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If you want to be a portrait photographer, then there is a lot you need to learn. You need to know the theory behind it: what makes a good portrait? How should you frame it? What kind of lens should you use, and how can you make the best use of natural or studio lighting for a portrait? How can you show a person’s personality through their image? All of these questions can be answered by reading through textbooks and online guides, though you will also need to learn how to put them into practice.

This is not necessarily such an easy thing to do. Of course, there are plenty of people around us every day, but would all of them consent to be photographed by us? The truth is that it can be difficult to find subjects to work with, particularly when you are just starting out and still need a lot of practice. When you do not have a portfolio to show in order to convince people to work with you, it may be easier said than done. Here’s how to get that much-needed practice and hone your skills to a fine level.

Photo by Alex Wong

Find willing models

The first thing that you need is a portrait subject. A portrait is a picture that describes someone: notice that it does not necessarily have to be a human being, nor does it have to be a picture of a face. A fantastic portrait of a mechanic could be a photograph of their hands, covered in grease and oil from dealing with cars. In order to start taking portraits, remember that the obvious answer is not always the best one.

Start by finding willing human models. Your family and close friends are a good place to begin! Many of them might want to humour you even if they feel a bit awkward about it. Try to practice setting up a proper studio with lighting or backdrops. You can also go a more informal route and try photographing them when you are out and about, or picking a location deliberately. This will help you get used to the idea of using your camera in different locations, figuring out what to do with the light and how to capture your subject properly. It’s a lot better to make your mistakes with friends and family than it is to do it on a professional level. Learn from the results of your shoots and try to improve every time.

If you feel you are ready, you can also progress to finding models. If you don’t have much of a portfolio yet, find an aspiring model who doesn’t yet have a portfolio either. Be honest and open about your lack of experience and offer to shoot with them for free. This will give you both something to put in your portfolio and a bit of much-needed experience.


Find unsuspecting models

If you can’t find anyone who wants to shoot with you, or you need more, then you can try shooting those who aren’t aware of it. Street photography is finding people on the street to photograph; a popular style in recent years has been to stop them and ask them to pose, but you can take pictures without people knowing as well. You just have to stand out of the way of the pavement and click away. A long lens helps to distance you from the subject and maintain anonymity. Be aware that if you are obstructing the pavement, a police officer may ask you to move on, and they would be within their rights to do so.

You can also practice taking pictures of pets or wild animals. Go by a field of sheep and see if you can take some portraits of them over the fence! Bigger animals like cows and horses will be likely to come close to the fence if you can offer them some exciting food.

Even toys are a good subject to practice with. Whether they are dolls that look like humans or stuffed animals, there is a lot of potential with them. Look at how lighting affects them and how you can change your backgrounds. Find out what angles are the most flattering and how to pose them. This will all help with your portraiture work, even if it isn’t quite the real thing.


Turn the camera inwards

Finally, there is also one other source of a subject for your images: yourself! Taking self-portraits can be tricky for some photographers, who prefer to be on the other side of the lens. So much the better! Give it a try and really see if you can get some good results. It may take a lot of work, but in the process you will learn a lot about portraiture. A tripod or level surface and a shutter release cable or remote shutter release will be your essential pieces of kit.

When you look at your results, try to see things both as the photographer and the model. This will give you some insight into the way it feels to be photographed. Did you imagine in your mind that your expression looked the same as it does in the photos when you were making it? What was on your mind at the time? Do you find the photographs to be flattering or not? Answering these questions might make you better equipped to deal with models in the future. You will be able to better guide them in their posing and expressions, as well as being able to take photographs that flatter them as much as possible.

Self-portraits can absolutely have a place in your portfolio, and some photographers even make a career out of using themselves as their subject. If this is something that you enjoy doing, keep it up – you can even challenge yourself with a project such as doing 365 self-portraits within one year. This will help to hone your skills even further and – if you do it well – could garner you some attention and new followers on social media.