Got It
This website uses cookies. More details


Learn Photography

Photo Tips >

Portrait Preparation

This tutorial walks you through the preparation for a portrait session.

If you haven't already, go to Studio Lighting.

Two Types of Portraiture

Portrait Type #1

A friend may need a photograph for his or her social-media profile.

Of course he or she wants a portrait that's flattering.

That's one type of portrait.

Portrait Type #2

The second type of portrait may be equally flattering, but is more about communicating something more about the person.

If you're at an antique shop, flipping through a box of old photographs, most of them are flattering likenesses.

You stop and pull out the rare one that tells you something about the long-gone stranger in the photograph.

You companion may say, "why are you buying that, you don't know them."

But you do, a little, because the photographer and subject created a portrait that says more than most.

This type of portraiture is more fun, challenging, and rewarding.

Out Subject Is Joe

Let's say you're going to photograph Joe.

Joe has been a cattle rancher for over seventy years.

Step #1 - Find the Poem

If you were to write a poem about Joe—you would have to decide what it is you want to communicate about Joe—to the reader of the poem.

That's obvious.

You can't write about Joe without deciding what it is about Joe that you want to write about.

Less obviously, you can't photograph Joe without knowing what you want the photograph to "say" about Joe.

Yes, you can wing a portrait session.

You might get a fine portrait.

But, if you "write a poem" before the session, your portrait will probably be better.

Your thoughts about the subject may produce:

• An aspect of the subject's personality.

• An event that just happened to the person.

• A mood that fits the person.

• Or ?

Let's say Joe is like one of the characters in All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.

Below, John Grady Cole, and his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, set out for Mexico on their horses.

They rode out on the high prairie where they slowed the horses to a walk and the stars swarmed around them out of the blackness. They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

You now have the mood.

Joe is sitting on a stool facing you.

Creative Decision #1: Lighting

You want to highlight the ruggedness (wrinkles) on Joe's face.

You place a light to his left, aimed at his left ear.

One side of his face is bright, the other side is shadowed.

Tiny shadows highlight each wrinkle.

Creative Decision #2: Exposure Settings

Set the exposure mode dial to Av.

Most often, when doing studio portraiture, you're concerned about depth-of-field.

So, selecting the aperture is essential.

Deep Depth-of-field

If Joe was in his tack shop, you want the space to be in focus.

If so, set the aperture to f/11 or f/16 (if the light is bright enough).

Shallow Depth-of-field

If Joe is at a gas station pumping gas, you may want to blur the background.

If so, set the aperture to f/4.

Here, let's say you set the aperture to f/4 for a more out-of-focus background.

Measure the Light

Measuring the brightness of the light is also called taking a light reading.

Place a gray card (get the Kodak one) on the bright side of Joe's face.

Fill the frame with the gray card, and measure the light (press the shutter release button half-way down).

You may have to turn off the auto-focus on your lens (look for the A/M switch on your lens) to get that close.

Be sure to turn it back on!

Let's say the light meter in your camera gave the settings as f/4 at 1/60th.

Because you set the exposure mode dial to A or Av, and set the aperture to f/4, the camera set the shutter speed to 1/60th.

That's a good setting because the shutter speed is not too slow.

If the shutter speed goes below about 1/60th, you may get camera shake.

If the shutter speed was slower than 1/60th, do one of the following.

Too Slow Shutter Speed Remedy #1

Change the aperture to a physically larger lens opening, such as f/2.8.

If you're doing lots of portraits, get a 50mm lens.

They have physically larger apertures.

That's good if the light is dim, and if you want less depth-of-field.

Too Slow Shutter Speed Remedy #2

Set the ISO to a higher value.

Too Slow Shutter Speed Remedy #3

Add light.

Move the light closer to Joe.

Back to Measuring the Light

You have just measured the light on the most important part of the photograph, the bright side of Joe's face.

If you were to stand back, and measure the light on the entire scene, the exposure settings would be different.

You want to use the exposure setting from the most important part of the photograph, the bright side of Joe's face.

Use Manual Exposure

Switch the exposure mode dial to M (Manual).

Change the settings to make them f/4 at 1/60th, the settings from the gray card held on the bright side of Joe's face.

Background Light

We have to position the second light on the background.

To make the background one stop darker, move the second light until the exposure settings are f/5.6 at 1/60th.

Set the exposure mode dial to Tv and set the shutter speed to 1/60th.

Then, hold a gray card up against the background, and take a light reading.

Move the second light further away or close until the light on the gray card (positioned on the background) is f/5.6 at 1/60th.

Almost Done

Switch the exposure mode dial back to M (Manual).

Change the settings to make them f/4 at 1/60th, the settings from the gray card held on the bright side of Joe's face.

Photograph Joe.


It's best to do the above when Joe isn't there, as it takes some time to do it.

Then, when he's there, double check the settings quickly.

If you end up doing a lot of studio work, get a light meter.

A gray card works well, but isn't as quick.