Making portraits for clients is like competing in the decathlon. You have to be able to shoot movement and groups and individuals and kids and products and available light and controlled light and no light and you have to be able to do it all over and over again.

Make time to be an artist, to plan a picture for yourself. You should sculpt a portrait.

Sculpting is reductive

Sculpting with clay is a reductive process, and it should probably be the same for you as a portraitist. You’ve usually got grassy fields and playgrounds and boardrooms and coordinating outfits. When you sculpt a portrait, you need to narrow it down to the essentials. Carve away at your vision until only the essence remains.

Get rid of the backgrounds and outfits. Sculpt a picture by reducing it to its most basic pieces. Adding more stuff is unlikely to make it better.

Artists have always worked with nudes for this reason. There’s nothing left to distract from the composition. There are only the form and the light.

(Note: I don’t work with nudes, and I doubt you should either. I suspect there’s a lot more you need to improve before you can say, “The only thing wrong with this picture is the clothing.”)

Cooperate on vision

I doubt Michelangelo mined his own marble, and I think you should work with others, too.

My niece, Xuan, was visiting from Taiwan, and she wanted to join me for a shoot with my photo club. I had set this up as a time to practice. We had a couple of models and a stylist arranged and Xuan wanted to model, too. The stylist saw her long, thick hair and had some ideas right away, while I saw where she was going with it and started making plans, too.

The focus of the photo is Xuan’s awesome hair, and my lighting and composition all point to it. But I also worked to keep Xuan as the subject of the photo and we worked on a mood together, practicing several shots and poses. We made several good pictures, and this is a favorite.

Vision is easy

You don’t need an art degree to have vision, and it doesn’t have to take a long time to come up with it. My vision for this portrait happened while we were making it. As her hair came up, and my lights came into focus, so did my vision. It doesn’t need to be hard.

Be flexible, be doing

I’ve had fun shoots when I’ve had a vision and a specific plan and I’ve tried to make it happen. It usually works out, but the best pictures always get made along the way. The vision happens while doing the other shots. When you’re doing photography, you’ll get inspiration for more photography. Just remember to be flexible and let your vision evolve. Don’t get mad because the specifics aren’t happening exactly as you thought.

You may have noticed that I always say “make” a picture. Once you set out to sculpt a portrait, I think you’ll start saying it, too.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.