I've been a hobbyist landscape photographer for 15 years. It's something that I love to do, but I'm either too busy or uninspired lately to go out shooting. I'd like to progress my love for photography into something I could potentially turn into a career. I've been shooting on Nikon APS-C cameras for the past 8 years, and have a decent kit of lenses, but I've just acquired my first full-frame camera since I worked on 35mm film - a Canon 5D mk3, and a 50mm f1.8.

My problem is that with personal portraits, I don't know how to see the subjects in the same depth or vision that I do with nature and landscape. I am fantastic with understanding light, and I started my hobby by working in a darkroom. I also know my equipment really well.

I'm looking for advice on transitioning from nature/landscape to portraiture in order to pursue this as a career. I also have 4 little test subjects (read kids) that I can work with on a daily basis. I just don't have heaps of time to read a lot of books or things like that. I learn best with a bit of direction and hands-on experience.

Thanks in advance!!!

  • \$\begingroup\$ Landscape photographers understand natural light on a very large scale. The best portrait photographers create their own light and shape it on a small scale to light specific portions of the scene, even when the portrait looks like it was shot with only natural light. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 3:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ A quick advice would be: post some of your portraits to see them, and recive feedback. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rafael
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 9:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you want to go professional, invest some money in a studio-based course. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mick
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 10:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm excited with all the responses I'm getting! This is great. :-) Thanks to Michael Clark, Rafael and Mick for the helpful comments. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 10:38

5 Answers 5

  1. Advice

Take any advice, including mine, with a grain of salt, different photographers have different views. Though in some forums, a standard view is accepted and deviances from the mainstream are not tolerated.

Also, I do not give this advice from the lofty perspective of a successful portraitist; I am in a similar situation than you. I am now preparing to go full time pro as a second career in a couple of month. I believe that I have the experience, ability, and business savvy to be successful in this very competitive market.

  1. Shoot, shoot and shoot

The best way to progress is to shoot a lot. That is the best hands on experience you can get. You can start with your kids, playing around, sleeping... you will develop your abilities and also your tastes in what you want to do, like for instance on location kids at play pictures. Then you can start expending on your experience and building your portfolio with models willing to pose for time.

Else you can start finding paying customers. Some may disagree, but I see no problem using paying customers to grow in your craft. Afterall even when you are a master portraitist, you should continue to grow and learn with every client. Understand that pro photography is a lot more about running a small business than photography per say. Do it if you really want to or need to...if it is just to justify the price of gear investment, it is not worth it.

  1. Generic or unique

There are many ways to approach portraiture, the most obvious formulaic approach works, but so do others.

The main problem, IMO, I see in photography today is that most pictures look like each other. This is particularly concerning amongst professionals. If your professional pictures look like the other pros or amateurs, your product becomes generic, hence a differentiation by lowering prices, hence struggling to make ends meet or going bankrupt.

There are formulas, or general advice on what constitute portraits, you should start by learning that, but be careful that you don’t end up with photographs that are boring, lifeless and look like any one of 50,000 generic photographers took it.

Also, sometimes genre photography gets pigeonholed, and adopts narrow-minded views. This is why you often hear that portrait photography is different than landscapes. Sure if you follow formulas, portrait recipes are very specific and different than other types.

You will also find that good photographers, and famous ones, almost always do break every single "rules" of what constitute good portraits. Often the best inspiration and technical approach is outside the field, like using street, art, low light, or commercial photography methods for portraits. Expose yourself to other arts like moviemaking, painting or design; it will make your pictures stronger.

As you come from landscape, play to your strengths and try to adapt your methods to portraiture.

  1. Exposure

Your mastery of light in landscapes will come in handy for portraits too.

In digital approach, you will often hear expose to the right. This can be valid but not always. Some photographers do the reverse, exposing to the left like it was done with slides. This gives richer shadows with more color.

For me, I find that when I can manually meter, I produce better exposure than the grey smudge of matrix. It is an oversimplified approach of the zone system exposure; I spot meter the highlights and do down 2-3 stops. This gives me the best results, and usually you do it only once and continue shooting manually like that. I also find that that gives much more consistent results instead of the camera deciding at every step what the light is. Then again, I am also used to shoot on old film cameras with no meter, and never found that to be a hindrance.

  1. lighting

As an experienced nature photographer, you know everything you need to know. The human figure is a landscape waiting to be explored.

Most lighting gimmicks give flat boring images. Sometimes you want that, but not always. This type of lighting, particularly if further compressed by a telephoto lens gives a flat low contrast image, grayish blah.

Learn to light for wrap around, but also learn not to be afraid of negative space, dark shadow and contrasts. Adapt the type of light to the subject personality and mood you try to portray.

  1. Artificial lighting

The only thing you may be lacking is flash photography. Yet, you don’t even need that at the beginning, do natural light portraits and maybe use reflectors as fill lights. Then maybe later a fill in flash with a soft box.

However, a lot of successful photographers use only available light.

But if you want to start shaping light, use reflectors, then fill in flash, then accessories, then full flash with modifiers, then a 3 lights systems….it depends mostly on the type and style of portraits you take. If for instance you want to a glamour commercial portrait, then artificial light mastery is essential, refer to the excellent post by WayneF

  1. Subject

If you don’t know anything about portraits, start by reading books, or watching videos about posing. Then forget about them, if you can. There is nothing worse than posed, resentful kid’s photographs. Learn to capture the moment.

With posing it is very easy to end up totally formulaic, head at that angle, light at that angle….

However, these formulas do work, so you need to know them. Sometimes, you also need to forget your artistic integrity and compromise yourself to eat. Most of the classical poses are the most flattering to the customers and you may have to apply them. There are even techniques to make fat people seem slimmer; some customers are ready to cover you in gold if you make them consistently younger, more beautiful, thinner…..

In this way, a portrait is a lie, and that is even before touching it up with Photoshop or alien skin….

So, I find that I can’t really give you advice here, just be aware of what you are doing and why. I have seen professionals using formulas so much that they approach photography as detergent soap selling.

  1. Environment

Doing environment portraits showing the background is relevant if it is part of the story being conveyed.

Mostly the best portraits show who the person really is. If you want the best esthetic look, go wide open and blur the background totally for that bokehlicious backlighted effect, particularly for woman and kids.

However this is a taste preference and it is stereotypical, but here I believe that being stereotypical is warranted. I understand if coming from nature photography you may not like razor thin shallow dof, though I advise you to try it with your 50/1.8 and with faster lenses, particularly with round iris blades, if you can borrow or rent one.

Also coming for landscape if you have larger formats keep them and offer a film service, you can always scan the negatives, there is nothing quite like a scanned 4x5 negative, well an 8x10…. Also the larger you the shallower dof you get, which is why professional wedding photographers in the film era carried a medium format camera. Consider buying an older digital back like the Phase One P25, which is also an easy way to differentiate your pictures.

  1. Lenses.

Typical “ideal” tele for portrait is in the 70-90 range. Wider than 70 you start to have distortions of proportions if you get to close, longer and you flatten the environment. Most photographers take portraits, and most photos at the 24-200 range, however you can get great and unique portraits by going above and beyond the extremes.

There are no ideal lenses. Every lens has limitations, but you learn to work around them. However if you are careful you can use different focal lengths for great effects.

They often use something like 24 or under for groups and indoors, 35 for environmental and more creative close up portraits, 50 for a regular look, 85 for a nice portrait, 135 for close up, 180, 200 or longer for a flatter close up.

You bought a 50/1.8 that’s the first good step on your journey. Some people will try to tell you that their $2000 24-70/2.8L is so much better than your cheap plasticy $100 50/1.8. It may be more convenient and versatile, but borrow one or look for pics produced by these zooms and you will see that your lens outperforms them. In sharpness L or pro zooms can match primes, but their design and number of elements tend to eat light and produce very low contrast, flat, grayish images.

Get an adaptor for your nikkor glass, there is no need for AF, you can manual focus much faster and more accurately than an AF lens in 99% of the situations with some, not even much, practice.

  1. Sharpness

This is one of the subjects I get down voted for, that and no zooms, no AF and staying at base ISO.

Some photographers, often the ones that quote XO mark, love sharpness. IMO, sharpness is one of the worst enemies of nice portraits, and is why some special “soft” lenses have cult status amongst discerning photographers.

When you take portraits with modern lenses, particularly zooms you are confronted with that issue. This is also one of the reasons to avoid the 100-105 mm range where a lot of macro lenses are. For example at 105 you have the Nikkor 105 micro, or the end of the canon 24-105/4.

I can’t think of a worse lens than that the 105 macro for portraits. Macros are uber-sharp slow lenses, about the reverse of what you would want; you want a flattering look, not to count the number of pores on their nostrils

Even if you use zooms, it is better to avoid their extremes, so a 24-105 zoom, at 105 is at its worse, and is a slow f4, that probably need to be at 5.6 to be good, and a spectrum gobbling zoom at that…brrrr consider a pinhole shoebox camera instead

Consider old manual lenses, they are full of aberrations, bubbles, rare earth glass formulas, or even radioactivity….all considerably better than the modern laser cut perfect aseptically sharp lenses; there are whole forums on these lenses where people haven’t forgotten what good photographs are.


Very first basics, a good starting point:

The portrait lighting is the thing of course. There are a few lighting options, in fact, any idiotic plan you can dream up probably already has a name. :)

But in the general case, the most satisfactory and useful sure-fire variation is with a main light high and wide (maybe 30-45 degrees higher than nose, and 45 degrees wider from nose), which intentionally creates the shadows that shows curves and shapes on the subject. There are several names (like Rembrandt), but high and wide describes most of them, and is the common theme.

Do look up and know (Google) about broad or short portrait lighting, it is a choice.

And for color work, the fill light metering often should be about one stop lower than main (both at the subject), to reduce harsh shadows to be smooth pleasing gradients that show shape. You will want a light meter to set your individual flashes (regarding ratio, etc).

It is NOT just two lights on either side of camera. The fill light specifically should be very near the lens axis, to light the specific shadows that the lens sees. Without creating a second set of shadows. Fill light placed behind and just above the camera is good solution, but it could be right beside the lens.

You should be able to go very far starting there, with good results.

Softness of the light is entirely about the size of the light (the umbrella or softbox). Whether umbrella or softbox really doesn't much matter, but size matters in same way for both. Placed close to subject makes a light appear to be larger to the subject, therefore softer. Generally, the main light should be a size comparable to its distance, like a 4 foot light at 4 feet will be soft pleasing light (for the main light), and it will light about a 4 foot area. A one foot light at 8 feet won't be very soft.

Hair light and background light are nice and useful frills, NOT affecting exposure or basic lighting. Basic lighting is main and fill. Two lights just on either side of camera is NOT main and fill.

See maybe http://www.scantips.com/lights/setup/

Also, you may have used a Vivid profile for landscapes. Portraits will want a Neutral profile. Ladies want to see the correct color of their hair. Also definitely use a white balance card once after setup.

Also always keep the camera back 7 to 10 feet for proper portrait perspective. Then simply use the focal length lens that shows the view you want to see there (head and shoulders, full length, groups, etc). The 105mm lens notion simply FORCES this distance for head and shoulders (on full frame), but all portraits are not head and shoulders. And perspective is about where the camera stands, NOT about the lens used there. The ladies may not know why, but they may not like the way they look at 4 or 5 feet (too close).

Highlights on the face. A good usable guide is that the brightest facial highlight should not measure more than about 235-240 in the finished RGB picture (on [0..255] scale).

  • \$\begingroup\$ I have to say, this is the most concise write up on professional lighting techniques that I've seen crammed into a few paragraphs. I never use anything but a desaturated, low-contrast, unsharpened profile on my landscape, as I also do heaps of DSLR videography. As soon as I can afford another lens, I'll likely get a longer lens as you've suggested. Glass is not cheap here in Australia... Thanks for this great answer! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 10:44

There are many books on portraiture, but you say you don't have the time to read through one of them. I'll try to give you some starting points, but I would suggest at least skimming a basic portraiture book or web 'howto' (here's one from B&H)...

Subject... You have kids on tap. They should be trained to sit still and take direction.

Environment... Put them in front of something or in something relevant to what you want to say. The background can be out of focus, but if you're shooting boxers, put them in a gym. Kids with baseballs, on a pitchers mound. In short, portraits are a little more interesting with some environmental clues about the person being photographed.

Lighting... Depends on the environment, but generally softer rather than hard lighting, with some difference in lighting between one side of the face and the other gives more 'dimensionality' to the portrait.

Lenses... The 'ideal' portrait lens is a short telephoto. In full frame that would be in the 85mm - 135mm range with a 105mm being widely considered (at least by me) the best focal length. Wide angle (less than 35 - 50mm) can make the subject look like a ferret at frame-filling ranges. Longer lenses can work, but are heavy and put a bit of distance between the photographer and the subject.

There are many finer points that you can glean from other sources, but these should get you going.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks very much. I appreciate this answer greatly, and it was a tough call, but given where I'm at I believe that @WayneF 's answer is more appropriate to what I needed to hear. Thanks again! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 3:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @imkevinjones Even if you accept the other answer, you can vote up to show that you find this answer useful. Check out the tour page if you haven't already. \$\endgroup\$
    – Roflo
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 17:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @roflo Cheers. I've already up-voted, but it won't show up until my rep score is above 15 or something. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 20:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @imkevinjones Right! I forgot about that. \$\endgroup\$
    – Roflo
    Commented Nov 8, 2016 at 21:27

Everyone has to start somewhere. Considering you have a landscape background I guess you know your way around a camera which is always a good starting point and you mention understanding of light which is brilliant. But landscapes and portraits are very different.

Firstly, with portraits there are many different styles, such as fashion, editorial, boudoir, commerical, children and street. Each will need to be tackled differently depending on the situation.

Have you considered what sort of area of portrait photography you would wish to get into, or where to start? There's nothing wrong with dipping your toe in the water to see which one you prefer.The most important thing is gaining this experience. Don't be afraid to go out of your comfort zone.

You mention

I learn best with a bit of direction and hands-on experience.

Then I suggest workshops and group shoots. Have a look round at local studios, photographers, camera clubs and with the modern age I highly recommend facebook groups to see if you can find anyone in the area offering these. They will most likely cost something, but they can be a lot of fun, allow you to network, get some shots and of course learn new things.

Once you have a bit more experience you may find that you will potentially need to invest some money (e.g. I like shooting in the studio, so i've bought some studio lights and a backdrop).

Experiment. Try new things. Once you've got more confident don't be afraid to get hold of someone to model and go what if I do this, what if you face this way, and I put this light here. This is the best way of learning. It's great you have the kids to use but it will get to the point they're not so susceptible to being used as the subject. Make use of this time as you can, but remember they will be very different to say a fashion model or a candid on the street.

If you wish to work with more models, until you feel comfortable enough and confident enough to direct them, professional models are worth their weight in gold. I'm not saying you can't/won't get good results from amateurs however, but sometimes they can knock your confidence if they don't come out as you expected and it may not neccessarily be your fault.

I will also say if this is a path you intend to continue down, learn to professionally retouch an image. It's very time consuming but makes a whole world of difference.


My problem is that with personal portraits, I don't know how to see the subjects in the same depth or vision that I do with nature and landscape. I am fantastic with understanding light

natural light, that is. I suggest starting with the same natural lighting for portraits. Seeing the scene as-is will probably feel most familiar. This might mean to stage things a little bit. If you want to photograph your children while playing indoors, put their toys next to a large window and let them play there. This is a lot less intrusive than setting up studio gear next to them.

The difference of having moving subjects is likely the biggest change and I think making yourself familiar with that is more important than using a fancy lighting setup.

Then grow from there step by step. Add diffusion paper to the window to make it softer. Add a first flash to light up (or "fill" as they call it) the shadows. Bring in a background or even a seamless. Add more flashes, modifiers, etc.

Keep in mind that your kids also have to get used to this. There's a difference between merely being in front of the camera and modeling. It's a skill set of its own. Eventually, you have to learn how to direct a model in front of your lens to get the picture you want, too. If kids behave similar to your future models is questionable, but it's a start.


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