Hit the Books with Dan Milnor: Portrait Photography

Hit the Books with Dan Milnor is a monthly webinar about all things book-making and self-publishing. In this edition, professional photographer Dan Milnor gives an overview of portrait photography with tools and tips to help you catch the personality of your subject and that perfect moment.

An Overview of Portrait Photography

  • What makes a portrait a portrait?
  • The difference between “making” and “taking” a portrait
  • An understanding of light, timing, and composition as basic components
  • Photography etiquette: how best to approach strangers and ask for permission
  • What lenses work best for portrait photography
  • The psychology of portraiture between different subjects
  • Some lessons from portrait masters

Watch the Webinar

Top 10 Questions from Our Audience

1. What is a portrait?

Well, there are a variety of different types of portraits, but in general, a portrait is “an artistic expression of a person where the face and its expression are predominant.”

2. Who are the portrait masters?

There have been MANY through history but just to name a few: Yousuf Karsh, Annie Leibowitz, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and George Hurrell. And maybe you?

3. What are the basic ingredients of a portrait?

Simply put, they are often the same basic ingredients of any great photograph. Let’s focus on three critical ingredients: light, timing, and composition. The foundation of most great images is light, so finding what lighting style is your lighting style is important. Timing with portraits is really where you capture the nuance of who it is you are photographing. Finally, the composition is where you put your fingerprints on your images. How you see the world will dictate your composition. This can take a long time to determine but stay patient and practice.

4. What about equipment? What is the best lens to use?

The best lens is the one you have with you, but I’m a fan of a few basic ingredients. First, I like prime lenses as opposed to zooms. Primes tend to be smaller and faster. The faster lenses, those with wider apertures, allow for a shallow depth of field that helps isolate the subject. I’m also a fan of 50mm and longer for portraits, with the classic portrait lens being something like the 85mm. Try to keep it as small as possible. Shooting portraits with a massive zoom lens can be off-putting for certain folks.

5. How do I photograph people I don’t know?

Great question, and it’s one that I get on a weekly basis. You really have to get over the fear of talking to people you don’t know. So, practice is key. Also, using the right terminology is key. Asking to “take a photograph” is very different than asking “to make a portrait.” Taking seems negative while making seems positive. Explain what it is you are doing and why you are doing it. You MUST be able to talk about your project and provide a concise explanation of what you are doing. Finally, ask them to collaborate and be a part of what you are doing. So many people are just looking for quick social media fodder and many people don’t want to be part of that. So when you explain you are looking for more depth and real collaboration, oftentimes, people are willing to help out.

6. What about portraits of kids?

I think children’s portraiture is a wonderful genre of photography and one that I spent many years doing. I would start with children you know—whether that is your own kids or relatives. Photographing kids is great for several reasons: Kids are real. They don’t know they have a good side and a bad side. They will laugh, cry, fall down, get crazy—all in a ten-minute range. Plus, keeping up with them means you have to have your act together as a photographer. Kids are great practice for full-size humans.

7. What about external lighting for portraits?

I’m a fan of going small and light, so most of the time I don’t use external light. One thing that is wonderful to carry, and it’s small, is a reflector. White on one side, silver or gold on the other. These little things pack up, are super light, and can dramatically impact the quality of light.

8. What if you get assigned to photograph a person who doesn’t want to be photographed?

You talk to the person and you be honest. I would often start by describing the absurdity of what we are about to embark on. Two strangers, one with cameras, aiming at the other while asking them to “act natural.” This isn’t natural at all. I also tell people it’s about collaboration and that the image is going out in the world and you both want the image to look great. These moments are a chance for the person to act, just for a second, and that’s all you need.

9. What makes modern portraiture different from the portraiture of the past?

Technique comes and goes, changes, but most of what is being done today has been done before—at least to a degree. What changes are the cameras, lights, and the eyes of those who are considered portrait masters? Many of these masters start by creating unique lighting looks. Although what they are doing is derivative to some degree, they are adding their own visual fingerprints to the conversation.

10. What is an environmental portrait?

This is a portrait that takes a person’s environment into account in addition to what they physically look like. Imagine an environmental portrait of a cowboy in comparison to that of a ballerina. TOTALLY different environments.


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