Portraits: Keep It Real

Portrait/Thomas Boyd-Trail Blazer

On the Portland Trail Blazers’ media day, the players go to a dozen stations of video and still photographers. They expect a photo to be shot in seconds, not minutes. There’s very little time to build rapport. They just want to get it done as soon as possible. They’ve had so much practice at PR, they know what it takes. My strategy is to give them quick, decisive direction. “Look at the floor! Look out past me! Look right in the camera! Have a blank face! Happy!” I lit this with two strip boxes in back and an octobox in front with a reflector down low in front. I used Yongnuo radio speedlights on high-speed sync at 1/400 at f/2.2.

Some of the first images ever captured with a camera were portraits. Subjects had to stay motionless for long periods just to capture a single image, which was enormously difficult. Fortunately, technology has made capturing portraits easier, and the demand for good images is greater than ever.

Portraits can be a simple selfie or an elaborately produced image with Hollywood-style budgets. When we see a good one, we know it. It gives us the sense of knowing the person. It gives us insight into that person. We want to know more. The lighting is interesting. The photo draws us in. It makes us feel something. It’s visually and aesthetically resonant. Above all, it’s authentic.

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To be successful at portrait photography, there are techniques one must master to achieve their creative vision. Sometimes perfection comes easily. Other times, perfection is elusive and hard-earned. Either way, it pays to have a strategy and to know your creative options. It pays to master the craft.

Portrait/Thomas Boyd - Senior Portrait Brass Door
On this senior portrait assignment, it was late in the day in downtown Portland. We found this beautiful brass door and lit it with Canon Speedlites through a 30-inch softbox. I set the ISO at 100 so the only light hitting him was from my strobes. There was a lot of other light, and letting it into the exposure would have thrown the color balance into chaos.


Serious portrait photographers put as much thought into the location as they do any other aspect of the creative process. It’s as important as the subject. It can communicate many things about a person. Even the choice to have a neutral background like we’d see in a studio or a blank wall tells the viewer what kind of portrait it is. A dark background has a totally different feel than a high-key white background. A viewer will make assumptions about a person based on the context of the photo.

I like to talk to the subject well before the shoot to see what location makes sense. The first part of the decision-making process is deciding whether to isolate them on a paper background or put them in a contextual space.

If time allows, I like to show up early and get a good feel for the possibilities. Sometimes it’s obvious and easy, other times it takes a hard look and some imagination. If you’re taking a portrait of someone who restores classic cars, for example, having the realistic grittiness of a garage might make sense. On the other hand, isolating the subject’s face and letting the lines and creases tell their own story might be the better approach.

Portrait/Thomas Boyd - Farmer with cows
This is what I consider an available-light action portrait. This means I spent time with this rancher for the purpose of making a meaningful portrait of him. This is possibly the trickiest of all portraits. There’s a fine line between a photograph of someone while they’re doing something and a portrait of someone doing something. I followed him through his morning feeding routine, and at the end I saw this. I shot over 1,000 frames leading up this point.


Once a location is set, it’s time to determine what kind of lighting to use. If location is the first building block of a portrait, light is the second. Sometimes light determines the location. There are many decisions to make.

I start out deciding what is the minimum and easiest light I can use to achieve what I want. The best-case scenario is shooting with available light. This can take a higher level of planning and luck. If you want to increase your odds at making a special portrait with available light, you‘ll want to figure out what the weather is doing at where the light will be when you shoot. Pre-scouting is a good idea. Sometimes, though, luck is on your side and you show up and everything is perfect. This is great when it happens, but you can’t count on it. You can never tell when a storm cloud might roll in, both figuratively and literally, to change your lighting options.

The next level of lighting is using reflectors to fill in shadows, add a catchlight to their eyes, and generally increase the intensity of light on the subject. It’s best to have an assistant, but not always necessary if you have a light stand and holder. I like the results reflectors give most of the time. They don’t work great on cloudy days, and wind can be a big deterrent to using them. Wind is the enemy of reflectors.

Portrait/Thomas Boyd - Girl on beach
I shot this on the Oregon Coast for my daughter’s senior photos. This is a matter of putting someone in a visually rich location at the right time of day. I lit it with four Canon Speedlites on a Lightware Foursquare block with a 30-inch softbox. It was metered TTL with high-speed sync at 1/400 at f/3.2. I used a Canon 24-70L f/2.8 Type II lens at 35mm.

I use four Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT strobes. I also have Lightware’s Foursquare strobe mounting block and softbox. This is my first choice if I need to set up lights. They are TTL and wireless and battery-powered. They do high-speed sync. This feature set makes them incredibly versatile.

Again, I’m looking for a lighting solution that gives me the most flexibility while still achieving the results. Not only do these small strobes have important features, they also offer mobility. They can be on light stands, clamped on almost anything or handheld.

They have a good deal of power but do have limitations when it comes to shooting in bright sunlight. The only way to get more power is to add more lights or switch to lights with more power. That’s where a larger mono block and power packs come into play.

They are battery powered and will go for a long time on batteries, but they are limited in this regard because the batteries only provide a certain number of shots, and the gear is rather heavy for location work without an assistant.

Portrait/Thomas Boyd - Smoking Man
This is a classic found situation. I walked into a hotel in Old Town in Portland, Oregon, and saw this man in the lobby. I chatted for a bit and then asked him if I could take his photo. I told him to continue doing what he was doing. The whole interaction took about 60 seconds. My camera was already set for the situation. Making this photo was as simple as shooting frames until it came together with the right moment when he took a drag off the cigarette and getting it framed the way I like it. I rarely see anyone smoking indoors anymore, as it’s not allowed in Oregon. That alone compelled me to shoot the photo. The lesson here is to know a photo when you see it and be ready to make it happen. Don’t be shy when it comes to asking someone to take their photo. While he may look intimidating, he was actually personable and very open. It’s a matter of asking. When I was done, I showed him the photo and shook his hand before leaving. He thanked me.

With small TTL strobes being so good now, larger, more powerful strobes are reserved for big jobs on location and in the studio. They are also good to use when they are powered by outlets and you need to shoot hundreds of frames.

If you’re planning on overpowering the sun, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll need something in the 640 watt second and above category. You’re looking for White Lightning Ultra 1600 heads, Profoto B2’s, and even more powerful versions.

When you put a modifier on a strobe, it cuts down the amount of light hitting the subject, but it’s better, more pleasing light. Plus, the modifier forces you to move the light farther away from the subject. All this takes a lot of power, but these units also recycle more quickly than smaller strobes.

In the studio, big strobes offer the power to stop down and get maximum depth of field. They offer more control and more possibilities for modifier use. Large modifiers suck up a ton of light, but nothing shapes light like a good modifier.

Portrait/Thomas Boyd - Football player
The assignment was to shoot this high school football player for a poster used by a national organization. The low sun isn’t there on accident. I set the shoot for this time of day. The light is a mono block head powered by a portable battery. I needed a good bit of power since I was using high- speed sync with Yongnuo wireless transmitters. The exposure was 1/4000 at f /2.8. I just had him throw the ball, and then I asked him to freeze on occasion.

The downside of big strobe systems is the need for electrical power. This means you’ll need to be close to a building to run an extension cord or have batteries to run them or shoot with them in the studio. Some of them are quite heavy as well.

The market for LED studio lights is growing daily. There are also fluorescent tube lights, HMI lights and hot lights. The advantage is that you can see very well what the light is doing and what it’s illuminating. They aren’t particularly bright, though. This can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on what you want.

It’s great to be able to shoot with a very shallow depth of field for a particular look. On the other hand, it’s difficult to get high depth-of-field without having a slow shutter speed or high ISO. Color balance can also be an issue that needs addressing as not all lights provide the same color of output nor a way to adjust color temperature.

Relating To Subjects

I like to think of a portrait as a collaboration with the subject. It’s not always possible—especially if you’re on assignment and have limited access to a subject, but I think it’s something worth striving for.

Portrait/Thomas Boyd - Wrestler
I set my lights up in the corridors just off the main floor at a high school wrestling tournament. When the wrestler walked off the mat, I’d ask them to stop in for a photo. Most obliged, especially if they won! I used LED panels on this to get a shallow depth of field. It’s logical to assume this kind of light would make the process faster, but since I was shooting wide open with a 100mm f/2 lens, the focusing was extremely critical. I would shoot a test shot and then zoom in the LCD viewer to check focus. I would also focus zoom in on live view to make sure I had the eyes focused. The depth-of-field is fractions of an inch.

All this means is asking them if they have any ideas. Sometimes they have better ideas than I do. Recognizing this is the key. More often than not, they are expecting and wanting the photographer to take charge of the situation. This means being ready with ideas. There’s nothing more awkward than looking like you have nothing to offer.

While collaboration is important, so is having the ability to tell the subject exactly what you want. They will not always agree. That’s fine, but having more ideas to put into action is very important.

Some people are naturally photogenic. Most are not. This is when you need a strategy. Everyone acts a little different, so it’s important to be able to work with people and somehow get them in the right frame of mind.

Some people have an awkward smile. Perhaps smiling is not the way to go. I may ask them to show me a “blank” face. I use a variety of strategies to get what I want. I may say “give me a close-lipped grin.” I may ask them to fake a laugh-out-loud. I’ll try to make them laugh naturally. I’ll do whatever it takes. If someone can’t settle and loosen their body, I might just demonstrate for them, lightly jumping up and down shaking out my arms. I might tell them, “posture!” I might tell them to give me a turtle neck and stick their chin out like a turtle. I may ask them to slightly squint their eyes.

Portrait/Thomas Boyd - Soccer player
Rodney Wallace is a professional soccer player. My options were extremely limited. I had mere seconds to photograph every player on the team. I could only set up outdoors on the practice field. The background was horrible. I set up two lights, again with Yongnuo wireless transmitters on high-speed sync. I lowered the camera angle to eliminate the background and under-exposed the sky a bit. The great thing about professional athletes is that they have been photographed by pro photographers hundreds of times and know what to do. They are generally beautiful people who can look great with a low camera angle.

Sometimes it requires boring them into submission. If they can’t settle, I may just step away and do something else until they get bored. This actually works, but only in extreme circumstances.

I talk to people about whatever comes up. I’ll also talk while looking through the camera; I love when people break out in laughter. It’s difficult to get, often fleeting, but worth the effort.

When I was first starting out, I assisted a great photographer who was the master at getting people to laugh and look friendly. If he was having trouble getting someone to loosen up, he’d say, “Think about your own personal sexuality.” The reactions he got were priceless. I thought I’d try it, and I totally bombed. I wasn’t comfortable saying it, so it didn’t work. I couldn’t sell it, for some reason. He could. Everyone has their own thing.

It’s also important to experiment with their gaze. Where their eyes land actually communicates quite a lot. If they are looking out past the camera, it gives a hopeful feeling. If they are looking directly towards the lens, it’s an engaging, aggressive look. If they avert their gaze downward, it’s more introspective. Depending on the situation, I like to ask them to change their gaze up and make the decision during the editing process.

Portrait/Thomas Boyd - Hockey player missing tooth
With the success of my wrestling photos, I decided to try the same approach with hockey players as they came off the ice. With most situations like this, the options are limited. I had to set up a small studio in a hallway about 6 feet wide. I used two lights: one light in back for the rim light and another up high with a small box.

There’s no formula for dealing with people. It’s always an organic, “think on your feet” process. It takes experimentation and practice. The process starts the second you meet someone. It’s all about reading them and sensing what will make them look the way you want them to look.

Postproduction Philosophy

I have a very simple post-production philosophy: Keep it real.

This doesn’t mean I’m hands off (unless it’s editorial). It means when I’m done, no one will think to themselves, “that looks Photoshopped.” I like subtlety and finesse.

I usually put a subtle filter on it, similar to a VSCO filter or film simulation. I think it gives it a more definitive color palette. This is more important when you have a portrait series and want to make them consistent and cohesive.

Portrait/Thomas Boyd - Girl in yellow vest
This photo of my daughter is also part of “Operation Senior Portrait.” It’s a rite of passage all professional photographers must endure when their kids enter their senior year. After three cities and six locations, we survived. I used a reflector to fill in the shadows, but it’s subtle. The setting sun was about all I needed. I like the shadow of her profile on her arm.

I will remove stray hairs, do some very minor skin smoothing and eye/teeth enhancement. I don’t take it to the max. I’m sure many photographers would look at my work and think I didn’t do enough. I’m OK with that.

I see photos like this, and to my eyes, it’s just too much. Everyone knows it was Photoshopped, so what’s the point? If everyone is thinking, “oh, they had to Photoshop her face to make her look good,” the reason for doing it is undermined.

Parting Thoughts

Whether you are a professional shooting high-end portraits or a parent attempting to photograph your child, you can take it as far as you want to go. Or make it as simple as you want. It’s a great feeling to make a special portrait of someone that really resonates.



Portrait/Thomas Boyd - Boy in polo against mountains, river
Smith Rocks could be one of the best photo locations in Oregon. The possibilities are endless. All it took here was to find the right location, setting up the light and waiting for the sun to set. This is one of my son’s senior portraits. I used Canon Speedlites on TTL through a 30-inch softbox. The rocks were backlight and went darker than I expected them to, but fortunately, there was still a reflection in the river that gives it much-needed depth.


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Thomas Boyd was a longtime staff photographer at The Oregonian. You can see more of his work at thomasrboyd.com and on Instagram @thomasrboyddotcom

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