31 Lessons in Portrait Photography

The December Challenge

December 2007 was a busy month for me — mostly because I decided to participate in Trevor Carpenter's December Challenge. The challenge was to take a portrait every day for the entire month. I've never committed to something like that before, so I had no idea what I was in for. Taking a portrait was on the top of my priority list every day, and I brought my camera everywhere with me.

You can see more details about each photo below and the person in the photo by clicking on it. You can also see all of the photos in my December Challenge Flickr set. This was a great experience, and I'd like to thank Trevor for leading the pack on this. I'd also like to thank him for giving me an extra push to take portraits of strangers — it turns out that people really aren't so bad!

Trevor has also put together a wonderful recap of the entire event on his site. Don't forget to check it out! We had over 35 photographers participate in this challenge, and Trevor has highlighted their efforts quite nicely. And don't forget to check out Trevor's new blog “PhotoChallenge.org” where he'll be hosting more of these great projects!

Here's a list of the key learnings from each portrait I took during the December Challenge.

Candice Auer


I must have taken over 100 photos of Candice within about 15 minutes. Some were setup, thought-out, and posed — while others were taken on rapid fire mode while she was laughing, talking, or making faces at me. Most of the rapid fire photos didn't turn out very good, but this one turned out awesome. I happened to catch her on the return from a face she was making at me, but it turned out looking pretty natural and relaxed.

Brian Auer


They're probably even better if they're older than 4. I had my son help me out by providing me with a focus target each time I had to setup the 5 self portraits. It worked out OK, but it could have gone faster if he wasn't so hyper. Most of the shots I took were slightly off-focus in one direction or the other. The other thing I learned: self portraits are hard.

Mark Stabb


Overall, this photo turned out pretty decent as an executive head-shot type of photo, but the background bothers me a little bit. I don't know if it would look any better, but if I had lowered myself another 6-12 inches I probably would have had the blue/green portion filling the background. Then again, the window's edge gives the photo more sense of place by being less uniform than a cookie-cutter studio backdrop.

Rex Auer


If I would have known I only had a 10 minute window to work with this model, I would have worked a lot faster. After 1 picture he's like “OK, I'm gonna go play now”. I convinced him that we should take a few more so we could try different things, but that wore off quickly. In just a few minutes he gives me the “You just get 3 more Dad, and then I'm done.” I tell you what, I had to make those 3 shots count. I ended up using the very last shot of the session.

Richard Santini


This one was kind of a different situation, but I only took a single photo and hoped it would turn out alright. I'm actually surprised at how well it did turn out, but I would have liked to taken a few more from different angles and with different lighting. Moral of this photo: don't ask a photographer on the job right after sunset to pose for a portrait and expect to get more than one shot from it.

Doug Crimaldi


After taking a few shots of Doug with the flash, I realized that he had his eyes closed in every shot. At that point he informed me that he tends to do that with flash photography. So I took a few more to test it out. Sure enough, he couldn't keep his eyes open during the flash. So rather than throwing out all the shots and trying to get something without the flash, I decided to make light of the situation by posting all of the photos as a single image. Sometimes you just have to look at a bad situation from a different angle.

Paul Meissner


If I had to choose any type of stranger to photograph, I'd choose a photographer. I found that I'm more comfortable around them because they know what it's like to be the one looking through the viewfinder. You don't have to feel overbearing when you aim that SLR at them. Not only that, but the model then becomes a collaborator for things like lighting and composition, making your job even easier!



Before I took this photo, I had walked up and down the beach several times in search of a subject. It seemed like the harder I looked, the more difficult it became to see anybody as a feasible candidate for the portrait. So I stopped, sat down, and started watching people as they walked by. It didn't take long before I saw Lauron and his lady-friend walking toward me. I approached them as they neared me, and Lauron was more than willing to pose for a portrait. Piece of cake.



I really didn't feel like going out and trying to find another person for a portrait — in fact, I didn't really want to pick up the camera. So rather than force myself out the door with camera in hand, I decided to go with another self-portrait. With a project like this, if all else fails you've always got at least one model that can pose for a portrait. Self portraits are always interesting to me because they're typically captured in an unconventional manner.

Cachaulo VanLaanen


If all you have to work with is an empty hallway, do something interesting with it. Use the tools you have to create a reality that's different than the one your own eyes can see. In this case, I used a super-wide angle lens to make a typical hallway look extra lengthy. Due to the distortion characteristics of the lens, I had to compose the hallway in a certain manner so that the distorted reality was only where I wanted it — specifically, I positioned the corners of the walls at the corners of the frame to avoid the pincushion distortion.

Cole Constantineau


This photo had a cool perspective, but the office lighting was terrible. I was forced to use a flash, but I should have been more creative with diffusing it. I bounced it off the ceiling and I used an Omni-Bounce, but the direct lighting was still a bit harsh and it left a few shadows. I should have grabbed a big piece of paper from one of the printers and held it over the flash to help diffuse the light.

Sarah Presley


The reflection in this shot is so strong because of the window tint and because of the direct sunlight. But that direct sunlight caused some extra shadows on Sarah's face, and it made the appearance of skin grooves that weren't really there — especially those around her mouth. These types of shadows make people look much older than they really are (I caught some grief at work for making her look “old”).

Nick Norris


When I starting photographing Nick, he had his sunglasses and hat on as shown in this photo. After a few shots we tried some without the sunglasses to mix things up a little bit. When I reviewed the photos, the shots without the sunglasses weren't bad, but they weren't as cool as the ones with the sunglasses. They kind of added some extra character and a little mystery to the subject by blocking out the most telling feature on a person's face… the eyes.

The Auers


Taking a self-family portrait can be pretty hectic with a couple of little kids on board. It took us forever to get ourselves together and in the car — arms packed with the camera bag, tripod, cups, drinks, toys, books, etc. The one thing we (by that, I mean “I forgot”) was the blanket to sit on. So rather than give up on the picture, Candice suggested that we sit on a log that was nearby. It turned out that forgetting the blanket was the best mistake of the day. The log added much more to the scene than any blanket would have.

Three of Me


Shooting yourself is a difficult task. You have to worry about focus, framing, lighting, and of course there's always the fact that we're more critical of ourselves in photos that other people ever will be. It took me nearly 100 shots to get a set I liked well enough for this photo. The hardest part was making sure not to move the camera or the mirror during the shoot.

Bailey Auer


Kids make for some great shots, but they're super hard to work with as a model. They do their own thing, and you typically just have to catch them at the right moment. I followed Bailey around for a couple of hours as we went to the park to burn off some energy. I got several good shots out of it, but they were all “lucky shots” rather than totally planned.

Aaron Costello


Working with adults is a little easier to get the pose and positioning you want. I had this scene in my head for days before the shoot. But when it came time to executing it, things didn't come out exactly as I had envisioned. I think I came close, but that was only possible because Aaron was willing to be patient with different poses while I snapped away.

Rex Auer


For this one, I had planned on getting a nice tightly cropped head-shot of Rex. He's sort of a spaz, so that didn't happen. I pretty much gave up on the idea and I just started shooting as he messed around in front of the camera. I got this one and I liked it, so I asked him to do it again. Not a chance.

Robert Lawson


In this one, Robert knew that I was taking pictures of him — I asked him if I could. But rather than have him pose for a shot, I decided to get something in-context by shooting periodically as he worked in his office. I wanted to get the reflection from his window and get two slightly different perspectives of him.



I didn't have a real plan with this one. I just walked into the gas station and asked if I could take a portrait. He said “sure, where do you want me?” Immediately, the cigarettes on the wall jumped out as an interesting pattern. I guess if I had to do it over again, I'd pull Carlos away from the wall a bit to get more blur on the background — it's a little too busy.

Drew Verkade


This was a nice scene, but it would have been impossible to shoot without the convenience of a door into the hallway. I was using my 105mm macro, so I needed to be pretty far back. If I couldn't get outside of the room like that, this shot would've been much more tightly cropped. A 50mm lens would have been ideal for capturing the same scene from within the room.



When I shot this, I wanted to get the rich and vibrant colors of the produce in the shot. The problem was that the colors were way too powerful and they actually detracted from the main subject of the image. Not only that, but the lighting in the store made several of the colors (especially the bananas) become oversaturated and lose detail. So to bring the colors back in check, I actually desaturated the entire photo a bit.



I pretty much shot this one in the dark, so I had to use ISO3200 to pick up enough light to make an image. I knew it would be grainy, but I think this photo really benefits from it. It seems to add some extra character and complexity to the subject. I think it also helps out the background by adding some texture to the mid-tones and breaking things up a bit. Overall, I'm really happy that I shot this at such a high ISO and converted to black and white.

Captain Barbossa


Here, I had an opportunity to get to know somebody a little better. But I was in such a hurry that I literally forgot to ask him about himself. I think the main reason I was in a hurry was that he was working while I took his photo. He was one of the guys running the line at Blockbuster, so I didn't want to piss off everybody else by taking him away from the register for too long.

William Auer


This one was totally by chance and luck of timing. Not only was my Grandpa sitting in a compelling pose, but the light was coming right through the windows and beaming down on him. I jumped a the opportunity to capture this hard-lit scene and turn it into a black and white. Nice soft lighting is great most of the time, but sometimes a good hard light can really bring out the details that wouldn't otherwise be there.

Daniel Devenport


Daniel was a real character. I actually took this shot before I even talked to him. He was in the middle of giving me a hard time for taking his picture. So rather than turning my back and running off, I approached him and showed him the shots. We ended up sitting there and talking for over half an hour. Meanwhile, my photowalking buddies had made their way down the rest of Hollywood Blvd. I think it was worth it, he was a cool guy with lots to say.

Bailey and Rex


In this one, I was intending to just take a picture of Bailey, but Rex would have none of that. He managed to get himself in there before I could get any solo shots. So I tried coaxing him to be a part of the picture in a good way, but all I got was the gymnast pose on the backside of the handrail. Looking back at it, I think he actually adds an interesting aspect to the photo by posing the way he did.

Elephant Boy


This took FOREVER to capture! The zoo was… a zoo to say the least. I had to shoot this from across a major pathway and there was always some group of people walking between us. Not only that, but I had to deal with the pedestrians who refuse to just walk in front of the camera as a courtesy. Seriously people, we know you're there, just move on so we can get our shot — don't sit there and wait for me to take the picture!



When we hear “portrait” we generally think people. But I tend to believe that portraits can be of subjects that aren't human too. Dogs are really interesting and people love them, so a portrait of a dog is sure to please. Just be careful when shooting with a wide angle lens. I nearly had a wet-nose encounter with the front element of my lens — they're very curious and they like to sniff new things.

The Giraffe


I chose the location for this portrait based on the texture and color of the subject. I thought that the yellowish sand would go well with the yellow material of the giraffe. Then I processed this photo to really bring out those textures and force them to compliment each other more than they would have with a “natural” processing.

Yesenia Barbosa


This one turned out pretty good, but I can't help but kick myself for not shooting a couple more with different flash settings. I ended up blowing out some highlights because of the flash, and it was a real pain to get some of the detail back into the photo without making it look weird. Again, diffusing the flash a little more probably would have been a good idea too.


This was a great project to work on. Portraits have never been my strong suit, so this was a real eye-opener on just how difficult it is. So if you're ever encouraged to participate in something like this — do it without hesitation, and the rewards will be more than you had ever expected.