In this occasional series, I will cover topics more commonly encountered by everyday photographers, unless of course your name is Jimmy Chin. Then again a lot of these are universal, so if you’re listening, Jimmy, even you may learn a thing or two…

Girl poses for portrait looking over a city

I’ve built my business upon the backbone of portraiture, and have found it a very polarizing thing among photographers. Those who love it tend to be the type-A folks, the ones who have no problem walking into a crowded room and introducing themselves with aplomb. Then there are the rest of us: the wallflowers who prefer automated assistants and long walks on the beach – alone; those intimidated by the idea of formally photographing a living, breathing subject far enough along the evolutionary timeline that they’re dexterous enough to swipe right to keep the human race spiraling forward.

But fear not ye timid, inexperienced, and yes, even misanthropic – this tutorial’s for you.

You’re the Expert

And even if you’re not, you gotta sell it. Confidence goes miles here, and the subject is absolutely relying on you to help make them look best. Once your subject is on set (or wherever you’re meeting them), do a couple of things that’ll ascertain your chain of command. Shuffle some lights around, talk about degrees-Kelvin or incident light – something to set the precedent that you’re a boss when it comes to finger-jockeying your sweet DSLR.

Portrait Photography = Psychology

The very first thing I do when I get a subject on set – before lighting, posing or wardrobe – is to find a commonality, whether a celebrity or a regular old street shlub. Maybe I noticed their last name or accent and I’ve been to their country, or they’re tan and fit and I can guess they’ve been out playing golf or running, or whatever. Usually it takes under a minute for me to find something in common, which immediately breaks down the wall between the photographer:subject relationship. It may sound simple, but it’s something in my secret arsenal of portrait photography and I’ve learned to master it the same way I’ve learned to master my camera. Think about it – if you can’t relax your subject, how can they possibly look natural on film?

Get them talking quick, and keep the dialog going. Some low-hanging fruit would be “what do you like to photograph?” “have any trips coming up?” or “been anywhere good lately?” Toss them a few good photo tips along the way and you’ve killed two birds – maintaining your position of authority and keeping them talking. “What? You shoot kids’ sports without a monopod, and never used a circular polarizer?”

Portrait gallery of three men

Gentle Direction

Picture this.

You’re on set, and in front of some hot burning lights is a burning hot model. Or maybe she’s not a model, maybe she is just paying you a hundred bucks for her headshot on her way to the holy grail of Kardashian fame. And she’s standing and staring at you, waiting for direction.

“Twist your shoulders like this, no to the right. Wait my right, your left. Now tip your head like this. Put your shoulders back. Maybe open your stance. Put your hands at your side. No wait put them behind your back. No you look like a criminal just relax them. Ok now turn your head this way. Further, further. Stand up taller and look smarter. Now smile. And look natural when you do it.”

Dear god the horror. If I’ve learned anything it’s you can’t tell your subject what to do, you’ve got to lead them there.

Let’s start with the smile. I like the following example, taken from the pages of child photography:

A poor hapless young boy is squirming in a department store suit, a wollen iron maiden and regalia for him that’s a beacon for misery. The knot of his tie somehow cinches tighter around his throat as he stares wistfully at the beautiful Saturday outside, thinking of all his friends poking sweet dead birds with sticks while he’s stuck in some photo studio that smells like rotten baby powder and mothballs. He stands in shoes that feel like iron, feet shuffling uncomfortably on a painted backdrop that looks like it is out of the Brothers Gramm (sic) Fairytale series. I didn’t say Grimm because this oil and watercolor wannabe aberration is more knockoff than a 26-dollar Prada suitcase on 14th street.

Our pre-pubescent hero is being screamed at by his mother to “stand up straight this one is for your grandmother!” and to “stop making those ridiculous faces or I’ll rip your teeth out of your skull with my bare Woman posing for portraithands!” The photographer has lost control the moment Caligula and her son walked into her studio, and finally the mom yells “smile goddamn it!” The kid flashes his teeth but from the bridge of his nose up his face screams with some sickly combination of terror and the preteen sowing of rage, wanting to be outside, wanting to be anywhere but here.

So, what kind of smile is he gonna give? Lesson here – you have to make your subjects express, not tell them to. It’s your show, lead them into the smile, or seductive look, or whatever you’re after as the artist. Throw out the “pretend you’re surrounded by ten-thousand tiny seahorses….yeah, that’s it” line from Napoleon Dynamite – it’s a grin guarantee if they’ve seen the movie. If not, well, you should have assessed your subject better.

And the boy – if it were me, I’d have tossed his mom out on her ass and had him laughing up a storm. When I owned a portrait studio I routinely did exactly that. And the neighboring deli I sent the hapless moms for coffee and Danish was forever grateful for my referrals.


Without getting deep into color theory, I take into account a few simple things when it comes to wardrobe. First and foremost I tell the client to put on something that makes them feel good. More important is their expression, and if her expression says “I feel like a cat’s ass in this blouse,” then it doesn’t matter how good the blouse looks on her.

Second, think of color synergy with the backdrop. If I’m doing a portrait of a climber near some rocks, I’ll instruct them to bring a few changes of clothes but in the color range that will contrast the backdrop. Or their skin tone – bright colors in the New England winter tend to make people look sick, while drab colors in the Islands tend to push skin tones far darker than desired.

Basic rule is to avoid heavy patterns – for technical reasons that the camera struggles with these, to the distracting element of the fabrics stealing attention from your subject’s face.

Body Mechanics

Young man poses with clarinet
Notice the lean – which allows for a comfortable posture.

Believe it or not, standing in space is difficult for most grown humans. Before long we become self-aware: is this my good side, do I have a good side, does my leg look stupid like this, what should I do with my hands, am I leaning too far back, should I do this with my head, god my head feels huge, uggh I must look so stupid with my leg like this…

With this in mind, do your subjects a favor and give them something to lean on. Most regular schlubs can’t pull off hanging around in space well, but they can lean the heck out of a bar at 11pm. Once you give the skeleton something to lean on folks become easy, and I’m not just talking to what happens at a bar after 11pm. Outdoors, give them a bench or fence or wall or something upon which to drape their skin sack. Inside, let them lean on a chair or table, even if it’s out of frame. Trust me, it’ll put them at ease with themselves.

Even something as simple as an apple crate or my camera pack allows for a comfortable shift in weight (sorry Mountainsmith, but along with being a mobile studio your Parallax is the perfect height for a one-foot stepstool).

Once you’ve got them at ease, the key is to keep them that way. Keep them talking about your commonality (you found one by now, didn’t you?), and let them remain at ease. Before you shoot, let them hit their refresh button by doing a simple movement. I have my headshot subjects keep their body still, but turn their head 90-degrees to one side, then back towards camera before I shoot. This serves two purposes: first it lets them relax all the muscles in their face and neck from holding still too long, and second it gives them something to think about other than waiting for me to pull the trigger.

Encore Please

So, it’s all done. Now onto the proof review.

Of course, as I like to say “you can’t photoshop ugly,” so I like to CMA by telling my subjects to go look in a mirror before we shoot, and how they look in life is how they will look on film. No mirror no problem – give them your cell phone and set the camera setting to selfie. This sets a baseline of expectation, and in my opinion is very important.

If the subject balks after they see the proofs and complain they don’t like the shots, always always ask why. It forces them to acknowledge it is often that their hair is too short/packed up and left 10 years ago, they picked a shirt so hideous it’d launch its own reality show, or they didn’t shave (always a bit touchy with the ladies). Chances are they aren’t going to reply with “Well, good sir, I’d much preferred if you had used Rembrandt lighting on my mug.” It wasn’t my lighting that made your hair look like a NYC subway rat’s nest, honey.

Then there’s the “can you make me skinnier?” Man I hear that one all the time. Too many times. So many times that I started answering (a little too loudly), “Sure, come with me on my morning trailruns.”

That aside, I do retouch my subjects, but only those things which are dynamic to begin with (zits, bags under the eyes, pizza stains…). What’s done after the shoot however will have to wait for a future blog.

Oh, and one more note. Try and schedule your shoots early in the day, people tend to be fresher. And less bespeckled by lunch stains. For now, go out there and conquer some faces, and work that finger like the photo boss you are.


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