How do top portrait specialists approach a shoot and what gear do they use? We asked six acclaimed photographers to share their best ever portrait photography secrets.
Portrait and Headshot Photography
Rory’s top portrait photography tips:
- Find compelling subjects – ‘You are nothing without a compelling subject. Try creating a theme or project. This could be a member of the family who has a story to tell, or someone in your community.’
- Be inspired by fine art – ‘My style is influenced by Renaissance portraiture and “chiaroscuro” – a technique which uses strong tonal contrasts between light and dark to model three-dimensional forms.’
- Keep lighting simple – ‘As mentioned, most of my portrait sittings utilise just one or two lights. Try this simple set-up yourself – position one flash head with a shoot-through umbrella at a 45° angle to the model, at about six feet high. This creates a strong, hard, direct light from the side and above. I guarantee this will create vivid results.’
‘Described by the British Film Institute as one of the most versatile English actors of his generation, David Morrissey is noted for the meticulous preparation and research he undertakes for his roles – you may have recently seen him in the hit BBC drama series, Sherwood,’ Rory explains.
‘I captured David’s portrait for a new project entitled Selah, drawing inspiration from the Old Master painters such as Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Titian and Ribera. I have attempted to masterfully recreate the light, atmosphere and tones of classical portrait paintings.’
‘I like to call this position the hero shot, positioning the subject side on, looking across their shoulder. I am positioned slightly lower, thus making David look tall and prominent.’
Studio lighting can seem daunting if you have never tried it before, but as Rory explains, ‘It’s not nearly as scary as most people think. To my mind, it’s all about keepng things simple. Most of my portrait sittings are like this one, using just one or two lights. Here, I used two Profoto B10 heads, with two Small Octa Softboxes.’
‘One was behind at 220 degrees right, and the other was in front of David, again to the right at 140 degrees. I also used a Manfrotto 1×1 Skylight Rapid to the left to tone down the shadows.’
David was captured at 1/100sec, f/7.1, ISO 100. ‘I never deviate from either f/5.6 or 7.1 in my portraits, using the medium format Hasselblad X1D II 50C camera,’ adds Rory. ‘These apertures deliver great depth and detail.’
Rory Lewis won the Portrait of Britain award for four years in a row and is a National Portrait Gallery BAME artist. He also runs courses and mentorship programmes.
See more of Rory’s work on his website and Instagram.
Fashion and Beauty Portrait Photography
Jade’s top portrait photography tips:
- Experiment with spotlights – The use of a spotlight has created a visually striking image, enhanced by the use of coloured background lights which created the coloured shadow. ‘Spotlights like this one are expensive but you can get a similar effect with a digital or slide projector,’ Jade advises. ‘They won’t be as bright but you can shoot at a higher ISO to compensate.’
- Try using a wideangle lens – ‘Some people think you have to shoot portraits with short telephoto lenses but wIdeangles are very common in fashion photography. They’re great for when you want to accentuate the shape and style of a garment. I shot this using the 24-70mm lens too, but it didn’t have the same vibe as with the fisheye.’
- Use colour creatively – ‘Colourful backgrounds can really make a portrait “pop” but you need to take care to ensure that they complement the subject’s skin tone and clothing rather than clashing with them. Use coloured walls or dedicated colour backdrops, or colour a white or grey wall using gels over your lights, or RGB LED lights with variable colours.’
‘This was taken on a shoot for a fashion campaign for the spring/summer collection of clothes brand WMNS WEAR,’ recalls Jade. The theme of the campaign was ‘Euphoria’.
The model, Lay, was placed close to a white wall in the studio. The wall was lit by two, colour-adjustable RGB LED panel lights placed at 45 degrees on either side of the model, whch were set to bright purple. A white spotlight was then projected onto the model from the front and slightly to the left of the model.
The effect of this was to create a strong, hard purple shadow in a white circle on the background. Jade took this shot using an EF 8-15mm f/4 L Fisheye on a Canon EOS R5, via the RF adapter, and used an exposure of 1/125sec at f/4 at ISO 320. Because she was shooting so close to the model, this made the placement of the spotlight quite tricky. ‘We needed it to be as close to the front of the model as possible but without getting my shadow in the shot too.’
Jade Keshia Gordon is a London-based fashion and beauty photographer who has shot for the likes of Nike and Canon. Her work has appeared in magazines including Forbes and Elle.
See more of Jade’s work on her website and Instagram.
Commercial Portrait Photography
Sam’s top portrait photography tips:
- Choosing locations – ‘With outdoor shooting the choice of location is vital, but I rarely pre-plan as I find my creativity is heightened by exploring locations during a shoot. But do have a clear concept of the ambiance and general atmosphere that you want.’
- Use LED lighting – ‘The source of light is key in creating a successful portrait image. It sets the tone and mood. For me, continuous LED lights make the most sense with modern cameras. My Rotolight NEO and AEOS lights are powerful and the 16.7 million colours allow me to light my subject in various unique ways.’
- Compose carefully – ‘Perfecting your composition is the single most important skill in capturing the perfect portrait. Learn to master lines, depth, shapes, framing, and point of view; all help relay the message of the photograph. It is also what makes your image pop. Remove as many elements in a scene as you can to avoid clutter in picture. This keeps the shot simple so nothing distracts from your subject.’
Ballerina (see above)
‘This shot of dancer Kate Byrne was achieved using the Rotolight AEOS 2 in an indoor abandoned shaft studio which had multiple floors and shooting locations within it. The model was framed neatly within the bricks which I lit up with an orange filter chosen from the 2,500 digital filters that were available.
‘At times, the colours chosen are purely aesthetic to match the wardrobe, as well as the ambience of the shoot. I set up another AEOS 2, set to 40% power, inside the new Rotolight P90 parabolic soft dome placed six feet from Kate to give a beautiful key light on her. I used a Sony Alpha 1 camera with a 50mm F1.2 GM lens.’
‘Kesha appeared in James Bond’s most recent outing, No Time to Die. This shot was achieved using just one Rotolight NEO 3. It was shot outdoors, in an alley.’
‘Using continuous LED lighting was essential, as this shot was taken in the evening. A perfectly lit shot controls the shadows in the portrait, making a shot like this more visually interesting and dynamic. The chosen location set the mood and the model’s pose was strategic – it could have been more mundane had the model looked directly into the camera. I used a Sony A1 camera with a 50mm F1.2 GM lens.’
‘This shot, of model Katia Valerievna, was achieved using one Rotolight NEO 3, positioned 45 degrees from the model, during London Fashion Week.’
‘The NEO 3 was set at about 36% output. Time was of the essence, so I had to move quickly between shots as there were many people on location. By placing my model on the steps, it gave a 3D sense of depth to my subject, and it allowed the contrasting colours between the model’s dress and the environment to really pop and achieve a dusky, romantic feel to the image.’
‘I used a Sony Alpha 1 camera with a 50mm F1.2 GM lens.’
Sam Nash is a London-based portrait photographer who started out shooting events before progressing to commercial photography – shooting ad campaigns for magazines, retail, and lifestyle shoots. He now focuses solely on portrait and fashion photography as he found his true passion lies there.
See more of Sam’s work on his website and Instagram.
Portraits of influential people
Peter’s top portrait photography tips:
- Use indirect light – ‘Look for directional indirect daylight. Avoid direct sunlight. The light should preferably be at your back and hitting the subject approximately horizontally, or at least not a high angle, which creates shadows under the eyes. A good example of this kind of light is sunlight bouncing off a white wall. The wall becomes a giant soft box behind your back.’
- Choose the background – ‘Find a background that has that kind of light falling on it and which most interests you or suits the subject. I personally like geometrical shapes and the texture of concrete but I also look out for warm tungsten-lit backgrounds to contrast with cooler daylight temperatures or vice versa.’
- Balancing exposure – ‘Balance the exposure on the subject and on the background by moving the subject towards the oncoming light or away from it. For example, imagine a subject standing just inside a garage door; the further in you go with your subject, the brighter the back of the garage will be.’
Ncuti Gatwa (see above)
‘This lift at the BFI, London, was the perfect location for this portrait shoot with actor Ncuti Gatwa because the red contrasted nicely with the daylight coming in through a glass entrance lobby which was supplemented by a huge backlit panel of strip lights. Fortuitously the setting is in keeping with his forthcoming role as the new Doctor Who.’
‘I shot Ncuti with a Fujifilm GFX 50S camera and 63mm lens. Settings were 1/100sec at f/2.8, ISO 160.’
‘Runyararo is the director of the hugely successful Netflix show, Sex Education. For this portrait I placed her in the shade under an overhang of concrete architecture. Soft light bounced off buildings behind my back.’
‘I shot Runyaro with a Fujifilm GFX 50S camera and 45mm lens. Settings were 1/500sec at f/8, ISO 160.’
‘Prya’s TV credits includes Bridgerton and Polite Society. I photographed her at BFI, London. With the table at just the right distance from the large windows in the BFI, she is exposed perfectly, but so are the warm illumination of the bar lights.’
‘I shot Prya with a Fujifilm GFX 50S camera and 45mm lens. The settings were 1/30sec (on a tripod) at f/2.8, ISO 320.’
Peter Searle makes portraits of some of the most influential people in British society: Prime Ministers, CEOs, opera stars and generals. He is London-based but shoots all over the world, and has work in the permanent collection of The National Portrait Gallery. Although Peter uses flash sometimes, here are his tips for working with available light.
See more of Peter’s work on his website and Instagram.
Street Portrait Photography
Robert’s top portrait photography tips:
- Subject first – ‘Don’t get hung up on equipment or getting a technically perfect shot. My photography is much more about the subject, not the gear, but I like the idea of having a high- precision tool, which is why I use the Leica SL2. The Summicron 35mm lens is perfect for my work.’
- Work fast – ‘I adjust the aperture, but otherwise am happy to shoot in automatic modes. I need to work fast and don’t have time to adjust lots of settings.’
- Editing – ‘I keep editing to the minimum – one of the great things about the SL2 is it seems to make framing easier. As well as cropping, I might also push the colours and highlights and contrast etc in Lightroom.’
- Suck it up – ‘You should get used to rejection if strangers refuse to be shot – don’t take it personally. It’s like asking people out when you are a teenager! I tell people about my Instagram page rather than giving them my card, as they can see what my work’s about.’
Couple in Hackney (see above)
‘I asked this couple to move in to the light slightly, and thought this was an ideal background. You can’t move around people too much or they get bored, but I sometimes ask subjects to adjust their hands. I shot this on a Leica SL. There was minimal editing apart from a square crop, which I like for this kind of portrait.’
Couple in cafe
‘Most of my photos are of interesting-looking strangers or intriguing situations. The background and setting are crucial, and I work all this out before asking the person for a shot. This couple were embracing in a cafe as I passed, which caught my eye, so I asked them to recreate this for the shot. It turned out the guy had just declared his love for the first time!
My work is more about informal portraits of people rather than street candids, but I don’t want to have to re-arrange the shot at a later date. I like the spontaneity of the moment. I find people are generous with their time, but only for about three or four shots, and then they lose interest – so I have to work fast. I shot this on my Leica SL2 and a 35mm Summicron lens.’
‘I explained to this burka-clad lady that I really liked her eyes. I wanted to make sure that as a Muslim woman, she was okay with being photographed, and she also phoned her husband to check (sometimes very orthodox Muslim people are fine about being photographed, sometimes not).’
‘Then I asked her to move against this background, as it was a busy market with lots of distractions. There is often humour in my images, and I liked the rug she was holding – an interesting juxtapositon. The light was very bright that day so I had to do more editing than usual. Again, shot on the SL2 with 35mm lens.’
Robert Huggins is a roving street portrait photographer living in north-east London. He focuses on impromptu street portraits, particularly around the East End. Robert’s images have been published widely and appear in several editions of Portrait of Britain and Portrait of Humanity. See Instagram @rafhuggins
See more of Robert’s work on his Instagram.
Check out our guide to Street Photography.
Iwona’s top portrait photography tips:
- The light comes first – ‘Look for attractive light first, and then think about how to get your subject in that light.’
- Don’t force it with kids – ‘Never force children to pose. Let them play and be themselves – you will get better, more natural-looking poses this way, and the kids won’t hate you and your camera!’
- Don’t rely on editing – ‘Pay attention to the background. Shallow depth of field can help with background distractions but if necessary, look for another location – Photoshop is still not great when it comes to blurring-out backgrounds in a convincing way.’
Adam, 2017 (see above)
‘I asked my son Adam, who was just three then, to look at the cakes through the glass, which he only did for three seconds – enough for me to get the shots.’
‘The portrait was taken entirely in the natural ambient light of the bakery, with light also coming in from the case. At the time, I was shooting with the Sony A7, using an 85mm f/1.4. Editing involved removing a distracting price tag from the bottom left of the image and then just doing the usual tweaks in Lightroom to boost contrast etc.’
Adam on the bed
‘Adam was seven when I took this portrait. I was preparing for a photo shoot and wanted to test some new ideas. So I brought an album for him to look at, and a desk lamp. I didn’t give him any instructions other than to lie down (Adam is very relaxed in front of the camera if he is comfortable).’
‘The lamp was not enough to light up Adam’s face, and the only window in the room was behind him on the right, so I added a small LED video light in front of him. I used a warm setting, around 3000K. The image was shot on a Sony A7 III with a 50mm f/1.4 lens. The Lightroom edits involved some exposure corrections and colour grading to emphasise the lovely colour harmony.’
Jan, Kraków Market
This shows my older son Jan, who was four then, feeding pigeons on the square. Like most of my images of my kids, the shot wasn’t planned. As Jan fed the pigeons, it started to rain, and it was quite technically challenging because I was shooting with a manual 85mm f/1.4 lens on a Sony A7.’
‘Everything came through sharp, however. The light was entirely natural and I edited the image in Lightroom and Photoshop – I cropped the original image from the right and added a part of another image on the left to improve the composition (initially, the frame would end right behind the pigeon’s wings on the left). Then I also colour graded the image to get that orange-blue complementary harmony.’
Based in Kielce, Poland, Iwona Podlasińska specialises in child portraits and is an expert in colour grading. She’s in high demand, despite only starting out in 2013, and travels around the world teaching, as well as creating online tutorials. Her latest book, Dreamy Childhood Portraits, was published in 2021.
See more of Iwona’s work on her website and Instagram.
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