This shouldn’t be a secret. There’s only one way to make better portraits, and it’s simply a procedure. Let me give it to you, and I’ll give you some examples I’ve used to get it done, and an important warning.
The Secret to Making Better Portraits…
…is making more portraits. That’s really it. Most photographers just aren’t shooting enough to become good at what they do. Let’s say for instance that you’re doing portraits in the evenings after work and you shoot one or two sessions a week–whether for fun or pay, that’s quite a lot of sessions each year. But it’s still only 100 sessions tops, maybe a couple hundred people total. That’s not enough. You’ll improve, but I think you can turbocharge your portraiture by shooting a lot more people. Here are some ways I do it.
The first summer I owned a camera I set up a booth at the Gardeners Market. It cost me twenty dollars. I offered free portraits to everyone who walked by. I primarily photographed kids and siblings. People just turned their strollers around inside my space (10×10 with a pop-up shelter). Or the kids stood next to each other and I kneeled down to their level. I photographed 100 people that day. To do this, borrow a white pop-up shelter from a friend. You want white because it’s brighter and doesn’t cast a funny color. Red is the worst color to get. You’ll also need a white bed sheet or a big 5-in-1 reflector to put on the ground in front of people to remove the green grass reflections–use the white side up. My pictures weren’t amazing, but I learned volumes and I even met one of my favorite long-term clients that day.
My pictures weren’t amazing, but I learned volumes and I even met one of my favorite long-term clients that day.
Home and Garden Show
A couple of years later I had quite my job and was now a full-time photographer and I learned that there was a space available at the Home and Garden Show and since it was last minute, I got a lower rate for a 10×10 booth. Well, I borrowed the shelter, again, and set it up in the gym at the university with all the other vendors. I hung a single constant light source in the top of the tent and tethered my camera to a laptop which was plugged into a TV. I used Lightroom’s Auto-Import to automatically apply a black and white preset to each picture and display it on the TV as I shot. I photographed 1500 people in two days and learned to refine my process. And it was fun. If I were ever to do a Bridal Show again, I would absolutely spend the time making portraits of everyone.
The Steve Jobs Portrait Project
A personal project is a terrific reason to make portraits. I know it’s not always easy to go out and do this kind of thing, but having a good reason makes it easier for you, and it makes it easy for strangers to agree to be in a picture, too. I’ve photographed more than 1500 people for my Steve Jobs Portrait Project over the last few years. I set it up at Chamber of Commerce meetings, or at church parties, or at conventions, or at fundraisers and I invite all my clients to do it, too. Try a personal portrait project and make the same kind of picture with many people over time and I promise you’ll learn great things.
Since first doing that portrait booth at the Gardeners Market, I’ve set up a similar booth at all kinds of fundraisers and benefits. It allows me to support far more causes than I could by giving money, and it makes a more rich and enjoyable event for everyone who attends. There are fun runs, Relays For Life, bake sales, PTO fundraisers, and countless other events you could volunteer your services for.
Whether you’re in portraiture to make money or not, photographing a lot of people in a short time will help you become a more proficient photographer. You’ll quickly recognize what poses are best for which people, what things you say get good reactions and which fall flat, which camera/lens combinations you prefer to use, etc. You’ll develop a style and you’ll have a great time making portraits. So go find a place near you where you can unlock the secret to making better portraits by making a whole lot more portraits than you do now.