#PENInPractice | How To Take a Good Portrait

Processed with VSCOcam with j1 presetMy latest Pen In Practice column for Olympus Magazine – you can read it online here too! – is now out. It’s all about shooting great portraits…

Taking portraits is a little bit out of my comfort zone. I’m much happier when I have still life objects that I can move around and position just so in the right light. When it comes to people, I worry about them feeling uncomfortable in front of the camera and whether they’ll like the end result. In the current age of social media etiquette it seems only right to check whether your subject likes the picture before it can see the light of day. Gone are the days of posting unapproved pictures to Facebook!

When it comes to photographing people, you have two options – to shoot candidly (when the subject is unaware) or a more formal portrait set-up. Candidly is my preferred option as you can plan your shot unnoticed (street shooters will often shoot from the hip for this, and the Olympus Pen screens are brilliant for doing this inconspicuously while still seeing your shot) and see the subject comfortably blend into their surrounds and hopefully get a shot that really tells a story. Although if you’re noticed your best bet is a friendly nod and smile to check your subject is happy with having their photo taken; this is how I tend to go about things behind the scenes at London Fashion Week where I often find myself shooting models, makeup artists, hair stylists backstage and the front row.

Backstage Topshop Unique LFW


    1. Open your Aperture to its widest and give your subject distance behind them for shallow depth of field – portraits look really professional with blurry backgrounds.
    2. Consider using a fixed prime lens like the 45mm f/1.8 as this will give you fantastic depth of field and a sharp result
    3. Find you light source, if inside, go to the window and see how the light is falling.











However, when shooting a formal portrait, you have a whole string of other considerations, which can include making quick (so you appear confident) decisions about how and where your subject should sit/stand and what they should be doing (looking towards you, away or focusing on a task – which is always good for warming up…). But the reality is you might not always make the best decision straight away. Now, when I photograph people I say “Let’s try a couple of shots over here and then over there.” This has the added advantage of taking the pressure off both of you.

‘Over here’ will either by a window or if outside, not in direct sunlight. Once you have good or interesting lighting – and actually shadows can be really interesting in portraiture – the key is to make sure you have the eyes in sharp focus and ideally with a light source reflecting from them. Take a look at all the best portraits and you’ll always notice the light in the subject’s eyes.

Backstage LFW


Model Sam Rollinson


Don’t be shy, just ask. Or smile, which is what I often do when shooting street style or backstage. It helps to ask permission, even if silent, to establish an agreement and relationship. Most people like having their photo taken but just want to be asked first!



And now, over to the real expert. Portrait photographer Clare Walsh shares her top three tips with me:

  1. Let the subject influence you. Be in control and aware of your surroundings but aim to capture who they are, not what you impose on them.
  2. Light is the secret to everything. Find it everywhere and let it inspire your image. I was once told, “There is one light, and the light is the sun.” Use it, manipulate it, but never forget about it.
  3. Always remain moment driven. Even in a styled shot. To burst shoot gives you a good chance of a usable image but to watch and react with instinct creates a captured moment. It worked on film, it works in digital.

Remember to join in on Instagram with the hashtag #PENInPractice for a chance to be featured on @olympusuk – I choose a picture every week! – and to be in with the chance of winning a Stylonylon x Sailhandmade strap for the Olympus Pen


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  1. Hai Julia i am so glad to find you because i just bought epl7 and so confuse to do The setting. And finding The tone is just frustrated me. I love The second image above, would you tell me how to do The setting to achieve it ? And for The video, i love watching Victoria from thefrow, would you tell me how to do The video setting to get that colour tone ? Thank you so much for your help
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