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5 Tips for Capturing Penetrating Portraits

How to create an emotional connection between subject and viewer
Photo of a woman

Portrait photography offers a unique way to capture the emotion and qualities of your model in a single snapshot. To evoke emotion and truly capture your subject, photographers should know how to properly photograph a model in various environments, whether it be in the studio, outdoors, or in ambient light.

Here are my five tips for capturing portraits that create an emotional connection with the viewer.

Photo of a woman

#1 Stay Steady & Make It Sharp

When capturing portraits, you always want to consider the type of lens you are using as well as make sure you are shooting at a shutter speed that will enable you to produce sharp, detail rich pictures. Shutter speed is the key to sharpness. Use the double focal length rule. If you’re using a 50mm lens, you want to double your shutter speed (ex: 100-125th) to reduce the risk of motion in your image. Sometimes I’ll even double that.

Don’t forget as the photographer, you need to stay steady! It sounds simple, but movement happens all the time. I have watched people take portrait pictures while they were moving or they move the camera when they press the shutter. Remaining steady and reducing movements helps to limit the shake and motion in the image.

Photo of a man in Tokyo

#2 The Model Is the Center of Attention

Living in Tokyo means there are a lot of people out and about at all times. However, I do not let the crowd hinder my ability to shoot outdoor portraits, and pictures look more professional at a wide-open aperture. If I want to shoot portraits outdoors, I like to go for a wide-open aperture, with a f-stop of f/2 or 2.8 so that my focus remains on my subject rather than everything in the background. I like to think of the people around as co-stars and my subject as the star of the show.

To capture these images, I typically shoot with a Nikon Z 9 paired with a Nikkor Z MC 105mm f/2.8 VR S lens or Nikkor Z 50mm f/1.2 S lens or the 105 f/1.4 exclusively. I love fast glass.

I recently shot a portrait in Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest places, and to isolate my subject, I shot at f/2.  Having a lens and camera that allows you to shoot fast and wide open enables you to capture those quick moments. They can happen so fast that you can’t even see it with your own eyes.

Photo of a woman in light

#3 Be Conscious of the Light

You always want to make sure you have good light, but for this time of year this is especially important when outdoors and you’re planning ahead. I typically capture outdoor portraits in the early morning hours or the late evening hours. These are your safest bets as these times produce the most directional and flattering light for your subjects.

During these hours, consider positioning yourself so that the sun is behind you as the photographer. This ensures that the daylight is shining on your subject’s face.

Photo of a man in black and white

#4 The Energy You Give Is the Energy You Receive

People feed off your energy, so when you want a pleasant expression on your subject’s face, you also need to have a big smile on your face. People will always copy your vibe and your energy.

Something I always do is smile at the back of my camera when reviewing pictures so that my subject feels confident. This helps the model or subject of your portrait feel self-assured; they likely will be smiling back. Give compliments all the time, and positive feedback. This makes your model happy and authentic.  

When it comes to posing, the first thing I like to do is take natural pictures of the person I’m photographing. I start by capturing an image of them head on, facing to the right and then facing to the left. Everybody has a good side, and this allows me to quickly find their best angle.

I also like to keep my subject animated and moving so that they’re not thinking too much about their poses. When they think about it too much, they ask things like, “does my hand look okay here? Should I cross my arms?” and they tend to look and feel uncomfortable.

My secret for a nice and natural image is comfort. I will observe my subject a bit before I even pick up my camera in order to see what feels real to them. I ask myself “How do they stand normally?” “How do they interact?” “What is their body language normally when you’re not taking a picture?” Then I try to guide them back to what they do organically and what feels natural to them.

If you try to pose your subject, it always feels uncomfortable. When the photographer tries to direct everything down to arm and hand placement, it makes the model feel like a robot. An organic and natural pose helps make images come to life.

Photo of a woman

#5 Set the Scene

When shooting in studio, which I do quite a bit, I love to have music on set from the moment my client walks in. I do everything I can to create a comfortable atmosphere. I also make sure there aren’t any mirrors close by or anything with a reflection where I’m taking their picture. I don’t like my subject looking at their reflection or images while I’m taking their picture because they get distracted, and it takes away some of the control you have over the image.

However, I will show them the back of my camera when I have a great picture. You want to make them feel confident, so you smile and say, “This is how you look. You look amazing.” Whether someone is a professional or a novice at having their picture taken, it’s always important to make them feel comfortable on set.

About Matthew Jordan Smith

Matthew is best known for his portraits of celebrities, actors, and models, among them Angela Bassett, Tyra Banks, Queen Latifah, Aretha Franklin and Samuel L. Jackson. His client list includes Olay, Pantene, Revlon, Sony Entertainment, HBO and Showtime.

He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the Vision Award for his third book, Future American President: 50 States, 100 Families, Infinite Dreams, which features portraits of children from one hundred families and every state in the union.

The goal of the book is to inspire every child to dream big, knowing they have infinite possibilities.

His work was selected for the 2014 Power of the Image exhibition in Beijing, China. He is currently working on a project inspired by his travels to Asia.

Matthew has taught at the School of Visual Arts and the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. He has appeared on The View, Good Day New York, and BET, was guest photographer and judge on America’s Next Top Model and is the host of the photography podcast, Master Your Lens, found on iTunes.

Matthew has a new course coming out called “Celebrity Lighting with Matthew Jordan Smith” with Sue Bryce. To learn more about Matthew’s work visit his website at or follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

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