Portrait Modes

In How to, Inspiration

There are so many variables when you’re taking a portrait. You never know what sort of environment you’ll be in, how much light there will be, how you’ll get on with the subject, or how they’ll want to come across. Taking portraits of people for book jackets or magazines (which I have to do occasionally) can be scary. When I’m taking pictures of my own family, though, it’s much simpler. In part that’s because we’re not strangers and there’s no pressure to produce a publishable result. But it’s also because there are certain ways of taking portraits that I keep coming back to. They’re a bit like mental presets; like switching into Portrait Mode on my iPhone, but inside my head. When you’ve done a particular kind of picture before, you know the formula, you know it will work, and it’s easier to do it again. Here are some of my personal Portrait Modes.

Shooting through glass puts a distance between you and your subject, and you get to play with the reflections, too. You can also use windows to frame your subject, particularly when it’s dark outside and light inside.

This is a style of portrait I return to again and again. It’s a way to include everyone, including myself (hiding behind a camera), while also using the window and the surroundings to give a sense of place. This picture was taken in Uzès, France in 2013.

One of my favourite ways to do a portrait: stand the subject in a door so that they are well illuminated, but with darkness behind them. The door frame can be a useful prop for leaning against, too.

I like the way interesting shadows give a sense of place, and a summery mood. This approach works best if the framing is quite wide, to show the context. A close-up face with unusual shadows on it can just look odd.

If you’ve taken a portrait somewhere before, you know the right setup and the right framing to get a good result. And then you can compare images from one year to the next!

I love using grass, or grass with flowers in it, as a backdrop. Just be careful not to cast a photographer-shaped shadow over your subject and watch out for creepy-crawlies!

Sitting by the window on the train means there is lots of light, an out-of-focus background and, possibly, some reflections! I seem to take this one quite often when heading into town with the children.

A portrait against a plain background is a classic look (think of Avedon) but not everyone can pull it off. What should do they do with their hands? But give them something to hold, and suddenly it’s all much simpler.

Once you recognise what your personal Portrait Modes are, you can use them for non-family pictures too. I recently did some pictures for an Australian magazine, following a tech entrepreneur around for a day. This was my favourite picture: through a window! All I had to do was select the right mental Portrait Mode.

What are your personal Portrait Modes? Let me know in the comments.

– Kirstin


  1. Thank you for these ideas, the timing is perfect. My husband gave me 20 minutes yesterday to do a portrait for a book. Given the timeframe the result was not great. I’ll see if he wants another go with the doorway concept.

  2. I love them all! Connecting with the soul of the subject is my favorite mode… looks like you do this, too 🙂 Inspired!! Thank you!

  3. I love how you think. (And shoot, but that goes without saying) It’s always SO helpful to see the primers other photographers use for themselves. And? Every one of these portraits is gorgeous.

  4. Thank you for these creative and practical suggestions! These portrait suggestions are not “poses” but truly modes, reflecting the individual spirit of both the photographer and the subject. I hope to look at my own family in this playful and knowing way and make pictures of them that speak to my heart. You’ve inspired me!

  5. So many great reminders here! I love to shoot with window light. Gives me moody and gives similar to what the door way light does.
    This is a great article to refer back to before a session!

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