I've run across millions of sites, books, tutorial videos etc. "about portraits", but most of them break down to lighting and posing (which is as important I guess).

Those are often lacking the philosophy on how/why/what to do in order to achieve a certain "communication" between the subject/photographer and the viewer and extract the essence (true or not) from the subject.

It's even hard to explain what I'm really asking, but simplified:

  • What is a difference between a technically and visually spotless "picture of a person" and an actual "portrait of who someone is (or is not, regardless)".
  • How to actually achieve this?

The first question isn't lacking answers, but the second one is what I'm actually asking...

Any books, sites, tutorials, names, or if you have a simple straight forward answer would be greatly appreciated.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Why not ask the question rather than asking for "resources"? This site is good at answering direct questions and mediocre at collecting lists of links. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Apr 9, 2013 at 10:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ possible duplicate of What is the definition of portrait photography? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Apr 9, 2013 at 10:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ Or another way to put it: this site is a good resource for this kind of question, both for further questions and for existing answers. I think my answer to this question covers what you're asking. If not, please refine this one into a real question and I think you'll get much better direct answers than book : site recommendations. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Apr 9, 2013 at 10:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm: I'm asking for resources, just because I think that it's difficult to be able to learn enough about this from a single answer. Your answer to the other question may cover the "difference between a technically and visually spotless picture of a person and an actual portrait", But I did ask for references/help on how to achieve this. I do agree that this site is a great resource for photography related questions, but I disagree with you about the duplicate question, or that I did not ask a real question, because there are many questions asking for book, sites, tutorials recommendations. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 9, 2013 at 10:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, and most of those many questions asking for books/sites/tutorials result in unfortunately mediocre lists of recommendations, hence my comment. I strongly believe that starting from the real question rather than a level of indirection will give better results. This site has a wealth of insightful, expert answerers well-equipped to give more than a single answer to these sorts of questions; they just need to be asked; asking for answers which also give pointers to further reading is fine too. \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Apr 9, 2013 at 14:08

3 Answers 3


Some of the best advice I've seen for developing a rapport between photographer and subject is a series that was featured on Strobist written by Sara Lando as a guest on the blog.

On photographing people, pt. 1: Before the shooting

On photographing people, pt. 2: During the shooting

On photographing people, pt. 3: After the shooting

Lando concentrates on how to put your subjects at ease from the time you first approach them about taking their photo all the way through to the delivery of the finished photos. She concentrates on how to neutralize their fear of the camera. She also discusses other aspects of managing the shoot. For instance:

Also make sure there aren’t several people shouting directions at once. This can happen when the subject mum/ fiancé /best friend is watching. It often comes from a good place, but is a recipe for disaster. There should be only one top dog on set, and you have to make sure it’s the one holding the camera. If everything else fails, have them hold a reflector while facing the wall. This won’t make much for your light but will make everything lighter just the same.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ An indication of how the answer might be improved would be appreciated if you feel it necessary to down vote an answer. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Apr 9, 2013 at 19:13
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Hehe, have them scream. My trick has always been that I make a loud sound "hep!" which startles them and then they relax and laugh/smile. Never thought of reversing that. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 11, 2013 at 6:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ She is still missing the part about capturing WHO that person is, but I think her photography is about showing how she WANTS them to be. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 11, 2013 at 6:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ The original question recognizes that sometimes a portrait wants to capture "who" a person is. At other times it wants capture a "who" that the person isn't (e.g. a fictional character or a concept). Both are legitimate functions of portrait photography. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Apr 11, 2013 at 7:44

I think Joe McNally's books and blog probably come closest to covering that aspect. While he covers a lot of gear and technique, he really connects with his subjects. Faces of Ground Zero and The Moment it Clicks are two good examples.

McNally's work tends to be environmental portraits. For studio work, I recommend Peter Hurley's Mastering Headshot Photography on Kelby Training. He doesn't cover gear at all, doesn't talk about camera settings or lighting, it all about getting to know his subject and bringing out their personality. Sounds like that is more like what you're looking for.


It's actually simple (but not easy):

  1. Learn about the subject

    First do some online research, look for that person's facebook, tweeter, blog, whatever - try to find out what interests them.

    Then have a chat, ask them about their work, hobbies and whatever you already know interests them - let them do almost all of the talking and listen - really listen.

    Don't even start thinking about the photo until you know what this person is about and what idea/concept you want the picture to convey.

    Listening and not talking is hard, really listening and not thinking about something else while the person talks is even harder - but you are doing this to learn what the other person is about not to have a good time.

  2. Plan the photo

    Now you should have a good idea of what the person is about - so now you have to create a photo that show it (hint: location and props are your friends).

    Take the posing and lighting into consideration but don't let them override the idea you are trying to show.

    How to take what you learned about the person and turn it into an interesting visual isn't easy and there's no simple recipe for it, if it was easy anyone could be a great artist - but don't despair, it's a learned skill and becomes easier with experience.


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