19 Tips For Shooting Better Portraits

I am often asked how I manage to photograph a celebrity in a few minutes or what is the best way to shoot a good portrait. Here is my list of hints for shooting better portraits.

Every year, I teach a few portraiture workshops. Photography students, amateurs and pros join in and participate with all their passion. Inevitably, sooner or later, someone asks me for my advice (and especially some tips) on shooting better portraits.

Marina Abramovic photographed in her house in New York City for Vanity Fair, ©Enzo Dal Verme

At first, I didn’t really like the idea of giving out short, telegraphic photography tips because it’s hard to generalize. For instance: if you shoot for clients, you need to adhere to their needs; if you shoot a personal project it’s different. But after thinking it over I figured… why not?

So here goes.

  1. Ask yourself: why do I want to photograph? What is the aim of my photography? Take all the time you need to answer those questions because you might have more than one answer.
  2. Be extra accurate in the pre-production phase, but be ready to change everything you had prepared so meticulously (shit happens).
  3. Learn technique so you can eventually forget it and free your mind to concentrate on the rest.
  4. Technique can be learned, but technique alone is useless. Your personal style and photographic language need to be developed too. It takes time, be patient.
  5. Look through your lens curious to see whatever it is that is out there while observing yourself too. Do you feel comfortable? What kind of comfortable? Is the subject triggering something in you? The interaction with your subject might bring up something that you want to face and explore.
  6. Meet your subject with your heart, develop empathy.
  7. Ask yourself: is there anything I could do or say to improve the quality of the relationship between me and the subject? Check out your attitude, because you might want to change it.
  8. Lead gently, lovingly and firmly, but always lead.
  9. Try not to have prejudices or expectations.
  10. Keep your mind empty and curious at all times. Imagine that you are an infant with no memories and no history, seeing the world for the first time.
  11. Trust your gut feelings. Try to shoot the pictures you feel the urge to shoot, not the ones others want to see. It might take years of trial and error… so what?.
  12. Be present. Composition, lighting and so on are definitely important, but even more important is the quality of your presence as you connect with the subject and shoot.
  13. Enjoy being flexible and learn how to turn problems into opportunities. Don’t be afraid to venture into uncharted territory if the spirit moves you. Getting out of your comfort zone can be daunting, but also enriching.
  14. When it comes to composition, seek harmony in the overall impact of your image and don’t neglect the details. Enjoy observing your subject from different angles.
  15. Don’t try to “make” a photo; let the photo happen. Create the conditions that seem most appropriate to you: the photo is then the offspring of an encounter between the subject and the photographer through the lens.
  16. Pursue what excites you the most. Do you like music? Photograph music. Do you like eroticism? Go for it. Nature? Shoot your portrait outdoors and explore nature with your camera.
  17. Be extremely organized and disciplined in every phase (including scrupulous post-production). But if you are not… make sure you forgive yourself.
  18. Acknowledge every single person who is helping you out.
  19. Forget about my tips and do it your own way.

Image credits: Header image: Top left portrait of Matsume, top right portrait of Carlo, from the series Portraits In Silence.

About the author: Currently based in Milan, Enzo Dal Verme is a portrait photographer that has been working in the photography industry for over 15 years. His work has been published in Vanity Fair, l’Uomo Vogue, Marie Claire, Glamour, The Times, Grazia, Madame Figaro, Elle and many other magazines. He recently published the book Storytelling for Photojournalists. You can follow Enzo on Twitter and on Medium, where this article was also published.

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