Six Things They Won’t Teach You In Portrait Photography Class

The one thing that will teach you to become a better portrait photographer is failure. Typically, when you fail at something, you sit there and wallow in agony. Then you figure out what you could have done better and find a way to keep those mistakes in mind for your next project. Failure, trial-and-error, and perseverance will help you to create better portraits. That’s the first major lesson that they won’t teach you in portrait photography. Here are five more.

Have an Idea

So how do you shoot a portrait? First, you need an idea.

Many portrait photographers (not only those starting out but even experienced ones) fail right from the start by not having an idea or vision for the shoot. This is important because it drives so many factors of the shoot:

– The feel and vibe on the set

– The wardrobe

– The props

– The lighting

– The angles shot

– The post-production process

If you don’t have an idea to begin with, then you’ll need to find one. A great way to find ideas is to peruse Tumblr, 500px and Pinterest. By using these platforms, you’ll be able to find lots of ideas just by paying attention to the masses of creative content out there.

On The Phoblographer’s Tumblr, Gevon and I try to post as much inspirational and cool content as we can.

Ideas can also tie in greatly with environmental portraits.

Know the Subject

Knowing your subject is critical to ensuring that the portrait session goes smoothly. Here’s how a recent situation went for me: Yael emailed me asking for a headshot/portrait. But she did something very helpful for me: in her email, she stated that she needs a decent photo of her for an event that she is speaking at. The hosts asked her to speak because she is funny.

That’s a lot to work with right there: we know that the photo of her needs to express Yael’s character being funny and the final result needs to elicit that certain emotion from the viewer.

After talking with Yael, I knew that she is a woman that dresses very simply and whose humor comes across mostly in her on-the-spot sarcasm. So now we have more to work with:

– She is sarcastic

– She is simple

– She is funny

– Because she is usually sarcastic in a spontaneous way, she is also probably a bit nervous to do this. Indeed, she was.

So how do we capture all of that? After talking with her, we came to agreements over visions.

Originally, she said to me, “Can’t you just use that big scary ringlight you’ve got?”

I responded, “No, we need to bring the humorous side of you out. So we need to work with props, a simple lighting set up, and a pose that will work for you to bring out your personality.”

And then we agreed.

Capture Their Personality

In order to capture her personality, I needed to get to know her more. Luckily, I’ve known her for a couple of months now and know all of the character traits mentioned up above. So the question was, “How do we get this across in a very plain and simple way?”

Yael is also Jewish, and she wanted to get that across as well in a very plain way that also shows her off as being funny. But when the viewer sees the image, I want them to think: “That’s simple, and works. But I never would have thought of that idea.”


First off, know that I used a Canon 5D Mk II, 50mm f1.4, 580 EX II and the Phottix Odin TTL wireless triggers for this shoot. The 580 EX II was mounted in an Impact LS6 Lightstand with Umbrella Mount with an Impact 60 inch Black and white umbrella with silver beaded interior.

However, this can be done with just about any gear: remember that your vision is what comes first!

We tried a couple of different poses and looks. Additionally, we also moved the sign around in different ways to change the humor of the photo while also playing with body language. In the end, we had the photo in the next section.


Yael and I went with this photo in the end after I narrowed it down to three. This photo required me to pull it into Photoshop in order to:

– Fully color balance it

– Sharpen her eyes

– Soften her skin using Guassian blur in layers and working with opacities

– Saturate her lips more

– Crop and fix the bottom of the image to make it look like a seamless white background.

And in the end, it worked out fairly well.

Please Support The Phoblographer

We love to bring you guys the latest and greatest news and gear related stuff. However, we can’t keep doing that unless we have your continued support. If you would like to purchase any of the items mentioned, please do so by clicking our links first and then purchasing the items as we then get a small portion of the sale to help run the website.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.