The Secret to Professional Portraiture

Portrait photography is not only about capturing the outward appearance of a subject, but it is also about capturing the subject authentically and preserving that moment in a powerful message. A good portrait has many virtues, and can be enhanced by the subject’s mannerisms, the photographer's skill, or the equipment used. That being said, there is no one secret to portrait photography. Practice, learning from the pros, and establishing a connection with the subject are all important in taking portraits you, and the subject, are happy with.

Technical Aspects of Portrait Photography

The first step in taking a good portrait is getting acquainted with the camera you will be using. Taking some practice shots at the shoot location is a good way to do this. Think about how you will want the subject to be focused and what shutter speed would be best utilized to capture the subject. Then, adjust the settings so they are appropriate for the environment you will be shooting in.

In their Complete Photography book, National Geographic recommends certain settings for most portrait photography. They say to “use a shutter speed of 1/60 or faster unless you want a lot of blur.” 

In terms of camera equipment, National Geographic says that the “classic portrait lens is an 80mm.” This lens easily blurs the background, showing the subject as the main focus. Beyond this, achieving the perfect portrait does not depend on what type of fancy camera you are using or what type of expensive equipment you own.

Also, lighting is an important factor in taking any portrait. The way that the subject is illuminated can tell a story. Be sure to communicate with your subject about what story they want to tell during the shoot. If they are looking for a new headshot, the best lighting might be from an indoor shoot with a large light source and a reflector. If they are looking for relaxed senior portraits, an outdoor shoot with natural light might be the way to go. No matter the shoot, good lighting leads to a better photograph.

Finally, by learning your camera and preparing for a shoot before it is happening, the shoot will go more smoothly, yielding photographs that both the photographer and subject are happy with.

Tips From the Pros

Another way to improve your portrait photography is to do some learning before you put  your skills to the test. Taking a photography class or reading books on portrait photography are easy ways to gain new knowledge.

Robert Caputo, a National Geographic Photographer and author of Photography Field Guide: People and Portraits, offers advice for portrait photography in his book. When taking portraits, Caputo advises photographers to physically get closer to their subject. In portraits, the people will always be the main focus of a photograph, so your composition should reflect this. An easy way to ensure this is by being comfortable with your subject and getting closer.

Other experts suggest that to prepare for a shoot, the photographer should visualize some of the images that they hope to take. By having a vision, the shoot will move more efficiently and feel well-planned. However, these pre-mediated images should not be restrictive during the shoot. If the subject has different plans, or if other composition ideas come to you while shooting, you should be flexible and willing to change your vision.

Reading an article from another portrait photographer takes just a few minutes, but the improvements in your photographs can be immeasurable.

Heart and Soul

However, technical skill and taking time to learn from the pros are just small parts of the puzzle that is portrait photography. All of this work will be for naught if you do not take time to get to know your subject.

When approaching your subject, it is important to make them feel comfortable, whether it is someone you are familiar with or not. The easiest way to do this is to ensure that you, the photographer, are also comfortable. Nervous energy can easily be sensed, so if you are nervous, the subject will be nervous too.

Another way to break the ice is by striking up a conversation with the subject. It can help you both be at ease, and give you insight into their life. Incorporating things that you learn about the subject into the portrait can make the photograph richer.

If you learn that your subject once worked in a coal mine, think about how you could tell that story through your image. Maybe it’s through a close up of their calloused hands. Maybe it’s through a picture of them outside the mine. The more of a connection you establish with the subject, the better your portrait will be, conveying emotion for all viewers, not just you and the subject.

George Lange, a well known photographer, once wrote that “the unforgettable photograph, in this context, isn’t the most technically proficient or most ‘artistic’ shot but the one that makes the deepest connection to the moment you’re experiencing and the person you’re photographing. The unforgettable photograph is one that makes the intimate connection understood -felt- by the viewer.”

The Secret to Success

Although we all hope for a miracle weight loss trick or instant path to success, these hardly exist. Instead practice and hard work are often the way by which these goals can be achieved. 

Portrait photography is the same way. There is no one secret to achieving the “perfect portrait.” However, through learning, practice, and some heart, you can work to improve your portraits, one photograph at a time.

Photography Books Referenced

Caputo, Robert. “People and Portrait Photography Tips.” National Geographic, 5 June 2011,

Complete Photography. National Geographic, 2011.

Lange, George, and Scott Mowbray. The Unforgettable Photograph. Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 2013.