Portrait Photography for Beginners

You have your new camera, you’ve got ideas and ambition all in the right place, and you’re ready to take your first portrait.

Stop check on equipment

decent camera — digital or analog

Lighting ; Flash unit of some kind, preferably off camera capabilities with support to attach it to.

Lighting II; Natural light — your choice on how, window light, or outside shooting with a choice of shading and sunlight/daylight

Portrait sitter: Yourself, a relative, a client or friend who is keen on seeing the results.


If you have the desire to take portraits, I’d hazard a guess it’s because you have a feeling about the many possibilities that it offers both on the artistic side of things and on the learning side of things for a photographer.

The self learning, working with a model and your camera can take you far — portraits can soon begin to look like commercial head-shots. That’s a thing that might just come out of your practice.

Or, you might discover that you have a bent for the artistic side of portrait photography. That opens a vein of ideas and possibilities — all of which can still turn out to be commercially viable.

First time taking portrait shots can be daunting. You don’t know much about what you’re doing and you aren’t too sure how to get the “look” you want.

The “look” will probably be just like something you saw on the internet or in a gallery, a great photo that you saw one day. Then you told yourself that you want to take photos just like the one in the gallery; that’s good, it gives you a bearing on your own feelings about photography. It helps you to start sifting through the emotional roller-coaster that happens when you see too many great photos.

Intent. To know what you want is a big thing in this world.

To have a strong intention is a powerful self knowledge thing that helps you drive on to the place you want to be at.

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Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

As a photographer you need to know what your intentions are in order to take great photos.

Snapping shots and then looking to see what came out, isn’t going to cut the mustard. You can’t claim to be good if your method is to shoot 800 shots in two hours and then sift through to find the pretty good, accidental shot that inevitably happens.

You need to understand what you like, and then build an intention out of it.

Photography is an emotional game. Anybody who shoots photos and feels nothing shouldn’t be behind the camera.

When you look at the portrait work of the masters, you should at least see a few things that turn you on, get you going and make you understand why photography is such a wonderful thing to do.

When you work with your own intentions, whether they are purely yours or you’ve stolen them from another photographer, then you’re on your way to knowing how to pose your portrait sitter.

Now, here’s the next part. Despite all the rules and “must-do’s” that you come across on the internet, there are no real rules to follow.

Taste is the master judge, and taste is varied among many different people who will look at your portraits. It might turn out that you can’t please the person you are photographing, but that’s life. It happens once in a while and proves that somewhere along the way, somebody got their communications mixed up. Don’t worry about it.

The pose that you will look for with your sitter should reflect their personality — not yours. Asking them to “sit like this”, or “stand like that”, is great, but you need to keep control enough to be able to get your style (intention) into the whole deal. This takes practice. They don’t know what’s best, and they can’t see how they look. They can, however, tell you how they feel.

When you talk with your portrait sitter and listen to their worries about their pose, and listen to how they feel about being photographed, then you find a way to get them comfortable within the realms of your own intentions.

Intentions could be that you know you will do a lot of post camera work in Photoshop or GIMP. The photo may go through a special process that helps You get the look that you want. Make sure they know about this — surprises, good or bad, can often knock a person off their feet. So be totally open about the look you are after by showing them examples of the work you intend on producing.

Here’s few other tips about what to avoid and what to go for.

  1. Avoid anything sentimental — it’s pukey and quickly seen as a gimmicky way of posing a person. An example, is a young woman, blond hair and blue eyes; Posing her running through a corn field with a straw hat on is daft, and doesn’t do the person any justice. It’s acting, not portraying a person.
  2. Do make use of lights as much as possible. Window lights and artificial lighting should be close up to the person, and broad enough to cover at least the top half of the body. Diffuse the light with a soft-cover. A good tip, if you don’t have a soft box, make one out of a white cardboard box and use a clean white Tee-Shirt to stretch over the opening as a soft box diffuser.
  3. Try night shots using shop window lights. Shops use powerful white lighting that can throw some pretty interesting angles. Use them for serious portrait shots. Look for the ones where the light is thrown onto the street directly.
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Photo by reda rachdi on Unsplash

4. Keep contact with your portraitee. By conversation and asking them questions in a relaxed way, you’re getting a lot of feedback that helps you make decisions.

Don’t worry one bit that you have last year’s camera — or last decade’s — it’s a camera, and if you’ve done your own research about it, learned to use it properly, then you are in the position to take fantastic shots.

Side note: all the people who went out, bought brand new expensive mirrorless cameras, sold all their old equipment to finance the new purchase, aren’t taking better photos than they were last year.

Taking photos requires equipment. The camera and lights are machines that we use to freeze the shot that we see. They are not the central element of how to get a great shot that will be treasured forever. You and your eyes are.

Portraits are a great way to learn how to work close up with people. It teaches you how to interact as a photographer and to figure out what works best for you, and what you are trying to achieve.

Keep practicing and make all the mistakes you like — you learn from those too.

Written by

Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living http://seandurham.eu

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