21 Portrait Photography Lessons from 21 Great Photographers

My portrait photography education didn’t happen in a classroom, library, or workshop. Most of what I learned came from studying my heroes’ work, trying to figure out why I loved their pictures, and then putting my own twist on them.

In fact, I can see that my portrait style has come from a never-ending cycle of:

1. Attempting to copy great photographers like Albert Watson and Richard Avedon.

2. Failing miserably, but learning something in the process.

And in this article, I’m going to give you 21 tips, techniques, tricks, and hacks I took from 21 of them — men and women whom I consider the greatest portrait photographers of all-time.

I illustrated these points through a mix of videos, Instagram posts, and my own photos.

Got it? Good?

Let’s jump in:

#1. Richard Avedon: All Portraits Tell the Truth… And Lie

The great Richard Avedon once said this:

A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.

That may be the truest statement ever made about portrait photography.

We’d like to think that a portrait really says the truth about the subject. But at best, we can only expect one side of a person.

You can’t capture a person’s entire essence in 1/250th of a second — especially because people are always performing for the camera.

Avedon himself said:

We all perform. It’s what we do for each other all the time, deliberately or unintentionally. It’s a way of telling about ourselves in the hope of being recognized as what we’d like to be.

Just think about Instagram. How many people are genuinely happy and joyful? And how many are just performing for you?

#2. Irving Penn: Don’t Make a ‘Good’ Portrait, Make an ‘Effective’ Portrait

I hate using words like good or bad to describe portraits.

I prefer the word “effective” — as I explain in this video:

Irving Penn once said:

A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.

I measure the quality of a portrait by how I feel when I look at it. Do I want to know more about the person in the picture? If so, it’s an effective portrait to me.

#3. Joe McNally: Your Camera Is a Passport

Photo by Michael Comeau

I once heard Joe speak live and he said something along the lines of “your camera is a passport to adventure.” And that really stuck with me.

Now, Joe’s adventures involved shooting big assignments all over the world for National Geographic and LIFE. Mine were a little more tame.

I shot martial arts events (the picture above is from the backstage area at a kickboxing event) and practices. I would put ads on Craigslist and invite people over to my house for portraits. And I turned all my vacations into photo adventures.

#4. Martin Schoeller: Consistency Leads to Attention

Martin Schoeller is a top editorial and commercial portrait photographer.

And while he has a diverse body of work, he’s known for his tight, intense headshots:

I once attended a lecture with Martin and learned that his headshot photos are actually inspired by the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. Interestingly, the Bechers photographed water towers in the same consistent way.

When you have a consistent body of work, it’s easier to build a name for yourself and let people know what you do. That consistency gives you a great platform from which to build. And it’s one reason why I’m populating my Instagram feed with sepia-toned portraits.

#5. Kurt Markus: Use a Slow Shutter Speed for a Dreamy Look

Photo by Michael Comeau

I generally like my portraits to be sharp. But sometimes, I like something a bit softer and dreamier. So I’ll take my shutter speed way down to 1/10th of a second or even slower.

This is something I took from several photographers including Sante D’Orazio, Paolo Roversi, but mostly, Montana native Kurt Markus. Kurt is famous for his ethereal black and white portraits of both cowboys and supermodels.

In researching Kurt’s work, I came across a great interview with A Photo Editor in which he said this:

I don’t retouch. I don’t try and manipulate the image into something I like afterward. 6×7 is a very forgiving medium. Black and white film, these lenses, a slow shutter speed. I’ll photograph women and a lot of time they look flawless, but real.

And while I’d experimented with slow shutter speeds in the past, I now make it a regular practice. It’s a nice departure from my typical focus on realness and clarity.

#6. Zack Arias: Put the Head In a Clean Spot

Photo by Michael Comeau

Zack Arias’ CreativeLive class “Foundations of a Working Photographer” had a huge impact on me when I was getting started. Zack taught me countless important concepts about lighting, subject interaction, and business.

But the most important thing I learned was “head in a clean spot.” As in, try to compose your photos in a way so that the head is unobstructed. I use this idea on every shoot.

#7. Albert Watson: Don’t Fear Hard Light!

When I was a beginning portrait photographer, I had a childish attitude towards light. I thought soft light was good and hard light was bad. Why? Because that’s what every blogger and instructor I followed said.

Everything had to be lit with a big umbrella or softbox. But when I discovered Albert Watson’s groundbreaking book Cyclops, my point of view flip-flopped. I saw that hard light could be harsh and beautiful at the same time.

So I started experimenting with bare flashes, grids, snoots, and good old fashioned direct sunlight. And now I use a mix of soft and hard light on almost all of my shoots.

Most importantly, Albert taught me to question all the advice I was given about portrait photography. And my attitude is to listen to what people tell me, but test for myself to see what I really like.

#8. Gregory Heisler: There Are Basically Two Kinds of Light

When I think about types of light, I normally think of hard and soft light.

In this video breaking down his portrait of swimmer Michael Phelps, Gregory Heisler breaks down lighting in a different way:

There’s one kind of lighting that you do to simulate ambient lighting situation so it looks like light coming from a lamp or light coming from a pool. And there’s another kind lighting that you do because it looks cool and who cares?

That idea turned my approach to lighting on its head. I realized you can use artificial light to emulate any type of natural light condition — from the setting sun to the light bouncing off pool water.

#9. Herb Ritts: Natural light Can Be Perfect, but Your Timing Matters

Photo by Michael Comeau

One common mistake beginners make is assuming all natural light is the same. However, the light at 9 am is way different than the light at 12 pm because of the angle of the sun. As the sun gets lower, the light becomes warmer and more flattering. So your timing matters big time.

Herb Ritts is best known for his use of golden hour light. However, Herb didn’t just shoot in golden hour. He could make even harsh midday light beautiful by carefully angling his subject’s faces.

You can do this by observing the shadow cast by your subject’s nose. When the shadow off the nose is short, you’re generally in pretty good light!

#10. Steve McCurry: Open Shade Lighting Just Works

Key light is open shade, rim light is from a gelled speedlight. Photo by Michael Comeau.

I’ve admired Steve McCurry’s portrait work since I was a little kid reading National Geographic in the library.

Now, you can’t copy Steve’s work. But you can copy his natural light technique. Most of Steve McCurry’s portraits — including the iconic ‘Afghan Girl’ portrait — were created using open shade lighting.

Open shade is a natural light technique where you position the subject in a way so:

1. Sunlight from straight above is blocked, and

2. Bounced sunlight fills in the subject’s face

Here is my open shade lighting diagram:

Open shade eliminates unflattering shadows created by top light, so the face is illuminated with soft, even light. And best of all, you can use it for just about everyone.

#11. Dean Collins: Lighting Is All About the Basics (Even The Advanced Stuff!)

Dean Collins was perhaps the most effective lighting educator in history. I’ve spent about $250 on his DVDs. And it was the best damn money I ever spent on my photography education. He was a technical wizard that could speak in plain English. And, he made damn good pictures.

Dean showed me that mastering just a few basic concepts (like controlling the size of the light source) would allow me to create the pictures I saw in my head — even if I didn’t have the latest and greatest gear.

And in his instructional videos, Dean didn’t use any fancy light modifiers. He literally clamped fabric to a PVC pipe and made all kinds of light with it with a strobe.

That was my inspiration for using a diffusion cloth on my location shoots instead of umbrellas and softboxes. It’s not as sexy, but it works.

Photo by Michael Comeau

#12. Greg Gorman: Shadow and Mystery Are Important

Photo by Michael Comeau

Greg once said, “for me, a photograph is most successful when it doesn’t answer all the questions, and it leaves something to be desired.”

As I noted before, beginning portrait photographers are often taught to avoid hard light, and as a result, shadow.

Shadows are more powerful than you might imagine. They add mystery, 3-dimensionality, and a sense of time and place to your portraits. All these factors invite curiosity, which is a key factor in making your pictures come alive.

And one reason I love Greg Gorman’s portraits is his beautiful use of deep shadows, most notably in his groundbreaking advertising campaigns for l.a. Eyeworks.

​In fact, his portraits from the ’80s and ’90s still feel fresh, because he bucked the trend of using boring, flat light.

I think it’s because the shadows pull you in and make you think more about what’s going on in the picture.

#13. Annie Leibovitz: Photograph Your Family (or Any Family You Come Across!)

Photo by Michael Comeau

I was disappointed with Annie Leibovitz’ MasterClass, but one thing stuck with me: how passionate she is about family photography. And if you read her incredible book At Work, you see that some of her very best portraits are those of her family members.

In fact, Annie’s portrait of her daughter Sarah Cameron Leibovitz is one of the most beautiful pictures of a child I’ve ever seen.

As you gain more experience as a portrait photographer, you’ll find that you value family pictures more than anything else — even if they’re of someone else’s family.

The single most rewarding experience of my own portrait photography journey was photographing a newborn baby on his first day home.

Try it — you’ll love it.

#14. David Bailey: Off With Their Heads! (Well, Part of Them)

David Bailey is among the greatest portrait and fashion photographers to have come out of the U.K. I always regarded him to be an almost punk rock Avedon.

And Bailey taught me a simple lesson about composition: don’t be afraid to cut off someone’s head.

If you study David’s work, particularly his tight headshots and beauty pictures, you’ll see that he sometimes cuts off the top of his subject’s head.

It’s an effective composition technique for two simple reasons. First, it’s unusual. Few photographers do it.

And second, it adds a feeling of closeness and intimacy. If you are standing so close to someone that you can’t see over their heads, you are in their personal space.

Interestingly, David once said “I don’t care about composition or anything like that. I just want the emotion of the person in the picture to come across.”

So it’s funny that he gets the emotions he seeks through this simple compositional technique!

#15. Mary Ellen Mark: A Soft Touch Can Be the Most Powerful One

I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.

I’ve long admired the late Mary Ellen Mark’s documentary portraits. Mary stands apart because of her gentle yet intense touch. Most portrait photographers can’t ride such a delicate line, yet she did it consistently.

You get the sense that her subjects, even total strangers, had complete trust in her. And while I can’t know for sure, that’s probably the result of her kind, friendly nature, as well as her eye for subject selection. It seems like she deliberate people that had an aura of vulnerability. And importantly, she photographed them with respect and dignity.

Tragedy makes for interesting photographs. Just keep in mind that the tragedy you photography is someone else’s reality — something I’ve forgotten before.

#16. Frank W. Ockenfels III: Don’t Forget to Play!

Frank Ockenfels is one of the top editorial commercial photographers in the world. He’s perhaps best known these days for his iconic movie and TV posters. He’s created images for everything from Breaking Bad to Mad Men to Daredevil to Thor to Men in Black 3 to… you get the point.

But what’s really incredible about Frank is his sense of play. Scroll through his Instagram, and you’ll see a mad scientist at work, playing with all kinds of film, cameras, color, lighting techniques, and even collages and mixed media. And I’ve never seen such a wide range of experimental photography still feel like it’s part of a cohesive body.

He taught me to try new things for the most important reason of all — to see what happens.

#17. Matthew Rolson: Add Some Color to Your Black & White

Photo by Michael Comeau

Along with Herb Ritts and Greg Gorman, covered earlier in this article, Matthew Rolston is one of the 3 Kings of California Portrait Photography.

I love Matthew’s classic 1980’s and 1990’s black & white celebrity portraits, which he often toned warm or cool.

A toned black and white makes you stop and stare just a little longer, mostly because they’re so out of style.

However, if there’s one thing I love to do, it’s to do the opposite of popular portrait photography trends!

#18. Diane Arbus: Be Brave When Choosing Your Portrait Subjects

I’m not really influenced by Diane Arbus (at least not directly — she was a big influence on Richard Avedon though, who is my #1 inspiration). But I loved her boldness as a photographer, especially when it came to her street portraits. Diane was very much attracted to the downtrodden, and her work has a sad, sympathetic feel.

My street portraits have always been on the safe side, unfortunately. I wish I were more like Diane Arbus, and a little braver in choosing my subjects.

#19. Max Vadukul: Get Your Subject’s Imagination Going

I love Max Vaduku’s portrait and fashion work so much that I named a Jedi Mind Trick after him: “The Vadukul.”

In this classic video from MTV’s House of Style show, Max taught me that it’s vital to get your subject’s imagination by asking interesting (and sometimes ridiculous) questions.

Don’t expect people to slap on facial expressions like masks. Make them feel something. After all, the best way to make someone smile is to make them laugh.

When your subject’s imagination is running wild, they’ll come alive in a natural way that just can’t be faked.

#20. Arnold Newman: Be Graphic… with Your Background!

Arnold Newman had many gifts as a portrait photographer. But what stands out to me was his ability to place his subjects in complex, graphical backgrounds, without making it feel forced.

Newman was heavily influenced by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, who had an offbeat, almost mathematical way of composing abstract paintings. They almost looked like carefully crafted puzzles. Newman’s portraits had the same effect. They felt a bit offbeat, yet somehow perfectly logical

#21. Phil Borges: Your Studio Can Be Anywhere on Planet Earth

Photo by Michael Comeau

Phil Borges is a documentary portrait photographer specializing in indigenous and tribal cultures. But Phil’s not your average photographer.

He actually carried a full lighting setup so he could create studio-style lighting anywhere in the world, most notably Tibet.

By going through the trouble of carrying lighting equipment in the field, he was able to capture truly one-of-a-kind portraits. And Phil is one of the main inspirations behind a portrait project I’m working on, where I’ll be creating studios on the streets of New York City.


About the author: Michael Comeau is the Editor of OnPortraits.com, an all-new online community dedicated to simple, classic portrait photography. Click here for more information. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. This article was also published here.