Improve your Portrait Photography With This Simple Exercise

Improve your Portrait Photography With This Simple Exercise

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Photography is a gear based pastime, and because of this it’s easy to overcomplicate a shoot by taking more equipment than you actually need. Now, I understand that pro photographers like to have a truckload or two of equipment at hand just in case they need it, but most of us don’t own that much camera gear. Neither are we under pressure to deliver the perfect shot for a demanding client.

Gear envy

Gear envy arises when you compare your equipment to that of a professional photographer or fellow hobbyist. Comparing cameras and lenses is a bit like comparing cars or houses – someone always has something bigger, better or more expensive.

Comparing can result in feelings of inadequacy if the other person has more than you, or superiority if your equipment is better than the other person’s. Neither is productive. The ideal place to be is to be happy with the equipment that you have, fully confident in your ability to use it to its fullest potential.

Black and white portrait

Simple portrait photography exercise

In that spirit, here’s a simple exercise to improve your portrait photography skills.

The idea is to shoot in black and white, with just one camera and one lens, in natural light. The aim is to keep your approach simple so that you can concentrate on your rapport with your model and posing and composition. Using black and white will test your composition skills.


Take a single camera, with one lens, and no flash. If your lens is a zoom then use a piece of masking tape to keep it fixed to a single focal length.

If you have an APS-C (crop-sensor) camera select a focal length between 50mm and 100mm (if you only have an 18-55mm kit lens I recommend the 55mm focal length). For full-frame cameras the ideal focal length is somewhere from 85mm to 135mm. For Micro Four-thirds go for a focal length between 25mm and 50mm.

Simple portrait photography exercise

Camera settings

Use Raw. To help you visualize in black and white set the camera profile to monochrome. When you playback the images on a digital SLR you’ll see them in black and white. If your camera has an electronic viewfinder you’ll see the scene in black and white as you photograph it. This helps you see how well the composition is working.

Using Raw means you have the option to develop the portraits in color.

Use Shutter Priority* mode and set a shutter speed that is fast enough to prevent camera shake (around 1/180 to 1/250 second depending on focal length and sensor size). Set the ISO to 400 to start with – you can raise or lower it when the shoot starts depending on light levels and how wide an aperture you want.

Generally speaking, I find the f2.8 to f4 aperture settings give good results with portraits. If you have a prime, you have the option of using the widest aperture settings to give narrow depth of field. If you have a zoom then the widest available aperture will have to do.

*Feel free to switch to Aperture Priority if this suits your way of working better.

Black and white portraits

Pre-shoot planning

Now you have your camera settings sorted out it’s time to plan the shoot. Here are some of the things you should think about beforehand to help the shoot run smoothly.

  • Finding a model. If you’re lucky you have a photogenic friend, partner or relative who would like to model. If not, you need to find someone. Websites like Model Mayhem let you search your local area for amateur and professional models. Another option is to carry out a hashtag search on Instagram. For example, if you live in New York City, search for hashtags such #newyorkmodels. Alternatively, you can look for character models, such as local craftsmen or artists, or actors or singers.
  • Work out your payment arrangements beforehand. Unless you’ve hired a professional model, the best deal is probably one of mutual collaboration – after the shoot you can give your sitter hi-res copies of the best images (and a print or two if you wish) without any money changing hands.
  • Decide on an approach. What sort of photos do you want to take? One approach is to take the most flattering portraits you can of your model, a bit like a social portrait photographer. Another is to capture character. This probably dictates your choice of model – or your choice of model may determine your approach.
  • Find a location. For this exercise you need to find a photogenic outdoor location to take the photos. Outdoors is easiest because it suits the simple approach. You can use natural light and won’t need any portable or studio flash units. It helps if you can visit the location before the shoot to search for the best places to take photos. You will give your model confidence in your abilities if you can go straight to the best places to take a photo.
  • Work out when to take the photos. To get the best images you need to be at your location with your model during the best light for portraits. This is a little hit and miss because the light conditions depend on the weather, but you should aim to be on location near the end of the day if you can, as that’s when the best light usually occurs.
  • Figure out where the best light is. This depends on the time and location as well as the weather on the day of the shoot. If I’m taking photos on a sunny day, and I have no flash or reflector, then I place my model in the shade as that’s where the best quality of light is.
  • What is your model going to wear? As these photos are black and white, color isn’t so important. Clothes with interesting shapes and textures always come out well in monochrome. Talk about this with your model before the shoot. It’s important to establish the boundaries. For example, some women aren’t comfortable wearing a bikini in photos, and it will mess up your plans if you turn up having planned a swimwear shoot and your model won’t go for it.
  • Posing. It’s a good idea to have some ideas worked out in advance. Find the work of some photographers you like and save them to your phone**. Pinterest boards and Instagram collections are ideal for this. You can refer to these if you get stuck, and show your model so he or she understands what you’re trying to achieve.

** I’m not advocating stealing photos – but it’s fine to build up a collection of inspirational images that you find online that you can refer to when you need to generate ideas.

Simple exercise to improve portrait photography

The shoot

Here are a few ideas to help your shoot run smoothly.

  • Build rapport with your model. This is really important, for fairly obvious reasons, especially if you don’t know them well. If you show a genuine interest in your model he or she will respond to your ideas and become involved in your shoot. They are more likely to be willing to help you out with future shoots. You might even make a good friend.
  • Communicate your ideas. Show your model any sample photos you have prepared. And share the images on the camera’s screen during the shoot. The more your model buys into your vision of what you want to achieve with the harder they will work to help you achieve it.
  • Pay attention to what’s happening behind your model. Keep the composition simple and try to avoid messy or bright backgrounds.
  • Relax. Have fun. Enjoy yourself.

Portrait photography exercise

The results

The portraits illustrating this tutorial were taken on a recent shoot with Rosie. Her fantastic dreadlocks make her an ideal model for a character portrait shoot. We made the portraits at a local beach and I used an 85mm lens on an EOS 5D Mark II.

Further reading

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Portrait photography

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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