Can anyone recommend a good book on portrait photography, covering gear, lighting setups, posing and so forth? More interested in the setup and shooting than post processing and retouching. Would prefer it be suitable for studio lights and small camera flash.

I've read a number of books from the library and was not really thrilled with any of them. Is there a "bible" for portrait photography like "Light, Science and Magic" is for lighting?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Good question and one I thought about asking the other day while looking through portrait books. \$\endgroup\$
    – rfusca
    Jan 13, 2012 at 22:24

5 Answers 5


Search out the Rotovision imprint books. There is one specifically on Portrait Photography, but I find Lighting the Nude to be one of the best books in all of photography. Anyone serious enough to ask this question (and invoke "Light, Science, and Magic") can take the lessons it teaches to any form of photography; certainly general portraiture is not that big of a stretch. It was just recently reprinted in trade paperback, too.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, just ask yourself: What Would Vermeer Do? \$\endgroup\$
    – user8086
    Jan 13, 2012 at 23:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ The Rotovision books are indeed very good. \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeW
    Jan 25, 2013 at 22:17

The answer is simply: no.

Light is a known, measurable quantity, measurable, photons bouncing and hitting film, sensors and eyeballs. You can teach light. You can explain how placing lights in certain positions will give you a certain effect, you generalize as to how most people interpret that light (soft = beauty, harsh = ruggedness, etc). You can talk about even lighting, measurable with a light meter, snoots, flags, angles, filters, gels, etc.

You can't talk about portraiture (or landscape or any major genre of photography) in those categories. The very question of "What is portraiture?" is asked in many photography and art schools, and discussed at length (ad nauseum) during years. A book can tell you poses (there are dozens of free posing guides all over the internet), but all they can really show you is what others have done and how to emulate them. Good portraiture is the result of interaction between the photographer, the subject, and the subject's surroundings.

The frustrating thing is that for every rule I can share with you about photographing people, I can show you a famous, amazing image the refutes it. Show your subjects face and eyes, right? Sure, until you see Moriyama's work.

Personally I find photographing people to be the best thing out there. It's both easy and demanding. People love seeing other people. And it's such a wide area of photography. Portraiture is everything from pictures taken at Sears, senior photos, fashion beauty shots, illustrations for magazines, formal, erotic, expressive, etc. It's 3m high prints fiber prints in museums and pictures we keep in our wallets. It's snapshots at parties and formalized shoots with a cast of dozens.

So I'm afraid that I don't have a satisfying answer to your question. I can recommend you try the ancient method of looking at portraiture you admire. Not just your favorite photos, but your favorite paintings as well. (Don't have any favorite paintings? Welcome to an amazing new world of images.) Deconstruct them, not on a technical level, but in their content. Consider their expressions and what they mean to you. Think about how you're able to shape people's perceptions of your subject by your creative decisions, by the moment you decide to capture. That micro expression, that soulful gaze, that smile, that look of disgust.

Cause that's the thing, light is a tool you can use to express yourself. Portraiture is you using that tool.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ That's a great and well written answer. But Amazon lists 2,500 books on portrait photography. Is there not one of them that it comprehensive in covering gear, lighting ratios, lighting styles like rembrandt, lighting setups, posing techniques? Surely there are some top-notch portrait books out there? \$\endgroup\$
    – MikeW
    Jan 17, 2012 at 5:22

I bought and read "The Portrait Photography Course" by Mark Jenkinson but I did not find it to be nearly as helpful as "Light, Science and Magic", which is the single best photography book I have ever read. Once you understand light and how to use it you will be able to make whatever sort of pictures you want, and I absolutely agree that good portraits result from thoughtful interaction between you the photographer, your subject, and the environment, rather than any technical factors or even formulas or standard poses or strategies that can be learned by reading a book.

My advice is to get a copy of "Light, Science and Magic" and read and re-read it until it's about to fall apart. You should then try to wear out your digital camera and/or burn up as much film as you can afford (that's my preferred choice, hands-down, by the way), and never stop looking at, enjoying and sharing the resulting images. And finally, never stop looking at portraits by other artists, including paintings, which can teach you more than any book.


I have found a book that is close to what I wanted. The Portrait Photography Course by Mark Jenkinson.

The book has 40+ short "tutorials" on a number of topics. It covers the following:

  • what is a portrait? history of portraiture. types of portraiture. conventions and cliches

  • equipment - cameras, lenses (covering focal length/DOF for portraiture), light meters, radio slaves, reflectors and light modifiers

  • lighting - light falloff, light and shadow, flash and continuous lighting, fill flash

  • three point lighting

  • composition, framing, posing and styling

  • post processing

  • environmental portraits

  • throughout are short interviews and portfolios of portrait photographers

Might fall short of being the "bible" of portraiture, but it is a comprehensive book, and the author is a practicing professional (among other things Vogue, Vanity Fair, Fortune magazines) who also teaches photography at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, so I'd say those are pretty good credentials.

Sample chapters(PDF)


Jedrek says almost all there needs to be said on this subject. However, while there are some photographers that use up to 30 light sources to create an image, it is still possible to create stunning images using just one.

In fact, I would encourage newcomers to this particular discipline to stick to one light source along with a variety of modifiers and a reflector! To reiterate portraiture is not about kit or rules, it's about how the photographer interacts with their subject and the working relationship that can be created on the day, and that's more about you rather that what's in your camera bag. While it may be straying off the point it's worth remembering what the early English photographer, Julia Margret Cameron once said:

When focussing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist upon.

At the time she was vilified by other photographers for being 'sloppy' yet her photographs have stood the test of time. I think the point I'm trying to make is...do what you think is best to create the images that you want.


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