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Top Tips for Taking Portraits

Top Tips for Taking Portraits

As a self-taught photographer, I’m an advocate of learning through doing. I didn’t study it, but I can imagine that reading all the Photography 101 books that are available still wouldn't prepare you for actually being on a set, with a model standing in front of you, and a team awaiting your creative direction. In my journey, experience has meant everything. Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years that may help when shooting your own portraits.


Of all the factors that make being a photographer one of the best jobs in the world, what I like best is that there are no right or wrong answers. Everything is subjective and caters to the taste of the person with the camera in their hands. What this means is that anything goes and the plan of action for a shoot can come together in a number of different ways. For me, personally, I like to start with a face. The most important factor is sourcing someone that I’m genuinely enthused to be taking pictures of. When that’s the case, the rest falls into place naturally. Following the way I work, the next step is to secure a location. 

For example, if I can see that my model is someone who shies away from heavy makeup, I’d be much more inclined to shoot somewhere that’s "pretty" and "soft," avoiding concrete and man-made structures. In that case, I’ll probably go for a field rather than a cityscape backdrop. Once I have a location that complements the model's look, I can start to shape the feel of the shoot.

Isabella, August 2015. Isabella has a real aura of innocence about her. It made no sense to take her to a grimy back street, so I opted for a clean, clear, and natural setting with soft sunlight.

You don’t need a full team in order to produce great results. Lots of the shoots I do even today are one-on-one, just myself and the model. Styling and grooming are important, but they don't need to be extravagant to produce great results. When I started out, I began using close friends as subjects. For this, I used to take it upon myself to pick clothes, simply by scrolling through his or her tagged pictures on Facebook, selecting my favorite outfits. Once I had a bit more of a portfolio to show off, I began to approach model agencies.

When most agencies pitch their new signings to me, I’m usually sent photos with the model wearing a white tee and jeans, a classic outfit that can do no wrong, and is also a reminder that sometimes less is more. You’ll often find that subjects are more comfortable when wearing their own clothes; after all, they bought them! The same applies with makeup and grooming. Subtle changes like altering a lipstick color or removing a jacket go a long way and they're all things the model is capable of doing themselves. One of my favorite DIY changes is wetting my subject's hair; it has the ability to completely change the entire feel of the shoot. It’s intense and dramatic.

Ava in the rain, August 2015. The strands of hair running across her collar and chest as a result of being wet instantly make this portrait more interesting.

Breaking the Ice

You’ve met up with your subject. You’ve been over the small talk. You’ve arrived at your first location. It’s time to begin. What now?

Communication with your subject is the most crucial element of any shoot. If you have a clear vision, be sure to explain to the model what it is you’re going for. Assuring them that you’ll be giving direction throughout the shoot and aren’t expecting any kind of performance from them will relieve any pressure. If they know you’re going to be vocal about what you want or when you want them to change, they’ll already feel more comfortable and will gradually get more comfortable as the shoot goes on.

Start with some simple headshots. I find it rare that the first bunch of frames make it into the final selection, but you need to start somewhere! Use this time to talk with your model: ask about their interests, how long they've been modeling (if applicable), and invite them to suggest any photo ideas. Let them get used to how you work so they can come to grips with the speed at which you move from frame to frame. Sometimes I like to stand in the same position, making small changes, manually altering the focus to find the perfect moment.

Even if things aren’t translating on camera the way you’d hoped, never let your subject feel as though you’re disappointed with the results. Remain positive at all times. It often takes me around 20 minutes to warm up and really start "feeling" the shots I’m seeing on the back of my camera. Remember they can’t see what you can. Compliment their efforts and move on to the next setup.

Another great way to keep the pair of you relaxed is to keep your subject moving. Often, especially if you’re shooting with someone who isn’t used to working in front of the camera, you may find your subject is a little uncomfortable with having to "pose". If it feels unnatural to them, it looks unnatural to you. "What do I do with my hands?" is a common question. There always seems to be that one hand that doesn’t have a place to rest. A great solution to this is to make sure your subject isn't in one place for too long. I’m partial to trying a slow walk and often have the subject pace back and forth. Even though it's only a subtle change, it can help take the edge off and also creates some nice movements that you wouldn't otherwise capture if photographing someone static.

I also like having the subject walk backwards. I’m often greeted with a confused face when I ask for this, but ultimately it means it’s easier for me to take the photo if I’m the one walking forward and I tend to find the subject is less self-conscious this way. They tend to be focusing more on not falling over than how they might be looking on camera.

Focus on What's Important

Try a 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8! It’s my goto lens for all things portrait and I find it’s not only ideal for one-on-one headshots, but it’s often pretty useful when shooting a fashion campaign or lookbook, which predominantly involve full-length shots. In my experience, it’s a great lens for corporate projects, since they’re often shot in some kind of office with problematic lighting arrangements. The clarity of the 50mm, along with the beautiful depth of field and adaptability in low-light situations, make it perfect for portraits.

Another perk is the gorgeous bokeh effect. More often than not with portraits, we want the emphasis to be on nothing but the subject. Shooting with a shallow depth of field means that who and what we are focusing on will be sharp, while everything else will be out of focus. My usual goto f-stop is f/2.2. After months of experimentation, I found that this was the aperture that naturally created the best results and that does tend to be the case no matter how near or far the subject is from the camera. 

Kojo, August 2015. This photo was taken with my goto f-stop: f/2.2. It creates all kinds of gorgeous bokeh, regardless of how close or far you are from the subject.

The most important feature of any portrait is the eyes. They’re what we instinctively look at when we see a portrait. You should be making sure they’re in focus and if they’re not, make sure there’s a significant reason why.

Playing With Light

The thing I probably like playing with most is natural light. Rotating around your subject can give an entirely different feel to your images, depending on where the light source is coming from. Take a look at the below images. Both were taken a matter of seconds apart, as I moved my model, Clark, just a few meters in distance. Both photos were taken in virtually the same spot, yet the atmosphere in each completely contrasts the other. On bright days, or if I'm shooting in the midday sun, I usually keep my subject in the shade. I find that placing him or her just outside of direct sunlight results in a much nicer light balance and often you can catch a golden glow as the light reflects off the ground and onto your subject. No reflecting equipment was used for either photo. This was also taken at my favorite time of day, the "golden hour." Whenever possible, I tend to schedule my shoots during the three-hour period before sundown.

Clark, New York, May 2013. Left: Standing just inside the shade. Right: The full effect of direct sunlight.

One of my favorite setups has always been backlit photos, in which you’re shooting directly into the sunlight. To some, it may seem strange to go against your light source. But if handled correctly, it can produce rather surreal shots. It's important to note, though, that there is an element to backlit shots that requires good editing. If too much sunlight is let in, the photo can look a little "washed out." Try bringing it back by increasing the contrast and playing with curves in Photoshop.

Jon, June 2015. The sun creeps in from behind. The photo was a little washed out, but was brought back with the right editing tools, so we didn't lose the details of his face.

Beccy, November 2012. Positioning your model in-between yourself and the sun can create a beautiful dynamic in which the sun backlights your model's hair. These particular shots were taken at the back end of the "golden hour," ten minutes before the sun disappeared.

Play with ways that you can make studio lighting more dramatic. Of course, it’s great to have your subject's face well lit, but simply rearranging your lights can make the whole photo "pop" a lot more. I have a set of portable continuous lights. One setup I particularly like is positioning two of the lights to illuminate one side of the model's face. I place the third light on the opposite side, turning down the brightness significantly and keeping it slightly farther away. This creates shade on one half of the face, making the shot instantly more striking.   

Jon, May 2015. Illuminating just one side of his face created a more dramatic look.

Rob, August 2015. Shifting the lights to one side complemented his expression.

When possible, I tend to avoid using flash. It can be quite intrusive and easily disrupts the flow of the shoot. In certain situations, it’s unavoidable, but if your subject is concentrating on keeping their eyes open while faced with a bright light, it will show in their expression.

General Pointers

If something doesn’t look right, I find the most common solution to the problem is to have your subject tilt their head either forwards or backwards. It’s only a subtle change, but I’ve lost count of how many times it’s helped a photo "click" into place when I’ve been sizing it up in the viewfinder. Angles, people!

Watch out for anything that may distract viewers from focusing on the model or anything that may kill the scene. Is there a bra strap sticking out? Is there a huge phone bulge coming from your model’s pocket? Do they have dry lips?

Taking a photo that includes more than one person can feel like an entirely different ballgame. I find that with most band shoots or editorials featuring several people, it’s best to forget about staged poses and instead, to focus on the interaction between your subjects. Let them talk amongst themselves, have them walk side-by-side, leave them to play-fight — anything that means they’re not self-conscious of how they look!

George and Khari, February 2014. When photographing more than one person at a time, try to focus on their interaction and have them doing something. I would never have told either to "pose" the way they are in this picture. They were both so caught up in the madness of trying to control the smoke — a genuine moment.

Create a playlist to help set the scene. Playing music can really help both photographer and model get into the spirit of the shoot. And if nothing else, it help create atmosphere, which can ease any awkwardness and is ideal if you’ve never met this person before the moment at which you’re pointing a camera in their face. It also helps if you need time to stop to think about what you want to try next; there's no deathly silence.

The Most Important Tip of All

Be confident. It’s easier said than done, but I find it’s something that comes with experience. Learn how to work your camera to the best of its capability and maximize the results it can produce. Plan out the shoot in advance, decide what types of shots you’re aiming for, and don’t be afraid to really try to bring them to life. At the same time, allow yourself to venture away from what you had in mind; sometimes, you may find the shoot going in a different direction and as long as you like the results, that’s fine too! There are no rules.

It’s easy to feel intimidated when everyone on a set is looking to you for direction. Trust your own ideas and if they don’t work out as planned, remember there are no right or wrong answers in photography. Every mistake means you now know something you didn’t know before.

Jack Alexander's picture

A 28-year-old self-taught photographer, Jack Alexander specialises in intimate portraits with musicians, actors, and models.

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Great article, Jack!

Cheers Alex!

Pulled me right in. Compelling simplicity and memorable work.

Thanks Sean! Much appreciated.

"When possible, I tend to avoid using flash. It can be quite intrusive and easily disrupts the flow of the shoot." - translation: I'm not great at using flash. Don't blame the flash, blame yourself. Otherwise, A+ article.

I'm going to have to agree with Jack somewhat. If you are shooting on-location without an assistant, trying to handle a flash can kill the momentum of a shoot fairly quickly (especially in an area with high winds). Unless you need a very specific photo in a very specific place, oftentimes it's more efficient and allows for better engagement if you use natural light.

It was in a section related to studio photography, not on-location lighting.

You seem to be under the impression that shooting in a studio always requires strobes.

yes and no. I try to introduce the easy atmosphere, better yet, ask something to tell me - thus the model is participating in the process while I without any fuss adjust the lights. They tend not even notice, as I do it and even know, that the first shots are purely for checking if the new setup works and don't even think about posing - sometimes there's those shots you need, actually :]

Loved this article!

Thanks Zackery!

Jack thank you for taking the time to put this together , your tips and advise are appreciated. Not only are the points you discussed valid and true but also testing for some of us in the field trying to break through the barrier. An article like this is not an easy write so thank you.

Wayne, thank you for such a kind comment. Likewise, much appreciated!

Great article! Perfectly sums up how a good shoot should feel and how it should go down. About the music, though: how do you decide on how to create your playlist? I mean, haven't you ever worried about your model not liking the music you chose? Other than that, the music's a great idea, I just wouldn't know what to go for unless I knew in advance what the model liked.

Thanks Thomas. I generally try to go with mellow music, usually acoustic songs. Quite generic, chart music that everyone is likely to know, but yet not have too much of a strong opinion on. And even if they don't like the a couple of the songs, that always creates a good talking point that ignites some personality from both the model and I!

Great article!

Thank you Robert!

I love the dreamy expression of the first girl. May I ask what you told her to bring that out?

Thanks Valdemar. She's great, isn't she?!
This was quite far into the shoot, and by that point we'd been getting on really well, so she was really coming out of her comfort zone.
At this point I simply told her to tilt her head to the side and that there was some really nice mellow light coming through the trees. We'd just taken what I felt was the best photo of the shoot so far, so she knew my spirits were high and I think she just felt that bit more confident about how well she was doing and wasn't afraid to push through!

Great article, and I absolutely adore the photo examples that you used throughout! Great work!

Thanks Angela. I tried to use examples from my portfolio that actually related to what I was writing about haha!

Beautiful article.
Thank for the great f/2.2 tip. I will use it widely, during my next shoot.
haha. Pun intended!

Thanks so much! Good luck :)