Photographers: How to shoot a personal portrait

Shooting a portrait for someone can be a highly personal experience. About 90% of the experience might depend on a combination of a few things:


In my portrait photo of Catherine St. Jude, (make-up by Louiza J. Studio) I found the model had just the most beautiful smile and focused on this in combination with her tattoos, two of the things that really makes her stand out from the rest.
  • Reading the person’s personality

Because every person has a very particular and even peculiar idea of what they look like and should look like, it can be very challenging to create an image for this person that’s acceptable for you (the photographer) and the model. Very often the model might be difficult, highly strung and overbearing with very precise ideas of what needs to be done. Or quite shy, unsure of themselves and awkward in front of the camera. No matter what the personality type, a personal portfolio is challenging! The important thing to remember is that you are the photographer, and therefore in charge.

Use the time before a shoot well! Get to know them, tell them what to do in front of the lens, tell them how beautiful they look. Never lie! Every person has her own beauty and you should focus on this. Conversation can also help to develop a bond between photographer and model. You’ll quickly know where a person’s borders lie.

I once had a very strong personality approach, for personal portraits and immediately lots of images jumped into my head. But the young lady refused and insisted on nude shots, which I often do, but it just did not feel right. Instead of listening to my instinct, I went with what she wanted and the photos came out terrible, with me wishing the shoot over. Afterwards I was not only upset about the photos I did shoot, but kept on thinking about the ones I never did! I know her well and can say she would easily have done as I asked, but I let the circumstances dictate me, instead of me being in charge. Since then, I keep a special eye out for this.

  • Make-up and hair

For professional photos professional hair and make-up is a must! It is very expensive, but worth the money in the end.

  • Trust your instinct!

It is of course important to develop with time, but every person and shoot is different and it is very important to remember this. Do not follow some ‘winning formula’ but rather to trust yourself in doing something new and challenging every time.

  • Using your expert eye to know what will and will not look good.

Very often, someone comes to you with specific photos they want recreated and this can be a lot of fun. But watch out that they perhaps only see a model and wants to look like her. The disappointment can be immense when seeing the photos. Yet again you have to read the situation and realise what is asked of you. Very often a suggestion of little changes might be a good idea. Know what your customer wants: to be beautiful? To look like a character (actors often ask for this in their portfolios)? To recreate the scene?

  • Challenge the model just about 5% out of his/ her comfort zone.

I believe in the 5% rule. Every person wants to be challenged just outside their comfort zone and eventually love the outcome, because they were brave. For some this might be just being in front of a camera, for others, more extreme.

  • Stay inspired.

You are not allowed to lose your interest in the person you are photographing! For that hour or two you are paid to give your full attention, and even though we all suffer sometimes, we should strive for the ideal. Sometimes the person or brief might not be the most interesting? Know that the boredom comes from your own mind and not the circumstances and change your attitude!

avatarWe’ve asked Marius van der Westhuizen, expert blogger on camera equipment for Camera World, to give us some hints for the right equipment:

  • Marius, what would you say should be remembered when shooting personal portraits?

When shooting portraits 2 factors are very important to me which is:

(1.) Communication with my subject and

(2.) Lighting.

You can have the best lighting in the world but the lack of communication between you (the photographer) and your subject matter will either add to the mood of the image or not. The same goes for your lighting. You can capture the essence of the moment in your portrait but if you don’t compliment the image with the correct lighting you will again have a boring image. Communicate with the client and discuss the look and feel of the image. You will then have a better idea as how to pose your subject and will also know which style of lighting will compliment the image.

  • Which equipment would you suggest in general for profile pics?

It depends on the quality of the end result, professionally you will need good quality lighting which can be modifed via umbrellas, soft boxes, snoots, barn doors, grid spots etc. You will then be able to achieve the lighting you need for the mood you want to create in your image.

  • Which equipment is essential?

SLR camera (todays entryl level SLR camera’s are very powerful). Good quality glass like your prime lenses and 2.8 lenses. Good quality studio lighting.

  • Have you got any advice for amateur photographers using compact point and shoot cameras? Perhaps for shooting their families or friends?

Compact cameras are powerful when used correctly. Depending on the camera and situation, flash can be tricky, SLR cameras make this much easier having larger external flashes but if you only have a compact camera, try shooting natural light and use a reflector to fill in the shadows. If you have a compact camera which has a hot shoe you might be able to use external flashes. Go to your local camera store and look for Chinese wireless flash triggers like the Cactus triggers (Cameraworld in Bellville stock the Cactus v4 and v5 units). Test drive the unit and if it works you can now use off camera flash. If you can move the light around you can create some stunning portrait shots. If you only have a pop up or built-in flash unit use this outside if you don’t have a reflector. This is called fill-flash.

Until next week!