Introduction to Portrait Photography: Getting the Perfect Shot

Quavondo Nguyen, Photographer

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7 Lessons (59m)
    • 1. Trailer

    • 2. Working on Self

    • 3. Client Research

    • 4. Lighting, Wardrobe, and Location

    • 5. Breaking Down the Wall

    • 6. The X Factors

    • 7. Making Money


Project Description

Photograph a series of portraits

Getting Started

  1. Practice self-improvement

    The first step in becoming a great portrait photographer is self-improvement. Take initiative to become a better people person. If you are an extrovert, this should come naturally. Try using social media platforms to stay in the know on current events. Items that are trending in your feed, or in the news, are great ice-breakers for talking with clients.


Doing Your Homework

  1. Research your client

    Before your subject enters your studio, you should research their background and major projects. Taking the time to acknowledge your subject's work will help to create a better photographer/model relationship. If your client is famous you can use web research to get a sense of their style. If your client isn't famous, I suggest setting up a friendly phone call or video chat where you get to know each other. A photoshoot is like a date. Be prepared to learn about the person you are shooting.


Lighting, Wardrobe, and Location

  1. Setting up the shoot

    When you scout a location, you should be aware of time constraints, lighting, and potential distractions.

    Try to find a location that does not have harsh direct sunlight. What time of day or night will you be capturing this photo and how does the light look? Will you use natural light? Will you need to bring in artificial light and strobes? What feelings are you trying to convey will dictate what kind of lighting you will need.

    Light for the mood:

    • Hard Light
    • Soft Light
    • Backlight
    • Natural Light
    • Dramatic Light
    • Ring Flash
    • Mixed Light



    Be cognizant of what you want your final shot to look like. Some shots may require multiple light sources in order to make your subject really pop. Be on the look out for potential distractions in your foreground and background.

Breaking Down the Wall

  1. Eight steps to breaking the wall
    1. Check Your Ego-

      The first and most important step in this process is to leave your ego at the home. If you stand there and pound your chest like a big gorilla, you're going to intimidate your subject. They will put up that wall faster than you can press that shutter. They sought you out to take their photo, there's no need for you to toot your own horn. The job is yours, you booked it. This session is about them, not you.

    2. Ease them In- 

      Begin by telling them that you're going to do some test shots. This eases them into the shoot without any pressure. While snapping these photos, ask them if they have a favorite side to their face, or if they've been told which angle is best on them. This will let you know which side your client is most comfortable with. This step serves as a warm up and also allows you to gauge how comfortable your subject is in front of your camera.

    3. Positive Reinforcement - 

      Once you're ready to start shooting for real, let them know and start snapping away. After every 3-4 shots, make sure you give them a positive reinforcement, even if they are stinking it up worst than a skunk. If they are truly awkward in front of the camera, do not critique them, instead compliment them and then guide them. For example you can say, "That looks good, now try moving your chin down a little and turning your head slightly to the left".

    4. Shift the Focus - 

      While shooting them, engage them in little conversations but don't talk their ear off. Only talk to them when they're not quite giving you what you want. If they're doing well, don't break the flow by having a conversation. Shift the focus to them. Ask questions and get them to talk about themselves. Listen and navigate the conversation to topics that put your subjects at ease. Watch their body language. Topics such as their pets, kids, or hobbies tend to loosen people up.

    5. Capture the Moment - 

      Ninety percent of the time you should have your camera pointed at the subject and ready to press the shutter button. Especially during your conversations with your subject. If you pay close attention, there will be moments in time when they drop their guard and you will be able to capture the moment.

    6. Make them Laugh - 

      Laughter is a great way to loosen everyone up. You don't have to be a stand up comedian, but it helps if you have a little bit of a sense of humor. I'm a smart aleck, so I'm constantly throwing quick quips and one liners. If that's not you, that's okay too. Try facial bloopers. Come up with a series of funny faces and ask your subject to do them while you take their pictures. This will cause an uproar from the whole set.

    7. Allow them to Move - 

      Don't restrict your subject's movements. Allow them to move within an area. If you're setting up strobes, make sure you allow for movement. Request that they stand up, stretch, shake it out, do the twist every now and again to get the flow going again. Some times when a subject sits or stands in one place too long, things get stagnant or they become stiff.

    8. Emotions Through the Eyes - 

      The saying goes, "The eyes are windows to the soul." Through a photo, this is magnified a thousand times. There's nothing worse than having a dear in headlights look. Give  scenarios that your subjects can visualize and feel, or have them think upon times when they have felt various emotions. Go through a wide range of emotions such as, happy, content, surprised, excited, melancholy, frustrated, joyful, etc. Depending on what you're going for. Help paint a picture so they can dig up those emotions. Those emotions will be conveyed through the eyes.

    Master these steps and you will be on your way to shooting celebrities. 

The X Factors

  1. Lens choice

    There's no wrong or right lens, it's pretty much up to you as the artist and who your subject matter is. Understand the different lenses in your camera bag and what kind of distortion it creates. For example, I would use my Canon 24-70mm if I wanted to create a caricature of my subject. This lens would elongate my subject's face and bulge out the center of the photo, which would be the nose.


    If I wanted to enhance it even more, I could go with my 15-35mm.


    The most common lens to use that won't create distortion for portrait photography is any lens between an 50mm-200mm.


    My favorite is the 85mm f1.2. If you wanted to get creative you can go with a tilt-shift lens.


  2. Rule of thirds

    The most important rule is the rule of thirds. This rule helps you avoid the middle of the photograph. Divide your composition into three equal parts up, down, and across. Where the lines intersect is an ideal place to have a focal point of the photograph. Your composition will create interest for the eye right away.



  3. Leading lines

    Another notable rule to know is leading lines. Use converging lines in your composition to help lead the viewer's eyes to your subject. Lines can be in the forms of walls, roads, windows, or they can be implied. Lines exist everywhere in our world.


Making Money

  1. Get Model Releases

    This is a bonus lesson on how to make money while you are honing in on your craft. When you shoot, always make sure that you get a model release. This is your life line as a photographer. Give discounted rates if you have to, to ensure that you get a model release. 

    Apply to be a contributor for a stock photography portal. There are many out there, research what's right for you. In this video, I list two options. 

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