooting wide doesn't make any sense. Wide angle portraits at MOST are best for lengthiness the portraits legs to give a taller look but that only can last so long before it looks too gimmicky and still often warrants too much head space. TL:DR Yea you can shoot portraits with a wide angle (35) but they won't be good. Get a 85.

Any lens can be a portrait lens if it’s used to take portraits.

I completely disagree! There's tons of established portrait photographer who shoot a lot at 50mm, and aren't afraid of using 35mm. I want to shoot environmental portraits while staying close to my subjects. Can't do that with an 85mm. 😊

Andy Day you might want to check out Manny Ortiz’s latest video of how he composes portraits. Brilliant stuff.

Yeah, good shout - I saw that. Gonna give it a go!

Have you tried lifestyle / reportage? It’s all that I can take of my two daughters. The idea of getting them to pose for me is laughable but I prefer something that’s more them anyway.