London Professional Photographer Blog

London Professional Photographer's Blog

What makes a good portrait

It is clear that November has been the month for portrait photography throughout London, with the National Portrait Gallery having open doors for the annual Taylor Wessing Prize. Moreover, the British Journal of Photography had its November issue cover portrait and documentary issues in contemporary photography with the title ‘Who am I?’. I believe this is a good opportunity to have another look and question at what is more important in portrait photography, from technical issues to a more personal perspective on the subject being photographed.

I have recently attended a meetup led by Andrew Mason and had the opportunity to distance myself a bit from the work I usually do and re-think the important aspects in portrait photography. I will base my next tips on the images I took there, and some of my previous ones, but these can be applied to any situation in portraiture.



We all know that good lighting means a good photograph. I cannot stress enough how important the light is in obtaining a good portrait, whether you decide to use natural or studio light. There are 2 different types of lighting: hard and soft. Hard light creates shadows on the subject’s face and you can usually obtain this on a sunny day. In contrast, soft light provides a more natural look, with even shadows and highlights. The clouds can provide a perfect filter for creating soft light outdoors.

Of course, in the studio, you can obtain and control both these lights with different lighting equipment.

  • Soft and hard light in studio
  • Soft and hard light outdoor


2. Composition

There are many websites and blogs which touch on the subject of rules of composition. The most simple, common and effective tips are: the rule of thirds, framing (close up or distance) and angles.

The rule of thirds is usually used in any type of photography and it basically tells you not to place your subject in the center of the images. Here is a good exaplanation on this:

Framing is also very important and you have to think whether you want your subject to fill the frame or put him/her in a context. I prefer the latter, having my subjects relate to their background but if you shoot for beauty or makeup purposes, you might want to get a close up on the model.

Finally, try and play with different angles in order to obtain different results. It is very important to know the subject being photographed and look at what is best for them. Here are a few examples:

3. Mood and expression of the person photographed

I think this last important tip in portraiture is often overlooked while most emphasis is placed on more technical aspects. However, I believe that a good portrait also entails the work of the model. Even though it may be easier to pay attention to the technical issues, the job of a good photographer is to also direct and make a connection with the person being photographed.  If you are working with a professional model, it is much easier for you to direct them and get what you want. If you work with friends or anyone else, it is very important to get what they like, talk to them and give suggestions to help get what you both want to achieve. A good way to make them feel a bit more conscious of their expression is to look together at the images throughout the shoot. Constant feedback is important and cannot be stressed enough. You can mix posed images with some candid shots while the model is laughing or looking away from the camera. It can thus become fun and relaxing. The mood in the images is crucial and can account for half of what other people will perceive as a good photo.

My studio work presented here has been very easy. Working with Julie and experimenting with some color gel lights was great fun. I hope you enjoy the images.

Liliana ZahariaComment