Creating Unique Portraits

No matter what type of photography you like, at one point or another, you’ll find yourself shooting a portrait. I know landscape photographers who swore they would never shoot a portrait in their career, and one week later they were shooting a portrait. Weddings, graduations, holidays or even a day at the zoo all present great opportunities to photograph people.

But how do you create an interesting portrait? We’ve all seen the cliché snapshots and boring group shots suffering from static, stiff poses. Creating compelling portraits takes a combination of good posing, interesting light, relevant location and good rapport with your subject.

I like to think outside of the box for my portraits. What pose or unique location can I put my subject in to spice things up? What lighting will be interesting? In the end, you need to accomplish your creative goals. This might be photographing a business executive at his desk, clean and simple. But shooting other portraits, you’ll have more flexibility to experiment. Next time you’re planning a shoot, try one of these ideas to add some new life to your portrait.

Get In The Water

This is bound to make your subject think you’ve gone off the deep end (no pun intended). For subjects like kayakers, swimmers and surfers, water is an obvious location for a portrait. Buy try convincing a CEO or wedding couple that this is a good idea. Putting people in water, whether it’s a small pool or the ocean, often strips away all pretense and brings out a very primal reaction in your subject. Remember, your location is supposed to help create the overall mood and style of your shot. Putting your subject in the water may or may not be a good idea, but always consider it as a possibility. Once I was hired to photograph a body builder and found some great athletes at the local gym. One body builder readily agreed to be photographed, but imagine his surprise when I picked him up and we drove to a nearby reservoir. At first he was shocked, but then he got into it and we created some great portraits. Never say never to an idea!

Find A Dark Alley

Almost every town has an alley. If you live in a big city, your choices will be numerous. In my town we have three or four really good alleys for photography. What makes a good alley? Narrow walls, interesting brick work, street lamps and gritty textures all make alleys a great place for a portrait. Working in a narrow space provides a lot of surfaces for flash to rake across, adding depth and texture to your shot. Try putting a speedlight right behind your subject aimed at their head. This flash will spill onto the alley walls beside your model, producing a very dramatic look.

Work With Animals

Another ice breaker for working with subjects is having them pose with an animal. Imagine a cowboy portrait; more likely than not there’s a horse in the shot. Or a veterinarian; posing them with an animal makes sense and adds a new dimension to the image. I‘ve had subjects go from quiet and reserved to open and animated simply by suggesting we photograph them with a favorite animal. Once, in the Dominican Republic, I was photographing surfers. We met a local farmer on the beach we wanted to include in our shots, but the farmer was shy at first. When we suggested he ride his horse along the beach, his smile never quit. He rode his horse along the crashing surf in warm evening light, creating some fantastic shots. One of my all-time favorite portraits is Richard Avedon’s model Dovima standing between two towering elephants. The tension between high fashion and animal instinct is striking.

Swing At The Playground

Nothing brings out the joy in kids better than play time at the local playground. Unique portrait locations are plentiful. How about photographing your subject hanging from the bars, soaring past in the swing, or buried in sand? One of my favorite playground rides is the spinning carousel. Try sitting on the carousel across from your subject, having someone gently spin the carousel, and shoot at 1/30 of a second. You should have a joyous shot of your subject against a blurred kaleidoscopic background.

Go Back In Time

Okay, this location is really going to raise eyebrows and may not be available to everybody. But you never know what’s near your home. I’ve scouted around my town for countless hours looking for new locations to shoot portraits. One day I decided to go just few more miles down a road I had scouted in the past. Around the next corner, I discovered a perfectly reconstructed early 1900s maximum security jail cell in a field. There were also Old West buildings, stores, tractors and windmills. It turned out the owner liked collecting these items and had turned his field into a museum of old structures. He was more than happy to let me set up lights and a smoke machine to create a portrait in his jail cell. Many towns have historical sites that offer lots of great portrait locations. You might be surprised what’s in your own town.

Try The Rooftop

Interesting perspectives also result in portraits outside the box. Just think how many images you’ve taken standing up, photographing your subject at eye level. Try getting really low or high for a fresh perspective. We frequently use a step ladder to get a high perspective for portraits. Another great location is a building rooftop. Many cities have high open gardens, restaurants and viewing platforms, all great locations. Since my town only has a few tall buildings and none with accessible space, I shoot on the top floor of a parking garage. This high angle allows great views over the town. I really like to shoot at twilight to burn in the city lights and capture dramatic skies in the background.

Shoot At Night

When most people think about creating a portrait, they think of well-lit studios, bright beaches, sunny streets, scenes that have lots of light. But what about shooting at night? Scenes transform at night into mysterious shadowy locations, which may be just what you need to create an interesting portrait of your subject. Look for glowing streetlight scenes, colorful neon building fronts and reflecting water on the street (or add your own). You’ll need to add some flash to this image, and a single speedlight is all you need. Experiment with different angles of flash and exposures to burn in the street and neon lights in the background. Adding colored gels to the flash will open up even more possibilities shooting nighttime portraits.

Go Out In Bad Weather

I recently was on a shoot in Moab, Utah. We had lined up mountain biking models, scouted locations and charged up strobe packs. And then the snow started falling. And falling. Holed up in the hotel room the next day, we decided to shift gears and try shooting some lifestyle snowshoeing portraits in the snow storm. We drove to a forested location, and the models starting stomping around in the snow. I used my truck as a bind, shooting out an open window at the models but staying perfectly dry inside. Falling snowflakes added a new dimension to the images and really made the photos pop. The next time light rain or snow is falling, try shooting a portrait in these conditions for something different.

Use Edgy Light

Similar to unique locations, your choice of lighting can also result in non-cliché portraits. Soft light sources are very flattering and make subjects look good. I use this type of light for many portraits. But after I’ve the soft light shot, I start thinking outside the box with my lighting. What other ways can I light my subject? This is an exercise in breaking the rules, doing things that would make most portrait photographers cringe. When I teach lighting workshops, I’ll see students using bare-bulb flash from radical angles. I think, oh, boy, this is not going to look good. But I let them shoot anyway since a lot learning is accomplished by making mistakes. The real shocker is when I look at their images later and some look good. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Lightpaint Your Model

If you don’t own any flashes, try lightpainting your subject. All you need is an inexpensive flashlight and a dark room, and you’re ready to go. Lightpainting involves setting your camera on a tripod, opening up the shutter for a minute or more, and illuminating your subject with a flashlight. Try adding light to select parts of your subject to create some contrast and uneven lighting. Also, lightpaint the background behind your subject to add more depth and interest to the shot. Try covering your flashlights with colored gels for more effects. I also like to use illuminated cables (EL wires) and spin them behind my subject for creative effects.

Get Creative

I just had a client ask me to create an interesting portrait using a new flash system. I recently found an abandoned old retro trailer in a field. Maybe I’ll put a model at twilight in front of the trailer and light her with some hard-edged light. I can put some gelled flashes inside the trailer to create window light, and then lightpaint the gnarled cottonwood trees in the back. I’m just going to let my creativity go wild and create a unique portrait.


Portrait photography is great because it can be done with just about any camera and just about any gear. There are some tools that most portrait photographers use, but there are just as many innovative ways to break the rules and create unique portraits.


We’re fortunate to live in an era where there’s almost no such thing as a bad camera. Just about every interchangeable-lens camera can produce a beautiful, detailed, vibrant portrait.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

If you’re going to try the suggestions to shoot near water or in inclement weather, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II will stand up to the elements. Thanks to its dust-, splash- and freeze-proof exterior, the E-M5 Mark II is a great choice for the shooter who’s taking their shots outside. Built-in image-stabilization helps keep portraits blur-free when shooting in low light.

Price: $900. Website:


Fujifilm X-T2

Fujifilm shooters swear by the image quality of this APS-C camera (which is also weather-sealed), and the company’s lenses are legendary. The X-T2 is a favorite with wedding photographers, street photographers and others who need to capture tack-sharp images without a lot of bulk. The 24.3-megapixel sensor uses the company’s X-Trans design, which Fujifilm shooters say is the reason for the excellent color reproduction.

Price: $1,600. Website:


Sony a7R II

While the a7R II is due for an update (and might be replaced by the time you read this), it’s still one of the best portrait cameras around. The 42-megapixel full-frame sensor is particularly great for portrait work, where detail is king, and the company’s G Master lenses bring out the best in any subject.

Price: $2,900. Website:


Canon EOS 5DS

Another camera that’s bound to be updated soon, the Canon EOS 5DS boasts a 50.6-megapixel sensor and uses the full range of Canon lenses. For Canon shooters, it’s the perfect portrait camera, as it places such a high-res sensor into a DSLR body.

Price: $2,700. Website:


Nikon D810

Nikon’s new D850 (which you’ll find in other guides in this issue) is an obvious choice for portrait work, but the older D810 remains in the lineup, and for the portrait photographer it’s a great choice at a more affordable price point. With a 36.3-megapixel sensor, the D810 takes incredibly detailed images, and the $1,000 savings over the D850 means you can buy more lenses.

Price: $2,100. Website:


There are a few traditional focal lengths for portrait work, with the 85mm (in full frame) being chief among them. That’s because an 85mm lens produces an image with a similar field of view to the human eye, eliminating distortion in portraits.

Some great 85mm lenses for full-frame cameras include the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm F/1.4G, Sony FE 85mm F1.4 GM, Canon 85mm F/1.2L, Sigma 85mm F/1.4 DG HSM Art and Tamron

85mm F/1.4 Di VC USD. For Fujifilm shooters, it’s hard to beat Fujifilm’s Fujinon XF56mmF1.2 R (85mm equivalent), and for Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds shooters, a great option is the Panasonic/Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm F/1.2 ASPH. If you’re looking for an affordable lens, Rokinon’s manual-focus 50mm F/1.4 AS IF UMC lens is available in mounts for a variety of camera systems.

Many photographers also use 35mm and 50mm lenses to supplement these 85mm lenses in order to create environmental portraits where a subject is contextualized in their environment, as well as telephoto lenses for portraits where the compression of the focal length helps to make a face look slimmer.

With so many different lenses available in these different focal lengths, portrait photographers will often turn to high-end zoom lenses where they chose to forego their 85mm primes. A 24-70mm gives a nice range of wide-angle choices, and it’s best to pick one with a fixed aperture of ƒ/2.8 if you’ll be shooting portraits to make sure you have the ability to blur your backgrounds.

For full-frame shooters, that means options like the Canon EF 24-70mm F/2.8L II USM, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm F/2.8E ED VR and Sony FE 24-70mmF/2.8 GM. For Fujifilim shooters, there’s the Fujinon XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, and for Micro Four Thirds, there’s the excellent Olympus ED 12-40mm F2.8 PRO.

The zoom range of 70-200mm includes the 85mm focal length and goes to a respectable-for-portraits 20mm, so it’s also a versatile zoom for portrait work. Nikon’s AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm F/2.8G ED VR II lens, Canon EF 70-200mm F/2.8L USM II, Sony 70-200mm F2.8 GM OSS and Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 APO OS HSM are all superb choices. Fujifilm doesn’t have a lens that’s exactly 70-200mm, but the Fujinon XF 50-140mm F2.8R LM OIS WR is about 76mm to 213mm, and a great portrait lens. Micro Four Thirds also doesn’t have an exact 70-200mm equivalent, but the Olympus M.Zuiko ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO works out to be 80mm-300mm in full-frame, a fantastic range for portraits.


Most professional photographers use studio lights, and for good reason. With the ability to pull off of AC power, these lights can produce excellent output with fast recycle times and no worries that batteries will run out.

Studio lighting comes in two flavors, monolights (the power unit is built into the light) and packs (where the power unit is separate and usually used to control the lights as well). There are countless great manufacturers and great lighting systems, with prices from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands.

The Interfit Honey Badger, for example, is a great mix of power and price, and the Paul C. Buff company’s DigiBees and AlienBees lights are other self-contained systems we recommend to beginners and pros alike.

We also love the lights from Bowens, Profoto, Elinchrom, Browns, Hasselblad Bron (formerly Sinar Bron), Lastolite, Dynalite and other respected names in the industry. Beginner portrait photographers can often find bundles that include lights, stands and accessories from each of these companies. Many of the large camera stores (like B&H and Adorama) have house brands that make lower-cost studio light bundles, too, if you want to experiment with lighting without spending a fortune.

Continuous LED lighting is increasingly popular thanks to its combination of low weight, consistent output and a price that keeps decreasing as LED sales increase. Some great LED solutions come from Litepanels, ARRI, Rotolight, Fotodiox, Fluotec, Ikan, Kino Flo, Lowel, Light & Motion, Westcott and others.

Many photographers use speedlights (i.e., flashes) for portrait work, and the wireless triggering systems available for most camera systems make it easy to combine multiple units into a bright, portable solution. In addition to the speedlights made by the camera manufacturers, some great systems are available from Metz, Yongnuo and Godox.

Lighting Accessories

When it comes to portraits, photographers use any tool that can modify light in order to help compose a perfect shot. The essential accessories for portrait work are softboxes, snoots, reflectors, flags (cloth used to block light), light stands, clamps and a good tripod.

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