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Tips: Portraits

Tips: portraits




Portraits . . .

  • tend to be about pre-selected subjects with other pre-determined elements of the image that contribute to an overall statement about the subjects.
  • rely on the photographer’s influence and collaboration with the subjects to select, compose, arrange, or interpret the elements of the composition, including subjects’ location, positioning, and aspects of the surrounding setting/environment.
  • usually serve a pre-determined purpose, such as to mark an occasion, indicate role or identification, challenge perceptions, offer representation, confer dignity or status, commemorate, etc.
  • can be candid; candid portraits usually require anticipation/planning on part of photographer, often with advance notice to the subjects for capturing a particular “moment” in which subjects are engaged in some activity.
  • typically require more manipulation or deliberate planning of environmental elements, setting, and other details to be included in the portrait – location, lighting, props, weather conditions, etc.
  • can be perceived as being more “artistic,” “formal,“ “constructed,” or “subjective.”  



Portrait photography has a much longer history than candid photography and takes on a more “formal” approach to capturing the “essence” of human subjects than candid photography. However, this does not mean that portraiture must be any less spontaneous or any more serious. It just requires a different type of planning and process involving coordination and agreement between photographer and subject(s).

Many of the principles of good candid photography hold true for portrait photography. Like candids, portraits reveal identity, personality, and relationships. But unlike candids, statements made in portrait about people and their relationship to the Milwaukee community are “by design” rather than “found.”

Portrait photography is as much about the relationship and collaborative dynamic established between you and your subject as it is about the aesthetic and technical elements of lighting, camera lens, and details of setting and environment.

There are several more or less defined styles/approaches to portrait photography, but for the purposes of your ZIP MKE submissions, the particular style or approach matters less than the idea of showing our faces and bodies, dignified and celebrated by our cameras,in a way that captures not just the subjects’ authentic identities, but their identities as Milwaukeeans. The following are tips for “laying the groundwork” for authentic, well-composed, and engaging portraits:

1. Consider that absolutely anybody will make an excellent subject for a portrait. You do not have to have a prior relationship. Portraiture is an opportunity to get to know people – for the first time or even better than before. Everyone has a story to tell and something of value to share.

2. Take time to get to know your subjects through observation and genuine conversation. This will help build the relationship and collaborative dynamic necessary for you to make the artistic decisions about the photo shoot in agreement with your subjects. The following are suggestions for ways/places to get to know potential subjects plus do the portrait shoot, too (these can also work for candids):


o   “Personal Paparazzi”: ask to follow someone throughout the course of his/her/their ordinary day from work to play.

o   Hang out in neighborhood gathering spaces: strike up conversations in public parks, at bus stops, basketball/tennis courts, bike/running trails, playgrounds, beaches, taco trucks, coffee/teahouses and cafes, pop-up food/beverage/produce stands, fire pits, beer gardens, skateboard parks, backyard BBQs, rummage sales, block parties, etc.

o   “Job Shadow” in public spaces: talk to people in their workaday lives in the spaces in which they work or break from work from firehouse picnic areas to office courtyards to construction sites to local watering holes to parking lots to cafeterias, etc.

o   Make yourself at home: observe scenes of life and leisure at home –mowing the lawn, gardening, cooking/baking, walking the dog, reading a good book, doing chores, shoveling/snowblowing, raking leaves, assembling holiday lights/displays, working on home improvement projects, etc.

o   Wait in anticipation: participate in/listen to the conversations that occur at/in queuing areas - outside of concert venues, theatres, and other nightlife and entertainment establishments - restaurants, bars, clubs, etc., department stores on Black Friday, restroom/grocery store/shuttle bus lines, race starts/finishes (RiverWest 24 Hour Bike Race, Al’s Run, etc., Lakefront Marathon, Marquette Crew, etc.).

o   Mix and mingle: festivals, museums, historical buildings, iconic art and architecture, art gallery openings, classes/demos/tutorials, food/beverage tasting & socials, farmer’s markets, ecumenical gatherings, church picnics, town hall meetings, community events, athletic events/clubs, etc. (Check local publications/posting boards/social media for listings.)

o   Reunions and goodbyes and celebrations (permission may be necessary or courtesy for the following): station yourself at the Milwaukee Intermodal Station, Badger Bus Depot, Lake Express (Ferry Station), UWM Dormitories on Move-in Day, hospital waiting areas/cafeterias/courtyards, courthouse waiting areas, baby showers/home births, birthday parties, family reunions, weddings, celebration of life, graduations, etc.



3. Meet your subjects where they are at. This could be in spaces they ordinarily occupy (home, work, etc.) or appreciate (favorite Milwaukee locales, etc.), engaged in activities that regularly occupy their time. OR ask to be a part of more extraordinary lifetime experiences or events such as weddings, graduations, award ceremonies, athletic events, etc. These spaces and events, incorporated creatively into the portrait, have the potential to communicate powerfully about the Milwaukee community in ways meaningful to you, your subjects, and your audience.

4. Just like candids, your portrait subjects’ expression and body language are incredibly important aspects to capture. Again, proximity matters. But keep in mind that while candids capture a body in motion within a surrounding scene – the people and the action and the context are all of fairly equal importance – portraits emphasize the people within the composition above all else. Every other artistic decision about setting, lighting, props, etc. should enhance the “story” your subjects communicate through their eyes, facial expression, and body posture.

5. Strike a balance between your artistic vision as a portrait photographer and your subjects’ spontaneity on the set. There is a fine line between posed portraits and poser portraits, artistic portraits and artificial portraits. Do not impose too greatly on your subjects’ identities or comfort levels; keep your subjects’ authenticity at the forefront, and value their input. Good portrait photographers rely on the relationship they’ve established with their subjects to draw out authentic emotion, personality, character, and expression, and these become the most dominant and engaging elements of the composition.

6. Consider logistics.

Permission: You may have to obtain permission to photograph certain spaces (intellectual property rights may be a factor, for example) or to set up equipment in these spaces (OSHA standards may be a factor, for example), especially if you plan to shoot in privately owned spaces or on the workplace floor. Some public parks even require a permit to set up tripods/other equipment. You may need to make special reservations to keep an area clear for the shoot, if this is an option.

Setting Up: Lighting and spatial arrangement of your subjects, props/details, and photography equipment are important considerations of portraiture, but you will not want to interrupt the “flow” or “spontaneity” of the shoot to make major adjustments. Well before the shoot, study the configurations and variables of your chosen photo shoot location. Map out what you’ll need and where you’ll place it ahead of time. If you’re shooting outside, plan to bring whatever is necessary for protection from and adaptation to weather elements. Photography equipment and heat/moisture don’t readily get along