How to Shoot a Professional Portrait

Today everyone is photographer.

It is true that the selfie is now more popular than the portrait. But as someone who has been taking peoples’ portraits for 14 years (10 of those years professionally) — I have to say that there is no selfie that can outdo a portrait that truly captures someone’s essence.

I have spent over a decade perfecting my portrait work. Here a few pointers that I have learned along the way:

Talk to your subject. Most people feel awkward in front of the camera. Even models. I once had a friend who cried every time we would shoot her portrait. Taking someone’s portrait can be a very vulnerable and intimidating experience. There is nothing worse than a photographer who disappears behind the lens. Get used to lowering your camera and talking with your subject while shooting them. Practice this again and again. Portrait work is a dance between photographer and model — do not hide behind your lens.

Buy a portrait lens. The best camera is the one you have on hand — you have heard that before, right? For your own personal life, this could not be more true. But you are a professional so you need to have the gear that makes you stand out from the rest. This is my favorite lens to shoot portraits with. It provides versatility and flattering apertures for just about every setting. Invest in your gear. Yes, it is expensive. Work your way up to it. Personally, it took me 2 years of savings to be able to buy this.

Use the right angle. Did you know dressing room mirrors in stores like Nordstrom are angled in a certain way to make your body appear more attractive? The same goes for photography orientations. The best angle to shoot your subject from is from a little above their eye level. Too high and they appear awkward. Too low and you’ve added 10 pounds. Here a few more “flattering tricks”: Ask your subject to bring their chin slightly forward to sharpen their jawline, to leave a slight space between their arms and torso to have a slimming affect, and to close their eyes before shooting to relax their facial muscles.

Soft light. You have heard the term golden hour before but what happens when you have a portrait session right in the middle of the day when the sunlight is at its harshest? Find shade. Fog, shadows, soft light, and shade are your friends. Harsh sunlight does not do favors for most people.

No pirates. One of the biggest portrait faux paus I see in portrait work is cutting the limbs off of the subject at the joint. Please do not do this when shooting or cropping during edit sessions. Always crop half way through the limb. No need to make someone falsely look like an amputee.

Stay trigger-happy. I once took a workshop taught by a Rolling Stone magazine photographer (pinch me — I know!) and his big mantra was — just keep shooting. Between takes, shoot. Before, shoot. After, shoot. There should be no “3, 2, 1…” happening. The best pictures happen when the subject is relaxed and most subjects are relaxed when they are not trying.

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