15 Professional Photographers Share Their Portrait Photography Advice

A successful portrait photographer has many years of experience running their studio and taking photos of clients. The knowledge they gain during that time is invaluable and helps build a quality portfolio and business.

We asked 15 professional photographers to share their portrait photography advice with our readers and here are their responses. Hopefully these tips and techniques will help improve your own portrait photography aspirations or current business.

David Lazar - Green Eyed Boy (Brazil)
“Great portrait photography stems from pre-visualizing the photo before you take it. Find a background or a scene first that will compliment your subject, and then position your subject into it as you see the shot in your mind. Remember that everything you include in your photo should be there for a reason, which also means that nothing distracting from the eyes or face should be present in the frame. ”
– David Lazar (Website, Facebook, Instagram)

50 Portraits
“Be authentic. Be yourself. What you put out is what you’ll get back. Be very clear with your subject. People hate being told to just ‘do something’ or ‘be yourself.’ They greatly prefer and appreciate gentle direction.”
– Gregory Heisler (Website, 50 Portraits Book)

Brady Campbell
“Given an hour to photograph someone, sometimes I will allot 30-45 minutes just gaining access to the person I’m shooting. I mean REAL access to who they are. I do whatever it takes to get them to let down their guard and become vulnerable so that I’m able to engage with them on a more personal level. With portraiture, gaining this access is more important than at what angle, and in what lighting, you are going to push the shutter button. Take your time with people. Get to know them. Because at the end of the shoot, if your audience can’t feel anything, you’ve already lost.”
– Brady Campbell (Website, Facebook)

Jill Rosell Photography
“Make use of your environment and the seasons, frame your subject with color, use action, and most of all connect with your subject so they let you see their soul.”
– Jill Rosell (Website, Facebook, I love Bend, OR)

Charlotte Bell - Portrait
“Technical techniques are easy to learn, but what makes a great portrait is creating an atmosphere where your subject is relaxed and enjoying themselves. I ask people about themselves, their work, their families, and what they like to do. I also share a bit about myself, sometimes make fun of myself. Once we have a relationship they relax. I’m doing all this while taking photos with small breaks to talk. I will instruct people on how to pose but since we are now friends, they keep that relaxed attitude. I don’t say ‘smile’ I make them smile and it’s real.”
– Charlotte Bell (Website)

J. Amado Photography
“Never waste a pose for only the one shot you had in mind. Move around and find a different angle. Shoot from above or below, move closer or farther, use the rule of thirds, and frame your subject differently. There is so much to see than that one shot you had in mind.”
– Jermaine Amado (Website, Blog, Weddings)

Julie Harris - Rachel and Devin Maternity
“Allow things to be messy, both figuratively and literally. The toys don’t have to be cleaned up, your hair can be messy, the kids clothes need not be ironed and pressed. Be loose, be yourselves, let the shoot unfold organically, and you’ll get those real moments that tell the story instead of those posey and postured ones that really don’t.”
– Julie Harris (Website, Blog)

Mary Grace Long
“There is so much talk these days on lighting and what to buy, etc etc. Important, yes. There is much less heard on the WHAT is actually being lit. It is my opinion that if the subject does not speak, no amount of lighting is going to get you there. So, for me, it is drawing forth and capturing each person’s inner light. Everyone has it, IS it. You can see it then not. It shows and hides. But you know when it is there, when you have it. Then, yes, have them well lit- ambient or artificial. But a body with no animating life force expressing forth, whether through the eyes or in gesture, is nothing in my book. A dime a dozen with no substance to engage. If portrait work is your thing, your passion, I am assuming a love of people; being oneself is the best tip, period. Engage with a genuine touch, as you would a friend. Formulaic sales minded connections are apparent a mile away. So is authentic interest.”
– Mary Grace (Website)

Trent Black Photography
“Photographing people once the technical skills are mastered is making a connection with the client. You need to find out their passions and use the conversation to distract that you have a camera in their face. If you can build their trust, the session will be much more fluid and the expressions and body language will be more natural. Give it a try and see the difference. Your client will have a better experience.”
– Trent Black (Website)

Anita Nowacka Family Photography, Seattle, WA
“Photographing people involves both the predictable and the unknown. My objective in every photo session is to create images that display spontaneity while also expressing the beauty and temperament of the subject. I am agile, involved, and active throughout the session. I focus on the unexpected, humorous, or touching moments that arise during a session. This spontaneity naturally occurs but can also be instigated through direction by me, the photographer. Thus I call my style ‘directed photojournalism’- a balance between the carefree and the guided, with attention to composition and the uniqueness of each subject. All my sessions take place under natural light.”
– Anita Nowacka (Website, Blog)

Teresa Berg Photography
“Never be afraid to ask for a big hug. Every family relaxes and laughs after they’ve hugged and you will get your most relaxed smiles ALL AT THE SAME TIME. Even the stiff nervous types will unwind a little bit!”
– Teresa Berg (Website, Blog)

Jonathan Betz Photography Colorado Springs Photographer
“I specialize in outdoor portraits, and when photographing people outdoors, I always put the sun behind them and use off-camera, studio lighting in the outdoor setting. My style is to match the ambient light with my studio lighting, so depending on the conditions during a session, I may or may not use light modifiers to accomplish that goal. Photographers who use off-camera lighting will produce portraits that stand out from much of the competition.”
– Jonathan Betz (Website)

Le Boudoir set, Phoenix Boudoir
“As a Boudoir photographer, most of my clients come in very nervous for their sessions. You do not want that to show in their photos. Know your camera like the back of your hand; lighting, settings, and poses. Then you can put your full attention on your client, talk to them, get them excited, tell them how to pose their body, and they will not have time to be nervous because they now have their concentration on you and how much fun they are having. The moment you’re quiet is the moment they will second guess themselves!”
– Jodi Lynn (Website, Facebook, Instagram)

Mandy Mohler
“My favorite portrait inspiration is that of old daguerreotypes and tin types. Because subjects were required to sit for very long durations, they had to hold a very real and relaxed pose. It’s nearly impossible to hold a genuine smile for one of those. I love the haunting expressions those types of images produce. Its as if you can see into the souls of the subjects being photographed. To create a similar expression, I chat up my client for a bit- so they get to know me and feel more comfortable in front of the camera. I then let them know that I plan to work slowly- and just ask them to hold an expression that I’ve coached them into. I often say : “Look through my lens as if you work looking at yourself in the mirror.” This usually results in a natural “Mona Lisa Smile” that I love.”
– Mandy Mohler (Website)

Emily Star Poole
“Get your subject moving! Have them spin, turn, run, walk, dance. The most authentic portraits can come once a person is doing movements they are used to doing. And if a pose looks stiff at some point, but you really think it has potential, just say, ‘Great! Now, I’ll have you…’ and move them out of that pose. Then return to it again. Sometimes a round two gives the subject a chance to land in the pose more naturally.”
– Emily Star Poole (Website, Instagram)