Portrait Photography: Advice From The Experienced

I really like capturing portraits of people, but I decided to do something I recommend all photographers do for this post: Ask those more experienced than yourself. I knew exactly who I wanted to ask. Fortunately, both were game so here we go!

First up is talented Photographer James Masiclat. Here is a shot he took of me awhile back at lunch.


I knew James for a while before I found out we shared the photography bug. So without hesitation here are James’ dos and don’ts:

What to do:

Have your subject practice their look in a mirror.

Practice, practice, practice – The client is familiar with their good side and poor side. Have them practice in a mirror prior to the session.

Use the proper lens for composition.

Using the improper lens for the situation can lead to unwanted and unintentional distortions.

Use the correct lighting ratio for the scene.

Discuss the scene prior to session and understand what impact of shadow is desired. Dramatic lighting for a particularly dark character or high key for a more happy and bright look.

Trust your light meter.

All too often many photographers depend on camera instead of a light meter. Use and trust the data from you hand held light meter.

Engage the subject.

Have fun! Silence leads to boredom.

What NOT to do:

Flat Light the subject.

Unless you are going for flat light, give dimension to your subject. Use shadows to your advantage. I always say, “just give a kiss of light”.

Forget to leave enough room for cropping.

A good rule of thumb is to shoot a little wider. It gives you more creativity in post production.

Forget to position the face properly.

Watch the eyes, ears, nose, chin and neck. Avoid blending.

Forget to use a reflector or lights for highlights

Again, give dimension and avoid flat images.

Forget composition

Anyone can take a good snap shot. Composition is the talent of an excellent photographer. There are many details required for composing a proper image and just as many tools to help create the look you are trying to achieve. It’s takes time to learn and there are many resources to help you perfect your craft. Take your time and enjoy the journey.

Next up is another friend who happens to be a legend! He has done a TED Talk , he is a Professor at Penn State School of Fine Arts, just released a wonderful portrait book, and a world traveling, celebrated portrait photographer. He was also the subject of my very first KEH blog post. I  recently purchased a Hasselblad lens from him! 


I present to you the advice of Professor Lonnie Graham:

“If the subject is inside and there are no studio lights, then try to clear as much away from the window as possible. If there any plants or draperies or shades they should be pulled aside, raised or somehow pulled away from the light coming through the window. Preferably the light emanating from the window should be soft and diffused. I always prefer this kind of soft light to shoot infants, simply letting them down next to soft window light and using a telephoto lens and shooting far too many images that is humanly conceivable will yield one or two good shots.

When using window light don’t forget that the window itself is like a giant filter and that the glass has color so if you are shooting with color imaging equipment your images may have a slight cast of green. If there is a building next door the color reflecting off of that building may also affect your images. Ideally you would want to have some other material inside the house next to your subject to bounce the light from or to reflect more light onto the scene. It could be large sheets of paper, or small sheets of paper for that matter.If you have a friendly neighbor to hold up some bed sheets to bounce some light around the scene that could always help.  As an aside, Duane Michals showed me photographs once of a fashion spread he did for Vogue magazine where these beautiful women were standing around in a room next to a window while the assistant followed them with a bed sheet.

Pay attention to where the shadows are on your subject’s face in order to take the best advantage of the soft light bouncing around on your subject. When I shoot outside I try to shoot on bright sunny days, but that is only because I want as much light as possible to bounce back into the shaded areas that I’m working in. I try to avoid shooting in direct sunlight because of the harsh shadows rendered on facial areas. I usually have the subject standing in a doorway or archway, sometimes even under a tree just at the edge of where the direct sunlight comes cascading in and on the edge of the shadow. The only time I shoot portraits in direct sunlight is when it’s filtered through clouds and is very close to the horizon.

Working in black and white the shells are very soft and open. Working in color the light is always warm and renders a favorable aspect of the subject. Anytime you’re attempting to render a portrait if it’s at all possible to have someone with you to distract the sitter or build a relationship with the individual that is calm and relaxed, or even help hold the reflector is advantageous.

I find that making portraits has everything to do with waiting. Lighting is important but waiting until the person allows themselves to be “seen” is a collaboration that I find essential in rendering the likeness and sharing a significant moment of another person’s life. When working inside the studio or on a location, where I can use artificial lights, I will erect a light directly adjacent to the camera and then direct the subject to move to a position that is most desirable to us both. I generally try to use other bounce material in the studio. It is imperative to use a hair light or a backlight to separate the subject from the background.

Depending on the subject I like to keep the camera angle generally low, like around the person’s chest so that the person seems to be looking directly into the camera, or that the camera is somehow looking slightly up to the person. This comes in handy when photographing young people or people of varying stature. I feel it’s generally unfortunate to be photographing the top of the individuals head or to be looking up someone’s nose uncovering unanticipated discoveries.”

Having learned much from both of these gentlemen it is my pleasure to share some of their wisdom with you. Find yourself  mentors and you will reap benefits as well.

Happy Shooting!


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