Simple Techniques To Stay Inspired When Shooting Portraits

Simple Techniques To Stay Inspired When Shooting Portraits

If, like me, you've found your niche within photography and now shoot a lot of similar projects, it's easy to fall into the trap of sticking with what you know. Here are some of the things I find helpful in staying inspired when shooting portraits.

Embrace the Rain

Shooting in the rain completely change up the feel of your shots. Even if you’re shooting with your usual set-up, everything is different. Let's start with the obvious: we’re naturally going to be a bit uncomfortable when actively trying to shelter our equipment from the rain. Sure, there's specialist equipment on the market, but if like me you're a minimalist, guerilla kinda guy, you'll be using a bog standard umbrella or taking shelter under any available roof. The whole experience feels somewhat intense.

It's fun to play around with shutter speeds when shooting in rain. You can create different dramatic effects by experimenting with how rain is captured at different speeds. The water (and the accompanying temperature that usually comes with rainfall) removes everyone from their comfort zone, and you'll soon find you get to the point where everyone's so wet that you're beyond caring - that's when the best shots get taken. There's less focus on looking as perfect as possible - instead, you just go with what looks good, embracing the rain-swept look. Everything looks more dramatic, not least of all your models hair. Plus, there's an element of satisfaction that comes with having persevered in bad shooting conditions.

Explore the Opposite Sex

I’m sure we all have a preference when it comes to shooting one gender over the other. I remember reviewing my portfolio not all too long ago, only to realise that it is saturated by girls. Not something I'd intended, but it perhaps stems from the fashion industry being heavily women-orientated. Saying that, I find shooting with a male subject is always a little trickier, maybe because men can’t get away with being feminine so well, as opposed to women who easily suit both masculine and feminine shoot themes. Try taking on more of the opposite sex to which you tend to favour; there's a whole new world of variety to check out - not least the fashion elements.

Shoot Someone Who Has A Strong Identity

In a similar manner, we often find - as the ones in control of the camera - that we are the ones in charge on set. Whilst each team member has a respective role, it is ultimately the photographer that everyone else looks to for direction. If we’re shooting a model or working on a personal project, our subjects are more often than not expected to mould into any type of character we ask of them. For something different, try working with a musician. The difference is that most musicians have spent a lot of time and effort forging an identity for themselves and, as such, can be reluctant to wear certain clothes or get involved in particular shoot themes. Much like collaborating with another creative, it can be interesting to help build on the image that a musician has already created for themselves; to be provided with a specific criteria, or a niche, and to try and pull of the results.

Experiment with Beauty

As a lover of natural beauty, I tend to ask models to arrive wearing minimal make-up. I was trying to analyse my portfolio recently and decided it was really about time I try my hand at a ‘glossier’ approach to beauty within my portraits. I shot a series of photos with my model sporting heavier eye-makeup than I would often prefer, with a bright red lipstick too. For me, it felt like a bold set-up, and I was glad to be breaking the mould of what I would normally shoot day in day out. I'd be interested to spend a day in the studio (again, not somewhere I usually shoot), playing around with more beauty shots.

This photo features heavier lip and eye make-up than I usually prefer shooting, but I liked the results and am planning to do more

Work with Someone of a Different Age

Conversation is such an integral part of any shoot. Finding some common ground can help put your model at ease, and a good discussion between the photographer and the subject can really make or break your shots,.  I have quite a niche in that I work with new faces at model agencies, whom are often within the age range of 16-24 (usually the lower end of the scale, 16-18). Of course, being of a similar age we usually find that we have enough in common to engage in conversation without issue. But working with clients of a different age bracket can have quite a refreshing effect on your production. What’s wonderful about being a photographer is not being confined to working alongside the same few colleagues, but rather getting to share the company of people from all kinds of backgrounds - and of varying ages. Every now and again, try to work with someone outside of your usual client profile. Even if it makes no different to your photographic approach (since we’re often hired for our individual style, that may not be such a bad thing), it can be refreshing to have an insight into the life of someone that you wouldn’t ordinarily be engaging with.

Collaborate with Another Creative

I don’t know about you, but I’m not afraid to admit I can be a bit of a control freak when it comes to all and any aspect of the creative process. I have a hard time letting go and allowing someone else to take charge. I like to pick the subject, source the team, decide the location, direct the shoot, and edit the images. The only down side to this is that your work can become very one dimensional – we stick to what we know, what we love, and thus we run the risk of the images that make up our portfolio beginning to look similar in style. Invite members of your team to put together a moodboard for a creative concept and remain open to what they may suggest. Sometimes you’ll find that a stylist or make-up artist have ideas that they’ve planned in depth, or can provide ideas that help take a shoot in a different direction. It can be as simple as selecting a niche style for wardrobe styling. Speaking from a past experience, I had a stylist suggest a fashion story that centered around denim garments, which even helped to give me ideas about the type of male models I wanted to select for the feature.

Try Intricate Nudes

Presuming that they aren't already your speciality, the subject of nude portraits can be a tricky one. There has to be a level of mutual trust between the photographer and the subject. Not just because of the obvious, but also because there’s a fine line between nude portraits being elegant and becoming somewhat seedy.

When the clothes come off, there’s a whole new aesthetic on set. Suddenly a lot of options are off-limits, as you both seek to cover the model’s modesty in a way that doesn’t compromise the composition of the photo. Much like when using film rather than digital, you’re forced to think about the composition instead of just firing off frames absent-mindedly.

Nude portraits create a different aesthetic

Move Away From Your Usual F-Stop

One of the more basic changes on this list, but try shooting with a different F-stop to what you usually prefer. I personally find that when shooting portraits, my go-to F-stop is 2.2. It seems ideal in many ways – it creates a gorgeous bokeh effect, it's perfect for low light situations, etc. But in the creative arts it’s good to keep challenging ourselves and to step out of our comfort zone as often as possible, so whilst it’s good to know what works (after all, our clients hire us for our individual style), I find I’m much more considerate of composition when I know I won't be able to depend on that glorious bokeh and blur that shooting at f/2.2 usually provides.

Create a Storyboard

Spontaneous shoots are great. Many of the shots that have stood the test of time within my portfolio have been spur-of-the-moment or weren’t exactly planned when I set out to shoot that day. Sometimes we can’t predict what we’ll stumble across on-location, or can’t get hold of particular items/props/garments etc that were supposed to structure our shoot. In the end, we can only work with what we physically have in front of us. But that’s not to say that great results don’t come from plenty of pre-planning. If you find yourself scratching your head for new ‘poses’ to have your subject try, look instead at trying something that flows a little more naturally.

This is an idea that came to me initially from working with actors. I find that many actors struggle with having their photo taken. They’re so used to playing out a scene that, when posed with the task of holding still, they suddenly become self-conscious and don’t know what to do with themselves. What I found helped was to essentially create a character for the actor to play – since that’s what they’re used to. Without going into too much depth (we were, after all, taking photos and not developing a TV series), the team and I created a short bio for a character, inclusive of lots of ‘buzz’ words for the actor to follow. Looking at the styling and the location we were in, we felt it was reminiscent of a porcelain doll in theme, which lead to our subject widening her eyes, posing quite statically, and so on. The shoot was a lot more productive when the actress had a character to play out, focusing on movements rather than trying to pose. This is a technique I still use when aiming for natural portraits. With a character in mind, it’s a lot easier for the subject to envision the results we’re going for, and means they can embody a persona rather than trying too hard to act like a ‘model.’


What are some ways you stay inspired? 

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Paulo Macedo's picture

This is a nice article. Sometimes i struggle to get more of my pictures. Where i'm living now, it's a whole new world and my pics became somewhat better and different. But yeah, it's a matter of time before i fall into this trap of "now knowing what to do" or "repeat myself".
As for the rain, well, southern europe is sunny and today is one of those sunny days. But, i must open eclipse and Java this thing up!

Jack Alexander's picture

Thanks Paulo! I was considering mentioning travelling in the list but I figured it wasn't as much of a day-to-day tip. I'm currently travelling around Australia and everything looks beautiful.

Paulo Macedo's picture

Pretty neat! Australia is a world of a country, enormous and a lot to see and do. Portugal is not that big, but still, managing to get out of Madeira Island gave me some fresh ideas and new places to shoot. Just hope it all goes well around here. As for travelling, well, it's hard making money just to pay the rent.

Travis Alex's picture

I enjoy this article and the things you have to say when you post. However, I have seen your page and work, and you often contradict yourself in your own work.

You say explore the other sex, but 90-95%% of your work is women.
You say work with different age groups, but all your work is people in their low to mid 20's
You say explore a different F-stop, but almost all your work is 1.4-4.0 at most.
You had an article that said "Don't just carbon copy all your social media pages", but all your pages are the same from page to page.

Again, your posts are solid, but it's hard to take you seriously when you do the things you tell people not to/to change. I think it's important as a person offering advice to a huge community that is constantly growing and impressionable, that you make sure you meet the requirements of the article you are posting, niche having 0 to do with it either. It's as if it's a giant troll.

Jack Alexander's picture

Hey Travis. Thanks for reading! Allow me to clarify though - the work on my website is catered to the clients I most regularly work for, and is the type of projects I normally work on. I also undertake a lot of other work, such as corporate portraits where I often work with people of all ages, etc. i think it's important to get a good mix in so as to stay inspired, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy the work I do most of. Hope that explains it!
Also you'll have to forgive me if it's slipped my mind, but I'm not sure I wrote about carbon copying on social media.