Five Steps to Raising Your Portrait Photography to New Heights

Close-up headshot of a red haired man looking straight into the camera by Alex Lagarejos.

There is no shortage of portraiture tutorials on the Internet; lens advice, lighting techniques, posing guides, and even retouching tutorials are all covered and discussed in exhaustive detail.

These tutorials are for the most part, a fantastic resource. Even the most seasoned pro will admit to having discovered new techniques within them. What does seem to be missing from many of these guides is the very foundation of portraiture – the human element.

The portraits that I find most memorable haven’t relied on multiple lighting setups to deliver impact, nor were the subjects overly posed. When you think of the iconic portrait photographers, many of them utilize an incredibly simple setup which they rarely, if ever, change.

The incredible artist Jane Bown, who produced some of the most incredible and memorable portraits of the last century during her 50-year career at The Observer, photographed at f2.8 and 1/60th in natural light throughout her entire career.

The simplicity of Jane’s images allows the humanity of her subjects to leap out from the image. I find that we can use her capture of the Queen to highlight the difference between portraiture and presentation. Jane Bown offers the viewer a rare glimpse into the humanity of this extremely public figure, which differs greatly from the multitude of highly staged publicity shots of the Queen.

There’s nothing wrong with presentation but if you are interested in truly capturing someone’s individuality, the following five steps will get you in the right frame of mind to start.

Low-key, black and white portrait of a beautiful woman by Alex Lagarejos.

1. Be decisive and have a visual plan.

There’s nothing like an unprepared or dithering photographer to make a subject’s nerves shoot through the roof. You have to be decisive and conduct yourself with certainty to put your subject at ease as quickly as possible. It helps to know exactly what you are going to do and what you want to achieve (this can help you to keep calm too).

Having a few visual concepts before you begin photographing is a great starting point because it gives you a platform from which to start and allows you to begin the session with energy and confidence – remember confidence breeds confidence!

Black and white headshot of a man with a big, happy smile by Alex Lagarejos.

2. Learn to read your subject

It is important to read your subject quickly – how nervous are they? Do they need coaxing out of their shell, or reigning in? How are their sensibilities? Will they react well to jokes or do they need longer to warm up? What topics are off limits?

There’s no quick and easy way to get to grips with this, it just takes practice. As a rule, I always err on the side of caution and take my cues from my subject. At the start of a session I tend to ask questions about them and their lives which require lengthy answers. Pay attention to the language they use and their reaction to any questions in order to get a handle on them. The last thing you want to do is upset or insult your subject.

Black and white portrait of gray-haired man with sunglasses on the street by Alex Lagarejos. 

Black and white portrait of an elderly gentleman speaking to group by Alex Lagarejos.

3. Control your set – become a director

The minute you pick up a camera to capture a portrait you need to think of yourself as a director on set. Whatever space you are in is now your set. For the entire time you are photographing you need to remove distractions and the entire focus should be between you and your subject.

It’s up to you to control all of the technical aspects of your session, your subject, the atmosphere and both of your energy levels. I find music really helps and have several carefully selected playlists to suit different circumstances. Music helps to both ease nerves and energize your subject. Just choose your tracks carefully.

Black and white portrait of a young woman by Alex Lagarejos.

4. Keep it simple.

No matter how technically accomplished you are, never let gear get in the way of a portrait session. You shouldn’t need to think about your setup – it should be quick and effective.

Models and actors are used to standing around waiting for adjustments on set, for everyone else it’s a sharp reminder that they are in an unusual setting and the nerves return. I’m also lucky that I learnt photography on film (no, I’m not that old!) so I never got into the habit of constantly looking from my viewfinder down to the screen on the back of my camera. I’ve seen so many portrait photographers who conduct their session this way and it creates a barrier between the photographer and subject.

Environmental colored portrait of Asian woman outside by Alex Lagarejos.

5. It takes two to tango.

Every successful portrait is a collaboration – the photographer and subject need to both do their part to capture something special.

As the photographer, your job is to unlock their personality. Try to put yourself in their shoes if they have not been photographed a lot. Even seasoned models have insecurities but with practice, you will learn what translates well into a portrait and what doesn’t – the side they think is their best may not be and you may have to be tactfully firm in explaining this and getting them to step out of their comfort zone.

During a portrait session I never stop talking to my subject. Firstly, because with silence comes nerves and tension – I don’t want my subject to over think things or become withdrawn. I can see the shutters going up in their eyes and I have to work very hard to get them back. Secondly, it’s because I’m genuinely interested to learn about their lives and it always leads the session and me in a new direction which is a big part of the fun. I always try to get a few laughs out of my subjects – the light and honesty in their eyes just after laughing is always amazing and free from self-awareness. This raw/uninhibited look can produce the best portraits of all.

I also make sure to build a connection with my subjects; sometimes I won’t actually lift my camera for 5 to 10 minutes while we are talking.

By the end of a session, I always feel a personal connection with my subject; if I don’t, I know I haven’t photographed what I need.

Obviously all of this requires practice, no two subjects are ever alike so you need to have everything else completely nailed so the only thing that is a variable during your session is your subject.

If you can, try to practice on everyone you know and in a variety of different locations. Maybe think about either taping up the LCD on the back of your camera or better still – purchasing a second hand film camera.

More than anything, you need to forget about the photography and connect with the human being in front of your lens.

By Alex Lagarejos
Article and photos: © 2016 Alex Lagarejos. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.