Portrait Photography


Firstly congratulations to Eddy for winning November’s ‘Autumn’ photo challenge competition. Don’t forget this month’s winner will be announced at the start of January, so make sure you submit your entry before the closing date of 31st December to be in with a chance of winning!

For this month’s Expert Advice article our resident photographer, Phil Surbey, set himself the task of taking Portraits

This month’s Photo Challenge involves something that has been an obvious staple of photography since its earliest days – portrait work. So, for the chance to win a great prize, I simply want you to take a really solid portrait shot. Well, I say ‘simply’… as ever, in fact, the scope for creativity that you can bring to the competition is as wide as you want it to be – it’s never as straightforward as it sounds!

Portraits can actually be a difficult genre of photography to get right. One of the most important things to do when shooting portraiture is to put your subject at ease. This is absolutely essential no matter how formal or informal your shoot will be. And I think you can always tell, looking at the results, when a photographer has been deficient in this area and the sitter is stiff or uncomfortable, or just plain not happy to be there.

For myself, I always chat to whoever it is I’m shooting in order to put them at their ease. If you lighten the mood, you will get the best out of any subject. How to go about it, though? Try to involve your sitter in the shoot itself – most people are interested in the business of photography and anyone who has agreed to sit for a portrait is likely to be up for a chat, I find.

All that goes for adults, anyway. Youngsters are a different kettle of fish, especially toddlers and babies who, naturally, don’t understand what’s going on and are no doubt wondering why this strange person is pointing a little black box at them! If you choose to photograph children, you might try all manner of diversionary tactics. Having sweets to hand and even a glove puppet are tricks I’ve known be employed by many a snapper on a shoot with kids!

If you can get your subject to laugh, that can be extremely effective – whatever their age. And I always show my subjects the shots I’m getting as I go along – simply showing them, on the back of the camera, what you’ve taken is something I recommend. There’s no point being precious about it. This is doubly useful, in that it makes it more of a collaborative process, involving them in the technicalities of the shoot, and also of course, it reassures them that they’re looking good!

A major part of any portrait shot is the direction of the subject’s eyes. Most portraits are taken with the person looking straight into the lens, so that the viewer of the resulting shot will engage with them directly. For a shot such as that, what I advise you actually need to do is try to get your subject to look through the camera – not at it. Ask your sitter to focus beyond the lens to a point just beyond, maybe actually to your eye position behind the camera. As always, I urge you to experiment.

If they have a problem with looking at a camera, get them to focus on something else within, or altogether out of the frame instead. As an example, look at my shots here of the lady, Ali, and her dog, numbers one to three. In a couple of them (in good old black-and-white), I got her – and the pooch! – looking pretty much directly at me. For the best of the three, however, they are facing each other – and she is looking directly at him. There’s a lovely connection there and the whole point of a portrait is to capture a person’s – or persons’ – character, so this is a good one I hope you’ll agree. These three were all shot on my LUMIX G5 with the 45-200mm lens.

Ali 00

Ali 01

Ali 02

Sometimes, posed shots can be far too obvious, however. So, rather than setting up a specific sitting, try shooting your subject in their everyday lives – perhaps at work or, often very successfully, doing something they love. For this sort of portrait shot, you won’t be so close in the person. Try to shoot them using a long focal length at a wide aperture setting, so as to not crowd them in their chosen environment.

As I’m sure you’ll be aware, there are actually no fixed rules set for portrait photography. It’s all about a connection between the photographer – and therefore the subsequent viewer of the image – and the subject. So these are general pointers that I hope will encourage you to have a go and enter the Photo Challenge. As I mentioned earlier, getting the subject to relax is paramount – chatting, creating a convivial atmosphere. Most of all, you and your subject should enjoy the moment. And then this will come through in your shots.

Not all portraits need be of someone who is actually a sitter – and I don’t mean actually sat down, I just mean someone with whom you’ve arranged the shoot. For your competition entry shot, you might prefer a reportage-style portrait – just getting out there with your camera and seeing who you find that you want to take some pictures of. But if you want to shoot someone out in the street, say, do make sure you seek their permission first. It is a no-no to snap strangers covertly and call it a portrait! So, for example, my thanks to the young lady with the nose stud in the street portrait, number four, which I shot on my GX7 with the 45-200mm lens. Full of character and with an expression I was delighted to capture!

Street Portait

Rather than go into too many specifics for each shot that I’ve selected for this article, I’ve decided to just use a few of my pictures to hopefully inspire you. A big thank you to a regular client of mine, Virgin Active, for permission to use the shots here numbered five to nine, showing women at the gym and using its facilities. And indeed, I’d like to thank all the subjects of the portraits used for this article.

I also thought I’d include a shot, number ten, of yours truly on set, which I have entitled simply ‘Me & Alan’. This two-shot is a fun one of myself (I am on the right) and a client that I took using the self-timer on my trusty GX7, on a tripod and fitted with the favourite 20mm lens. Lastly, shots eleven and twelve are of Len, an old mate from the comedic band The Barron Knights. It shows him in a formal setup as this shoot was for publicity purposes for the act (and very entertaining they are, too!) – so he’s with his keyboard and some interesting background, cropped out in the one chosen for use, but very much framing him in the other. I am not sure which I prefer, to be honest!

Me & Alan

Len 00

Len 01

It is entirely up to you who you shoot and where, naturally. Whether you carefully arrange something to frame your subject, as with Len’s portraits, snap an arresting face on the street, or arrange to meet someone in a location of their choosing. One final word of advice, though – and it’s quite obvious really: snap away! Take a whole raft of shots and spend as much time on them later as you did at the actual shoot, selecting and giving them a bit of post and cropping as you feel they require. This is the beauty of a digital camera. And you will know when you have ‘the one’.

Involve the subject in the selection process, if you can – and then send me your best shot. Give it a title and tell me a little something about the subject or your thinking behind the shoot, if you want to. You could win something lovely and you’ll make an old snapper very happy – I have always really enjoyed going through all your entries every month and choosing worthy winners. It’s just great to know we all share the love of the art. I don’t need to tell you that photography is quite the best pastime there is!

All my best wishes and happy shooting!



p.s. For those members who have 4K cameras, why don’t you trick your subjects by pretending that you’re taking a simple still. You’ll be suprised on the outcome.


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