Our guide to portrait photography
Jane McGuire

Our guide to portrait photography

First published date January 21 2016 Amended date January 29 2016

A good portrait has the power to tell a story; to capture the essence, emotion and soul of a person in just one click. Yet with great power comes great responsibility and as any good photographer will tell you, the secrets lie in the techniques used, not the camera. If you dream of becoming the next Steve McCurry or Annie Leibovitz, going on a course and learning from an expert could be a good first step.


Set up your model

Ever heard the saying never work with children or animals? As a portrait photographer you can probably expect to be working with both. Although each course will vary slightly, they will all talk you through the basics when it comes to setting up your model and getting the most out of the shoot, whether formal or informal. From the camera shy, to the camera trained, an experienced portrait photographer will need to be comfortable working with everyone. Getting firsthand experience shooting a range of different models can be invaluable additions to your portfolio.


The technical bit

A photograph can be dramatically altered by the light in which it is taken. From studio based, artificial lighting, to candid photos taken outside, your tutor will be able to give you pointers on how to use lighting to get the best shot. In order to know exactly when to use the flash, it’s often worth finding a course that covers both inside and outside shooting, so check the course descriptions carefully.

What’s more, as well as being technically important, lighting can help you develop your own style as a photographer. You will soon know whether you are more comfortable taking photos in the great outdoors, or having more power over the lighting in the studio.


A career behind the camera

There is no one route into becoming a portrait photographer, but having relevant experience on your CV and a portfolio full of images is a good place to start. Some photographers choose to work for a company that has a particular niche, for example wedding shots or school photographs. Other photographers choose to work freelance in their own studio or on location. It’s important to remember as a freelance photographer a lot of your time will be spent attending events, marketing your brand and building up a phonebook of contacts, so doing all the learning before you begin is recommended.


Follow in their footsteps

Even the most famous portrait photographers in the world were beginners once! Take Steve McCurry, who shot to fame for his world renowned photo ‘Afghan Girl’. McCurry has continued to cover conflicts all over the world and has won multiple awards for his work.

As has Annie Lebovitz, who first gained recognition for her work with Rolling Stone magazine in 1970, a job she would do for ten years. Lebovitz is now a household name, seen as one of America’s most famous photographers, shooting portraits of everyone from Nelson Mandela and H.R.H Her Majesty the Queen.

Ivring Penn is another American great, his work appearing in Vogue and on many famous fashion campaigns. Regarded as a master of natural light, Penn was one of the first photographers to pose his subjects against a simple backdrop.

Finally, we look a little closer to home when we turn to the great David Bailey, famous for his black and white portraits of Jude Law, Twiggy and everyone in between. Born in Leytonstone, Bailey started his career as a photographic assistant at the John French Studio, a year later he was contracted as fashion photographer for British Vogue. 

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