Portrait Photography Techniques

by William Lulow

People often ask “Why do you need to take so many pictures? All I need is one!”

What they don’t understand is that there is a whole technique to making good portraits that involves making a number of “takes” in order to arrive at just the correct one. How would you feel if you booked a photographer to make a portrait of you and he/she came, set up lights and equipment, background, etc. and took ONE shot? I think you’d feel as if you were cheated. Yet many individuals think that USING one shot and TAKING one shot are the same thing. They obviously are not!

There are many reasons why portrait photographers take a lot of pictures:

-Taking many pictures usually ensures that one really great image

-Taking many pictures enables different “looks”

-Taking many pictures allows for different expressions

-Taking many pictures allows for different lightings

-Taking many pictures allows subjects to “warm up”

It’s this last reason that becomes most important in the portrait-making process. After having been a portrait photographer for over 30 years, I can say that relatively few of my subjects have truly enjoyed the experience and gotten into it. Yes, some get into it and become comfortable in front of the camera, but unless you do it regularly (if you’re an actor or model, celebrity, tv personality), it’s not always an easy thing to do. It’s like hearing your voice on a recording. It never really sounds like you imagine. The same is true of portraits. You never quite see yourself as others see you. So, it takes some time for most people to get used to the idea of posing for the camera. Part of my job as a portrait photographer is to make that process happen. I have to somehow, get my subjects “used” to the idea of sitting for their portrait. This is why I wind up shooting a lot of images. It’s part of the process. Taking only one image is not a portrait session. That’s like having a passport image done. One shot. That’s it! It doesn’t really matter what you look like.

Good portrait photography is an art. It combines technical expertise with personal expertise and requires the photographer to know enough about the subject (and him or herself)  to be able to elicit certain responses AND to capture those responses with the camera with the help of light and equipment.

It has been said that a good portrait is as much of the photographer as it is of the subject. This is because each photographer sees the same subjects differently. The actress Marilyn Monroe was photographed by nearly every famous photographer on the planet back in the 1950s and yet all the photographs were different.

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These are images from a portrait session that included about 200 shots. The look and pose are similar, but expressions are different. The angle of the head is different as are the eyes. Expression is always in the eyes. If they have a “sparkle” to them, then you’ve achieved a good expression. The eyes can have that sparkle even though the subject isn’t smiling.

Often, what the photographer wants and what the client wants may be different. So, it’s important for the avenues of communication between photographer and client to be open. It’s also important for the photographer actually to LISTEN to what the client wants.