Portrait Photography - Outcomes And Objectives

Lovely, delicate black and white portrait of young woman by window light.

Great portrait photography requires more than good camera gear and technique. You also need a clear understanding of the outcomes and objectives you’re trying to achieve.

When I made the portrait of the young woman by window light I photographed at a fairly oblique angle to the background.

This has the effect of reducing the brightness of the background in relation to the subject which is a great way to stop the subject from silhouetting in the photo you produce.

You’ll also notice that the background has been thrown out of focus through a shallow depth of field which helps to concentrate attention on the subjects lovely face and eyes.

But this knowledge and technique was applied for a specific reason. So that I could realize the outcome or objective for which I was striving.

Basically the notion that underpins this image is beauty. Not I didn’t have to think about that while I was making the photo. It’s the kind of realization that comes to the photographer intuitively.

You feel a possibility emerging from what you see and what experience tells you you’re able to create. And that’s true regardless of the age, gender or ethnicity of the person you’re photographing.

There’s no need to overthink things at the time. You just get on with following your intuition.

You become excited as you can see the image coming together as you place the subject, direct their head and gaze and begin to manage lighting and camera operations.

Your subject picks up on your positivity which builds trust and cooperation.

This is the process that allows me to make these kinds of photos so very, very easily. And it matters little if I’m photographing someone I know or a complete stranger.

To Photograph Is To Write With Light

The word photography comes to us from Ancient Greek and translates, literally, as light writing. That’s what we do as creative photographers - we write with light.

How many poor quality portrait photographs have you produced?

It’s likely that one of the reasons those photos are unsuccessful is that they lack a sense of light. It’s like trying to paint a picture without paint.

We cannot take for granted the importance of light to creative pursuits such as photography. Without light there would be no photography and, what’s more, very little to photograph.

An environmental portrait of guitarist and teacher Patrick David Gray amongst the long shadows and soft light at the Perry Sandhills in NSW, Australia.

Family Portrait Customer Expectations

Most people think that great photographs are made by those who possess some special secret or tool. Invariable they ask,

  • What filter did you use?

  • What camera or lens did you make that photo with?

The reality is that, rather than a special secret or tool, the photographer has, over time, attuned themselves to light and developed an ability to better utilize light in their images.

We all need to continually work towards achieving a better understanding of light.

I'm referring here to the following:

You’ll notice that, despite photographing in a desert like environment, the fact that the environmental portrait of guitarist Patrick David Gray was made late in the day made it easier to produce a great result.

The time of day meant that I was photographing under relatively soft light which made it easier to light the subjects face and utilize the long, dramatic shadows to enhance the mood of the photo.

So how can a better understanding and application of light help you make great portrait photographs?

By managing the available light you’ll be better able to realize much of what attracted your attention and motivated you to make the photo in the first place.

Couple with dogs, Hamilton, Australia. This photo speaks to the relationship between the subjects photographed, human and canine alike.

When preparing to make a portrait photo, whether commissioned or personal motivated, it’s good to consider what it is you are actually hoping to achieve.

Professional portrait photographers aren’t just commissioned to produce a record of an important day or time in the life of their customer.

Don’t just think that producing a pleasing likeness of the person you’re photographing is the name of the game. That’s just the beginning of a great portrait photo.

More is expected from the professional photographer above and beyond what poor old Uncle Harry can produce.

The professional portrait photographer is expected to produce images that, somehow, transcend the paper they’re printed on.

In the case of family portrait photography you’ll find expectations are particularly high.

Your customer will expect you to communicate the expressive nature and individuality of the subjects photographed as well as highlighting positive aspects in the relationships between individual family members.

In the event that these positive aspects are not evident on the day in question it’s your job, as the professional photographer, to create that particular illusion and preserve it in the photos you make.

There was no such illusion with the subjects in the photo of the couple with their two pet dogs. This image is one of many I made as part of a large series of photographs made at a large family get together.

I doubt this particular photo took more than a minute to create in camera, though I do remember photographing the group against a few different backgrounds.

I love dogs but, as due to allergies, I rarely get to interact with them. While I’ve taught people how to make great dog photos I’m sorry to say there’s only a handful of photos in my own photography collection that include dogs.

My friends Cooshe and Moussa, photographed before the arrival of their first child, in front of the Brighton Bathing Boxes in Melbourne, Australia

The Psychology Of Portrait Photography

There’s a lot of psychology involved in portrait photography.

Mothers, as they are almost always the ones who determine when it’s time for a family portrait, are your primary customers.

We can generalize the needs of the average mother, first and foremost, as follows:

  • A pleasing likeness of each member of the family group

  • Photos that explore the unique personality of each family member photographed

  • Images that confirm that her children are happy and that the family is a tight knit, loving unit

What’s more successful portrait photographers understand that it’s important to the mother that the photography session be enjoyable for all members of the family group.

The trick is to make it an event, something to look forward to like dinner in a great restaurant, a wedding or weekend away.

The motivation for the photo of Cooshe and Moussa came about due to the imminent arrival of their first baby. I remember Cooshe saying that she wanted photos that documented what, at the time, was her big belly.

We made an afternoon of it visiting several iconic locations in Melbourne where the backgrounds contributed to the story telling associated with theses photos.

The Brighton Bathing Boxes is a well known location in Melbourne. It’s a popular, though challenging place for wedding photography.

We arrived just as the sun had gone down. At first we were disappointed, but I soon remembered that the softer, more gentle light that follows just after the sun sinks below the horizon can be particularly flattering for portrait photography.

Given that the warm color of the sunset was all but gone I made a black and white image that was composed around the following:

  • Shape

  • Tonality

  • Soft, luminous light

  • Love, partnership and a bright and happy future

Needless to say it’s an image which I feel meets these goals. I’m very happy with the result.

You just can’t underestimate the importance of creating a positive and enjoyable experience for the people you photograph.

Not only will it help you make better and more visually pleasing photos, it will also increase the likelihood that you’ll get more paid work into the future.

After all, the best sort of advertising comes from personal recommendations.

Have no doubt that if you’re accommodating, professional and do all that you can to exceed your customer’s expectations more work will follow.

Do a great job and build a positive relationship with the people you photograph and they’ll become ambassadors enthusiastically recommending your products and services to their own friends.

How To Build A Portrait Photography Business

It’s a given that there are some fundamental aspects that will help drive the success of your business as a professional portrait photographer.

Clearly these considerations are going to be critically important to your success and longevity as a professional portrait photographer.

However, regardless of whether you live and work in a big city or a tiny hamlet there’s a fundamental truth that will underpin the success and, ultimately, the continuation of your business.

The key to your success can be summarized as follows:

  • The positive experiences you create for your customers

  • The strong ongoing relationships you build in your community

  • The word of mouth recommendations that flow on from the photos you produce

Portrait of a young girl in lovely, soft light in Melbourne, Australia.

Portrait Photographers - Defining The Customer

As a generalization men are less excited, and probably dread the dressing up that accompanies a family photography event.

The average bloke is probably more likely to put the date into their diary and just deal with it on the day.

In many cases they probably feel like they just need to show up, keep the kids under control and deal with the financial cost down the road aways.

Women, on the other hand, will be thinking about and working towards a successful outcome for weeks. In the case of their own wedding that timeline is clearly extended many months ahead.

I think that it’s important to note that, without the mums of this world, there probably would be no professional portrait photography outside of photojournalism, school photography and passport and security identification photos.

Again, I’m making a generalization. But it’s important to note that generalizations are usually true, for most folks in most circumstances.

You may not believe you fit the generalizations I’ve made in this post. That’s perfectly okay. It just means that you’re probably not part of the majority of people who commission professional family portrait photographers.

But it’s also important to understand that a professional portrait photographer’s business is going to be based upon the family dynamics that are, broadly speaking, associated with the average customer and the average family.

In particular photographers have to remember and be respectful of the following three facts:

  • That your customer is, almost always, the mother

  • The importance of making the photography session into an event that’s enjoyable to all participants

  • The meaning associated with the final result and the significance those photos will hold for the family for generations to come

I made this photo of four time world boxing champion Kostya Tszyu in an alleyway in Melbourne, Australia

Best Lens For Portrait Photos

If you’re looking to make great portrait photos there are several things to consider including lighting and the best lens focal length to use.

There are many reasons why a wide or telephoto lens might be appropriate for a particular people based image.

It effects how far away you’ll need to stand to be able to produce an intimate moment when photographing individuals or couples.

I made the portrait of legendary world boxing champion Kostya Tszyu with an 85 mm f/1.2 lens. It’s a classic focal length for portrait photos of individuals or couples. Here’s why:

  • It produces a flattering rendering of the average face, by shortening the nose and thinning the face.

  • A more shallow depth of field is produced compared to a normal or wide angle lens at the same aperture.

  • A comfortable camera to subject working distance is achieved which allows you to direct your subject/s without having to raise your voice.

Likewise your ability to be able to organize and control a larger group photo, without having to raise your voice, is largely dependent upon the camera to subject distance.

Great Portrait Photos Are About More Than Style

Let’s hope you won’t be undertaking a paid assignment without a considerable amount of confidence in your own abilities as a photographer to produce a well composed, appropriately exposed, sharp and emotive image.

It’s not possibly to build a sense of rapport with your subjects unless you have gained some sense of mastery over such basic technical concerns.

Once you have, you should ask yourself the following questions:

•    What purpose do these images serve?

Are these photos primarily for publicity or to provide your customers with a traditional or more contemporary portrait?

You want to make photos that are personally satisfying and please your customer. You also want your customer to reward your skill and efforts by passing a good chunk of change your way and to become enthusiastic ambassadors for your business.

From your customer’s point of view the whole portrait photography session is, primarily, about creating a lasting memory that speaks to the happiness existing within the family unit.

•    What feelings or emotions do you and your customers want conveyed through your images?

How important is it that your photos demonstrate an intimate and loving relationship?

•    How do you expect to achieve your goals and the expectations and aspirations of your customer?

Consideration needs to be given to subject posing, expression, clothing, placement within the frame and the way the subject/s are lit.

Dynamic range, exposure and focus need to be managed.

Composition, including placement of the subjects within the frame and in relationship to each other is critical, as is your choice of background and depth of field.

And what about post processing? It should always serve the needs of the image and your own, unique creative style.

Of course, in many cases, what matters most in a portrait photograph is the expression of individuals in the frame and the connectedness that’s suggested between them.

It’s your job, as a professional photographer, to create an environment in which the ideal expression and mood in the people you photograph are realized at precisely the right time.

That means what you do to influence proceedings, prior to releasing your camera’s shutter, is essential to the success of the photos you make.

No pressure, right.

How To Prepare For A Portrait Photography Session

I hope this knowledge will allow you choose appropriate locations, lighting, lens focal length, depth of field, backgrounds, composition and, where appropriate, props to create really wonderful portrait photos.

The final outcome may also involve decisions as to print size and surface, framing options and whether the image is more successful in color or black and white.

Glenn Guy, Photographer, Australia

About To Travel?


It may also help to make a list of the images you need to make on the day of the photography session.

For the professional portrait photographer this list should be based at least as much on what sells as what the customer thinks they’ll need or what images the photographer prefers to produce.

The session can evolve in a fairly organic and intuitive manner. Nonetheless you need to ensure you make the images your customer expects you to make as well as the ones experience tells you they are more likely to purchase.

Experience will help you visualize the final look of the image at the time the camera’s shutter is tripped.

As a creative being that’s a very satisfying and rewarding part of the experience of making high quality and meaningful portrait photography.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru