Five Steps to Take Before You Take a Portrait

Fujifilm Astia 100F with Canon 85mm f1.2 rendering

Fujifilm Astia 100F with Canon 85mm f1.2 rendering

Portraiture is an art form not only within photography, but in drawings and paintings. Years before photography, artists were commissioned to make people look their best in drawings and oil paintings. Photography is different in that we can capture a much more true likeness–which is a blessing and a curse. Taking a portrait of someone requires planning, attention to details, and overall a vision. If the person has an idea of how they want to look, then you need to bring that to pixels. But otherwise, you should have a vision and follow a step by step process.

Here are things to remember before you take a portrait–from a guy that’s been doing it for years and years.

Everyone is Nervous

Chris Gampat Adam Koblers images (2 of 3)ISO 16001-80 sec at f - 1.4

Think that you’re nervous about taking someone’s photo? We’re sure that the following thoughts are going through your head:

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Capture One Edits IQ250 matts portraits

– What if I make them look horrible?

– What do I do?

– How do I pose them?

– What’s something that looks natural?

– Oh man, do I look like a complete amateur to this person?

And at the same time, the person getting the portrait taking is wondering how they look, how they can look better, whether you’ll get the right angle for them, etc. But the secret is that you, the photographer, have more power in making this a better situation. We’re not going to tell you to relax but instead, just think clearly and realize that they’re more nervous than you are.

So how do you get your subject over the nervousness? A psychology game that I’ve learned to play is to think about the facial expression or body language that I want that person to put forward in the image. Then I try to figure out a way to make them do that naturally. When the moment is there, the shutter clicks. Then when I show them the results, they’re often mystified.

Keep that trick in mind as you read through the rest of this piece.

This is a Collaborative Effort

Mode: Bec Fordyce

Mode: Bec Fordyce

Every portrait taken of a singular person is a combination of the work of the photographer and the subject. Work goes into it on both ends and the final results are a collaborative effort. What that means is that both of you need to work together to make the image great and something that you’re both satisfied with in the end. If your subject isn’t happy or nervous, you’ll need to find a way to convince them otherwise or incorporate their opinions in and modify the shoot.

Don’t get into a dispute, there are bigger things in life to worry about and fight for.

YOU Need to Make Them Look Their Best

Model: Natalie Margiotta

Model: Natalie Margiotta

While your subject may apply makeup or have a freshly shaved face with ample moisturizer applied, everyone can still not look their best. It’s your job to direct them or work with them on a pose to make them look great in the image. Since they can’t see what you see, here is a check off list:

– Take a test shot and show them the framing that they’re working with so they know what parts of themselves to focus on

– Take notice of where the light is coming from and your exposure

– Pay careful attention to the stomach, shoulders, hand expression, chin, nose, and thighs. These are areas that are really judged by many viewers

– Consider what kind of body language you want them to convey in the image

Body Types and Portrait Posing

Both Western and Eastern worlds have their own ideals when it comes to beauty and attraction–but then that is segmented down to each individual. With that said, everyone has a different body type and not every pose works for everyone. I surely don’t look like David Beckham in an underwear ad and most women don’t look like Christina Hendricks.

To give you a couple of ideas, check out our compilations of poses for men and women. Get a number of ideas together beforehand by perusing Pinterest or Tumblr for inspiration.

YOU Need to Be Openly Communicative


Keira Knightley said it best, film photographers tend to see the person that will become part of the image. This is because film photographers work so much and so hard to get it right in a single photo before proceeding ahead in order to get all of the details right. So with that said, you should be openly communicative with your subject and feel free to work with them. Always ask them if they’re comfortable or if you can go in to move them. In something like this, you’re often the director and you need to remember that before you shoot.

Communicating your ideas and realizing that someone else can’t read your mind will help you go a long way with working with the person and for the results that it will deliver into your portfolio.

Chris Gampat

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