How to take stunning pictures: Portraiture

Here in the UK, Channel 5 Broadcasting is currently running a series entitled “How to take stunning pictures”.  I’ve been really impressed with the two episodes I’ve watched so far as it manages to strike a balance between simplicity for those who are new to photography and providing useful advice for more experienced ‘togs.

Channel 5’s website has some tips to go with each programme, but they don’t exactly match up to the advice in the programme itself so, here are the tips from the first episode on taking portraits, featuring professional photographer Harry Borden:

  • Choose the right location: make sure that the subject feels comfortable in the environment so that they may express themselves and relax.
  • Use available light: avoid using on camera flash if possible and position the subject in a place where they are nicely lit.
  • Expose for the brightest part of the image for a natural looking and atmospheric shot.
  • Try to compose when taking the shot, not with post-porcessing crops – look for something different/unexpected
  • Be yourself: relax, create an authentic connection with the subject and build rapport.
  • Take multiple shots: not only does this break the tension but it tells people you like what you see (they don’t know if you haven’t got it) – it’s called hosing people down! Take loads of pictures, learn more, grab a moment!  Don’t be afraid to keep snapping until get the shot you’re happy with.
  • Keep it simple and be aware of every element: calm down; look through the viewfinder and go through the frame asking yourself whether each individual element adds to or subtracts from the result.  If you keep it simple and are aware of everything that’s in the frame, you’re more likely to achieve stunning pictures

More tips can be found on the Channel 5 website.

7 thoughts on “How to take stunning pictures: Portraiture


  1. Dude, found your blog by chance. Very interesting read.
    Im in I.T, and have been a semi prof photographer for a year, experienced for 5.
    The show you are referring to I dont think is a quality programme. Yes it offers simple advice for virgin photographers, or people who want to take better snaps… but I think you’re a little naive in thinking someone with more experience is going to get much out of the programme. In fact, if you properly look at the programme, the content was really quite limited. Composition was so basic, the art of seeing wasn’t spoken of at all. Also taking lots of images is completely not the thing to do, and is why so much of what is out there with machine gunning photogs, and everyone chimping because they dont know how to meter light correctly is why standards are falling. Everything looks the same.. thanks to the photoshop photography everyone is doing.
    Image making and taking is an art, is very personal, and rather objective. The comments given were ok, but the foundational elements were missing.

    As someone who has shot weddings, portraits and shoots now 4×5, my development is one of discovery and real hard self study..not following rule of thirds, and exposing for what you see. You need to be creative, know the techniques etc..

    Charlie Waite I think is doing the landscape one when it comes… I’ll be interested to see how he expresses himself.

    Btw your body of work is quite good, but learn to not just point the camera and take what you see, but to see and take what you dont..look beyond

    The program on Weddings, with someone Ive never heard of, was quite frankly a joke.
    Not because her images were poor, although i feel that werent great either, but like everything these days, thats jumping on the photography bandwagon, the art is so being dumbed down, and everyone thinks that they can become a photographer by buying an slr and put online a portfolio.


  2. @Steve – thanks for your comments, although I can’t say I entirely agree. With a 22 minute programme, there is only so much information that the producers can put across and, for purely commercial reasons, it is pitched for a broad appeal. To say that someone with more experience can get something out of it too is not naive – I, and several members from my camera club have got something out of it – even if that’s not as much as someone who’s just got their first camera will. Indeed, that was my whole reason for distilling the entire programme down to a few tips in a blog post. Sure, it’s not a programme for professional, or semi-professional photographers – but then again, they’re not likely to get much out of the average consumer photography magazine either…

    And yes, taking your time and learning is far more important that machine gunning – I expect that’s one of the points Charlie Waite will make when he talks about landscapes – but for people (who just want to take better images, and maybe see the camera as a tool, rather than photography as a hobby) telling them to slow down might not help them much when they aree trying to grab the right moment at a social occasion.

    One thing I can agree with you on is that too many people are taking the mickey when it comes to shooting weddings, family portraits, etc. I have written about that previously on this blog, so I won’t dwell here – but you seem to implying that, because you now use medium format gear, anyone using an SLR is still learning. Medium format is great for some purposes, but can be expensive (exclusive) and inflexible – indeed my own wedding photographers (back in the days of film) were using a mixture of formats to capture our day – it’s about using the right tool for the job. I’ll agree that there are some “average” photographers out there selling themselves as wedding and portrait ‘togs, but that’s not to say there are not some more with real experience and creative talent using a DSLR.

    Finally, thanks for commenting on my own work; although I have to say that such a general comment is not really much help – I’d invite you to leave comments on specific images in my Flickr photostream so that I may learn from your experience (unfortunately you didn’t leave a URL for me to check out some of your work).

    …and that reminds me, it’s time I went and updated the portfolio set, as it’s been a while since I gave it any attention!


  3. thanks for replying on my comment.

    Perhaps i was a little harsh with the critique of the programme. I am rather passionate when it comes to photography and its techniques, and although as a senior IT engineer, as well as someone experienced in printing, I embrace modern technology, but I do feel that the digital camera, although opening up so many doors to so many people, and making photography accessible, which is great, unfortunately its had a negative result on the art.

    Light metering, zone system etc.. seem to not be necessary anymore…its take an image and photoshop it later…or perform HDR techniques. There is a lot of digital gimicks now … but i feel it cant and will never take over true knowledge, of seeing, looking at the light, learning to meter it correctly, and expose accordingly.

    Plus, having shot so much on Canon professional bodies, and sat infront of a pc for probably what would be over a year solid in processing…. nothing, absolutely nothing can replace film, its nuiances, its sensitivity to light, its colour, its sharpness, and its beautiful tone. There is an excitement of getting back your films that isnt experienced when shooting digitally… and talk with anyone out there… who prints their digital photos>?!>!>?!?! No one.. they sit on hard drives… and never come to life in a print.

    So many people have written so much about the digital camera…and its the same with a lot of things i think.. the digital age, for all its merits… it doesnt improve but make us go backwards


  4. @Steve – it’s good to have the dialogue – and I think I get what you’re saying – if I may paraphrase you it’s that the accessibility that digital provides is effectively dumbing down the art.

    You’re absolutely right (in the same way that many other things in life are being dumbed down) but that doesn’t mean those who really excel can’t stand out from the crowd (think of it as a normal distribution with a few really bad photographers, a few really excellent ones, and a whole bunch of mediocrity in the middle… and that’s where most of us are, but we hopefully progress to the right of the curve as we learn and develop our art).

    Not everyone wants to learn the technical aspects of photograohy though – some are perfectly happy with producing acceptable results and letting the tech take over – in effect the camera is a tool (just as a PC, or a phone, or any other item of technology is). For these people, a few simple tips might make a huge difference.

    As for all of the technology we have today, I wonder how would some of the great photograohers from the past have felt about auto-focus, aperture priority/shutter priority/programme modes, etc. – these features have been around on cameras for a long time now and very few of us shoot with SLRs on fully manual settings today. I figure that some of the newer techniques will become accepted in the same way as time goes by.

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