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My Portrait System — Great Shots Each Time

I photograph a lot of people in their places–people working and living and their environments. These environmental portraits are so much fun to make, but I’ve usually got a limited time to make them–business people can only halt business for so long while I make pictures.

That’s why it’s important that I have some systems to maximize our opportunities for usable photographs, and here’s a simple one. It seems simple, but until I was told to do it every time, I wasn’t doing it every time. Does that make sense? Sometimes sensible things just need to be named to become common sense.

Shoot Wide

Use a wide lens to make a flattering portrait of your person in his place. Now, this is a wide angle lens–something wider than a 50mm (full frame equivalent), so be careful how you tilt the lens and where you position your person.

Too close to the edges, and you’ll like distort his face.Tilt the camera too much, and you’ll exaggerate his features–likely, his forehead will appear much larger because it’s markedly closer to the camera than the rest of his body. Generally, don’t shoot too close with a wide angle lens.


For this portrait, I used a 17mm on a micro-four-thirds camera, which is an equivalent field of view to a 35mm lens on a full frame camera. It shows my subject, and also includes plenty of the environment around him. This is a very photojournalistic way of showing someone because it tells lots of story with a glance. It’s great for press releases, and brochures, etc.

Shoot Tight

Now, don’t move your tripod, don’t move your subject, don’t change your settings, and most importantly, don’t move your lights. Just swap your lens. Get in tighter and isolate your subject. A longer lens from the same position and the same settings will yield a shallower depth of field and help your guy stand out form his environment a bit.

In this shot, I had spent a lot of time getting the light just the way I wanted it–the background had been really challenging–so I wanted to maximize my setup. I asked my subject to stand right where he was a moment while I swapped my lens. As long as he doesn’t move any farther from the light in front of him (and my aperture settings can match on the two lenses), then the camera’s exposure settings don’t need to change, which makes it easy to shoot with a new lens.

I didn’t even move my tripod for this shot. This is different from the “quickly tell me something about this guy” picture with the wide lens. This one is much more intimate and shows us his eyes and the gentleness there invites us to meet him. He could use this sort of picture for his profile on social media, or within his website, or on marketing materials, or as headshot for his book.

Shoot Vertical

Like I said, it seems simple, but you’ve got to remember to do it. I love horizontal headshots–I think they are more modern and much more comfortable to experience–my eyes generate horizontal pictures all day long, so landscape orientation is perfect. However, brochures and book covers are generally portrait orientation, and there are lots of places online a vertical picture might fit well, too. I have to remind myself every time to do it. If I forget a vertical, I may very well be doing a reshoot, which is aggravating for everyone.

His pose hasn’t changed, but I’ve talked with him each time as I’ve swapped lenses and moved my camera to portrait orientation so that he’s not feeling unused while I’m fiddling around with my camera.

I hope this helps you remember three simple pictures you can make with every pose and lighting setup you create. When I remember to work this way, I get more usable images in a short time, and that helps my client see that I respect his time and efforts, too. Plus, the little changes give him a chance to turn off for a moment, and that helps with the great expressions.

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