Portrait Photography Tips Every Photographer Should Know

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Every photographer out there has their own way of doing things, their own way of handling sessions and their own tricks that they use when they are doing a session. It doesn’t matter what type of session it is, there are little things that we all do that develop as a part of our style. It is what makes us different from the other photographers out there and it is what can make the difference between a model requesting you or one of your competitors. Sure, there are some tips that we can and will divulge here that are pretty generic and that can and will be used by anyone. But there are so many tips out there floating around that you really need to find the ones that work in your particular style and go for it.

You’re Signature Shot

If you want to become a pro at the business of photography and you want to be the go to person that people think of when it is time to get portraits done. If you want to be the one name that gets recommended by precious clients then you need to develop signature shots in each and every style of photography with which you plan on shooting.

In other words you need to find one shot in every category that is decisively you. You need to find the one shot that when the viewer sees it they know that you are the photographer that shot that photo. Old masters in painting used to do this with brush stroked, Ansel Adams did it with his use of light and shadows and you can do it with the specific pose that you might use.

Perhaps when you are doing your male portraits you have a lighting technique that you like that brings out the facial features and you have the model look at a certain place when you snap the picture every time that you do that pose.

Maybe you have a special way of photographing the female node figure so that it hints as sensuality without actually showing any of the respective body parts. I personally have one pose that I use in every nude session that I do that has always gotten used by the client. It does not matter is that is a 19 year old slender college girl or like the session I did about a month ago for a 65 year old who wanted a special shot for her husband. The shot ahs never failed to perform as expected.

You can tell that the model is completely naked and yet not one thing that could be deemed inappropriate can be seen. In fact the grandmother that I just shot told me that it was the best photograph ever taken of her in all those sixty five years and she ordered a large print of the pose which now hangs in the living room where every visitor to her home can view it. That means the children, the grandchildren, even the family clergyman has viewed the portrait and no one has been offended.

This shot is my signature shot in that genre. It works equally as well in a clothed situation but it looks more contrived when done with clothes on.

It may take you a while to find the right pose for every conceivable portrait situation, but once you do it is like winning the lottery.  You know that you have hit the jack pot and it is going to pay dividends for you in every session that you shoot.

Make Sure to Complete the Paperwork

No job is completed until the paperwork is done. It’s one of those old sayings that I have come to hate but it is also true. This is one of those functional tips that you need to heed. This is especially true if you are planning on making money at the business of shooting photography. You never know down the line which of your portraits or other shots will end up being the one that hits and makes you money.

So before you ever even pick up a camera to start exposing the sensor and committing images to your memory cards, make sure that your model releases contain the correct wording and that they cover you and anyone that you may later assign the photo to. You will also need one photo release for adults over the age of 18, one release for minors, and one release for any property that you might shoot and one that covers any nudes that you might shoot.

Remember that even though people may want to get the paperwork done before the shooting session is underway, say no. Any model release needs to be signed and witnessed after the actual shooting has finished if you want it to be legal. For example, if they sign it first and then you end up shooting a nude that gets picked up for a large sum of money by a national magazine, the model can say that she signed before the shot so she had no idea that you were actually taking that nude shot of her which you sold. She can not argue that point if she signed after the shoot is concluded.

Keep notes. If something unusual happens like a pose that you particularly enjoy, jot done specifics like frame number, exposure etc. Yes most pro model cameras these days save the digital data along with the photo but it can not manage to save your thoughts. Little things that might jog your memory as to how or why you liked the shot or how the pose came up etc are things that you might find important a month down the line when you try and recreate the shot. That is why I always keep a little spiral notebook in my back pocket as I am shooting. I am getting older and I hate trying to commit things to memory.

Also, immediately following the session as the model is leaving, fill out you time sheet and put all of those along with your notes in a real honest to goodness file folder in your real on the floor file cabinet, o the one in your PC. I also immediately stick a CD or DVD (depending on how many shots I took) into my computer and I copy the contents of my memory card(s) directly to a disk before I even download them to the computer. I lab el the disk and put it in the manila file folder in the cabinet as well. That way if the unforeseen should happen and a computer meltdown occurs, I know that there is a copy of all of the raw data I have shot right there in the cabinet so I don’t have to freak out. We all know computers crash, this is just a little insurance policy that makes me feel better.


It may seem like a pretty obvious thing but make sure that you are constantly maintaining your gear. That means that you find a time routine that will work for you and that you do things like wiping down things like stands or lighting gear. You check things for problems; reformat your media to keep it fresh and operating at peak performance. Wipe the finger prints and / or dust off of your lenses and the mirror on your digital single lens reflex cameras.

Take the time to flip the switch and make sure that any lights that you are using regularly are all functioning correctly. Defrag your computer and get in the habit of backing up all of your data on a regular basis. That means your entire collection of photo files get offloaded as a backup to a DVD which you then should take and have stored somewhere safe like a safe deposit box in case there is a fire your photos will be safe. You also need to update your software with newer updates if they are available and then back them up to so that you are up to date and backed up. Nothing can ruin your day faster than having a computer go down and then realizing that you have not backed it up for months and all of your programs and work could be lost for ever.

Check electric cords on the floor and make sure that none of them have gotten punctured or frayed since the last time you inspected them. In short you need to do a schedule and then go over your list and make sure that you cover all of the needed items every time that you do this procedure. You might be lucky if you never do it, but why take the chance when it is so easy to do and rather quick to take care of.

Electrical contacts on your auto focus lenses also need some attention. Although if you make it a habit not to touch the contacts in any manner, shape or form then you should never have issues. I personally take an air puffer and blow off the contacts about once a month just to be safe.

While you are at it, one part of the gear that does not get nearly the maintenance that it requires is you. That seems odd to some but every once in a while you need to decompress and step back from taking shots with your camera.  If you neglect to do this then photography will start to feel like a job and once that happens you are going to run the dangerous risk of burning yourself out.

A very good way to avoid this burn out syndrome is to step out of your comfort zone and do some things that you never do. If you are a portrait shooter then go shoot some scenic vistas or some animals or children. IF all you shoot is run of the mill stand and shoot shots that pay the bills then go for some artsy shots that make you use some creativity and challenge your thought processes.

Step out and move outside the proverbial box and try something that you have never done. The absolute worst that can happen is you get some less than great sots that you end up erasing. The best possibility is that you end up relaxing and find another niche that you actually like and might be good at. This is precisely how I got in to photographing nude portraits. I was in a rut and needed something unusually to get me back on track, I was taking things much too seriously. My wife disrobed and suggested I shoot her. It worked and I now have something new and challenging to shoot that I really enjoy and any time that I get feeling boxed in from the daily bill paying portrait shots I bounce over to a session of nudes and I am good to go again. It literally recharged the batteries and gets my creative juices flowing to get me back in the game.

Lighting Tips for Portrait Shooting

Photographing portraits of people is not necessarily a hard job but it can be tedious. But once you learn the actual cause and effect scenarios you should have little to no trouble getting pristine lighting and predictable results each and every time that you get behind the camera. The laws and the physics of the techniques of lighting do not change and if you are in a controlled environment such as a studio, if you follow the prescribed path and do the same chain of events each and every time, you will get the exact same picture perfect results with every click of the shutter. That is if that is what you are after.

If someone is paying you to shoot a portrait of them then this is the perfect thing to do. It’s like a mathematical equation. A plus B will give result C. It will not change and the person paying for the portrait will get a nicely exposed and rather cookie cutter shot that they will be happy with. I personally like to push the envelope a bit more when I am shooting a portrait no matter who is paying for it.

I will indeed shoot the standard four light shot giving me light on the background for separation, an overhead light for glow and a pair of off camera front / side lights to add the depth to the shadows that people expect to see. After I have done the obligatory and standard portrait shots though, I ALWAYS start messing with the lighting. I have a control panel next to where I shoot so that I can control the lights. I will then turn off one and shoot and follow them in sequence and also do different combinations of the lights.

This gives me more than the standard portrait lighting and allows me to get some interesting effects that I would have not otherwise gotten. It does not always work out. In fact about one time out of every five sessions I will get a great exposure but that great exposure is worth the small amount of effort. I also then end up with a shot that I can market to people other than the folks that are getting the portrait done. That makes it a winning event that doesn’t take more than a few extra moments and since everyone was there and the gear was set up and ready to go anyway, it was really not that big of a hassle.

So what makes the “perfect” exposure when you are talking about your studio lighting? That is subjective and will vary from photographer to photographer because all of us like something a littler different. And from studio setting to studio setting because different studios reflect lighting differently depending on the size and the way it is designed and painted and how the lights re set up. But we can discus some things that are deigned to give you a normal setting and thus a pretty predictable end result when talking about portrait lighting.
One lower powered light is typically used to illuminate the background so that you can separate the portrait subject from it, the caveat here is that if you are using either green screen or seamless white paper a lot of photographers choose to aim the light at the back of the subject rather than the background its self. I am a little torn on this and will shoot one was one time and the other the next. It is an acquired set up that you will find what worked best for certain situations and you will instinctively know which way to go.

Almost everyone that I know that does this for a living has a soft box that they use overhead. They usually put it on a variable control so that they can vary the amount of light coming out of it for different effects but the main purpose here is to add a sun like effect that is coming from the top which is how most people perceive a good photo when they look at it. If done correctly t works very well. If over done it looks bad. So this is a setting that you will need to play with a lot in order to master it effectively.

Your two front side lights are something else that you will need to find settings that will work well in your situation and on your style of photography. What I typically suggest that you start out with when you are just sating out and attempting to find out what works for your situation, is to use one bulb on one side that is more powerful that the other. That way you can control the amount of shadow that you get or eliminate as you go. Also keep in mind that power settings on regular tungsten bulbs will be a lot different than the ratings son the fluorescent bulbs. So once you find a group that works for you, stay with it. It will make your white balancing a lot easier and your resultant portraits will be a lot more professional.

The general rule of lighting thumb is as follows. You need a lower powered light on either the background or the person’s body to separate them from the background. You need a decently strong overhead light to give the illusion of daylight and you need two side / front lights to give depth and texture to the facial and body features of your subject.

Shootings Do’s and Don’ts to Remember

The little things that you do here will make your session stand out as a great and enjoyable thing or your worst nightmare. The distinction between the two is a fine line but let’s look at a few things that can make all the difference in the world.

Look carefully at your viewfinder before you actually commit the image to a space on your memory card. Yes, I know that memory is cheap and you can shoot hundreds of shots in the matter of a few moments in search of the right image.  But why on earth would you?

If you take the time to look over what is in the frame and make sure that there is nothing in there that you will need to remove or anything that simply is out of place. For example on an outdoor shot there could be a tree branch that when you see it in post production appears to be literally be growing out of the models head. That means a lot of time on Photoshop doing post production on a shot that could have been taken care of in the actual shot. It’s all part of composition 101 where you need to look before you shoot.
The other bad thing about being a memory slave is that it makes you look unprofessional in a standard portrait shoot. If you are going glamour or runway shooting at a fashion shoot then the people expect you to shoot away like a crazy person as you comment on how wonderful and beautiful the model looks. What you are looking at a portrait shoot, which is not so much the case. Most folks are conditioned to expect to see something more like a session at a Wal-Mart super center photo shop where they stand there snap about ten photos and tell you to have a nice day. In a nutshell, resist the temptation to rapid fire shoot. One quality image that is composed correctly is worth a thousand poorly set up pictures.

While we are on things to do or things to not do, please at all costs resist the temptation to tell your portrait setter how good they look. For one it is annoying to the person having their photo shot, for another it makes you look unprofessional and for a third, if they are the opposite sex, it can throw off the wrong signals and things can get sticky rather quickly.

Remember that unless the person in front of the lens is a professional model they are going to feel self conscious and vulnerable as you hunch over your camera and are busily focusing on them and zooming here or looking there. So unless you are after a look that shows some fright and trepidation on the model’s face, resist the temptation to use petty and irrelevant small talk. Act like a professional and do a professional job so that they will like the end result and will send more recommended business your way. Word of mouth can make of break your business.

Never, and I mean never keep a person waiting to begin a session. As I mentioned they are going to be a little nervous anyway and the last thing that they want to do is wait in some strange location for a photographer to be ready to shoot.

I personally have everything in my studio set up and ready to go at least one hour prior to the scheduled start time of the shoot. After I have everything laid out where I think I am going to want it I turn everything on and make sure that everything that I am intending on using is ready to go and works without a hitch. I load up a second camera to be lying on the tray and ready to go in case my main camera has a melt down and then I l raise or lower the thermostat to a comfortable level about fifteen minutes before they arrive.

When a model walks in to my studio for a session, all they have to do is be ready to smile. I know that my gear is good to go and I have mentally prepared so that I have some poses in mind and the rest runs smooth as butter in a cast iron pan.

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