My two cents on portrait photography – 25 tips on portrait photography

Image 06-01-13 à 02.49 _SnapseedOK, I’m certainly no Richard Avedon, but portraits are my favorite thing to shoot.

A portrait, for me, isn’t necessarily a headshot. It is about capturing a fleeting emotion, the energy of a person. Their passion, focus, enthusiasm or sadness sometimes… Hunting for the perfect subject and capturing that one special picture…

I thought I’d share a few ideas with you on the subject. None of this stuff is new (I don’t think), but I hope some of it will be helpful to you…

I will pin a few photos at a time that I think illustrate each point best.

PS. it is a long long post, so please bear with me!stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames

– Your goal with any portrait is to tell a story. It’s about capturing a moment. Sharpness is secondary. The first of the photos above is of my friend Mimi having her first bite of St Félicien cheese. It was taken with an old Iphone at night in a poorly lit room. But It is one of my favorite shots of all because it shows such genuine pleasure and delight. It shows a woman who knows how life should be lived. A generous soul… (OK Mimi I’m done. Stop blushing!) Mimi doesn’t like her picture to be taken. But she is so full of life and her face is so expressive, that she has become my all time favorite model. She knows me well enough to know that I do this with love, and that I would never betray her trust…

stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesshsh17102014-H92A4631 eyjn tdjd zthzr§thy– Speaking of telling stories, collages are great fun and very effective! The pictures of the grandmother looking out and the kids walking on the beach were taken on two different days. The two put together tell a story…

– Color also helps in translating the personality of a subject. To show their spirit. To me, my friend Caroline is pink, Mimi is deep red and purple and oranges, Corrine is green and stone and Segolene is off white. My nephew François is grey and blue with a touch of gold. Go figure…
stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames– Street photography is so much fun! Maybe the most fun… The shots are (for obvious reasons) completely candid for one and I think it’s when you get to really capture the essence of someone’s soul.

– Most times of course I still the shot. Haven’t been sued or slapped in the face yet… It will come I’m sure. My only rule is to never photograph children or homeless people without express permission.

– The important thing in street photography is to be ready and quick.

– Using a lower f stop in aperture mode narrows the depth of field and makes your subject stand outstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames

– Street/homeless people are fantastic subjects. You know my first rule (asking their permission). My second rule is to tip them systematically and well (I give 20€ minimum). So now you know why I don’t take more pictures of homeless people. They are just too bloody expensive. Supermodels I tell you…


– Taking photos of pets with their owners is probably the easiest thing to do and one of the most rewarding. People are always proud of their pets and, in my experience, never refuse to be photographed with them.

– The pet is intrigued by the camera, which makes it look cute as hell. The owner always looks proud and/or amused…stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames

– Pets can’t really pose for the camera. They are perfect subjects for portraiture. Their expressions are basic and raw: surprise, fear, anger…stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames

– The secret to the perfect genuine smile or laugh is to take your shot right when someone is done telling a joke or a story/anecdote. I’m no psychologist, but I think it has to do with a natural human need for approval or something… You will get your smile 99% of the time. This is why I love to shoot during lunch or dinner parties.

– This also gives you enough time (while they are telling their story) to frame your shot perfectlystephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames

– Shoot blind and from bellow. That way: no double chins, the subject looks statuesque and important, the angle will surprise the viewer…

– I say shoot blind, because I put the camera at my hip. So I’m never actually looking into the view finder. This means that it’s pretty much a game of hit and miss. Pure luck. I only get maybe 1 good shot out of 5. But that one shot is always greatly satisfying. The other thing I like about shooting blind, is that I get to be surprised when I see the picture for the first time on the computer. Double the fun!!H92A3631-Modifier

– Don’t ask people to smile. Unless they are a professional model or actor, it always looks fake. Instead, find a way to make them laugh out loud! In this case, I was taking pictures of Dorian who is a boxer. I had bought some steak for him to apply on a fake bruise. I just said to him: “what the hell are you doing in my dining room with no shirt on and a piece of meat on your face?” He couldn’t stop laughing!stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames

– Focus on an eye, especially for close shots or when your lens is wide open. Eyes are the …stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames– The rule of thirds doesn’t always apply. Dead center is OK sometimes…stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames

– Skin tones are a sometimes. There are ways to work around that problem by using Photoshop or Lightroom, but the easiest and fastest way to deal with too much or bad color is to simply convert your photo into Black and White. All apps can help with that. I recently fell in LOOOOVE with Silver Efex Pro. Really impressive tool!stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames– Steal somebody else’s shot! People taking selfies etc. It’s what I call the posed candid :0)stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames– Shoot them as they are completely focused on a task. That’s how you get candids even if the photo is taken during a planned photoshoot. So instead of instructing them: “sit here, look at the tip of your fingers and hold the bandage up with the other hand and try to look focussed” you just find the right light, have him sit down and tell him he can finally undo his bandages… He thought the session was over by the way. I took the shot with my 135 from the other side of the house…H92A8016-2stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames– Good natural and well positioned light is the most important thing in photography in general, but it is essential in portraiture.stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdames– Shoot against the light! It works, it’s dramatic, it’s magical !!!!!!!!!!!!stephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesstephane-gabart-portrait-voleurdamesImage 27-12-12 à 11.51– Older folks are the best models for several obvious reasons (wrinkles, eyes, genuine smile, underlying sadness sometimes…), but the best reason for me is that their sense of vanity is gone! They (most of them) don’t give a you know what if you take their picture and plaster it all over the net. Oh, plus they don’t move as fast anymore, so they’re always pretty much in focus (Ha Ha very funny Stéphane)

And last but not least: don’t take pictures of people while they are talking or eating (sorry Conor! You know I had to!)H92A4632

52 Comments Add yours

  1. Great great tips! I love your portraits! They are always fantastic!

  2. Sho says:

    Such lovely portraits, thank you for the great tips!
    I’ve had a lot of fun shooting from the hip during street photography. While I haven’t been slapped either, there was this one instance when I shot an old lady selling bubble blowers who had come by to hurl quite a few interesting abuses, more colourful than the bubbles!
    You have so many interesting pictures from Japan. I really liked the one with the boy practicing the kanji. Do you live in Japan or have travelled?

    PS: Thanks for stopping by Sunshine In Seconds. 🙂

    1. My French Heaven says:

      I visited Japan last November. I absolutely fell in love with the country and could quite easily live there. Such an incredible country. The people are even better! I will return for sure one day! I believe there are 4 big posts on my blog just about Japan. Just type in Japan in the search box. I think you’ll enjoy them very much. Let me know what you think after you read them. And thanks for dropping by my French Heaven!

      1. Sho says:

        I really enjoyed your posts on Japan! The travel recommendations based on your own experiences are also great to read. Which other places have you travelled to?

        1. My French Heaven says:

          Oh I’ve travelled many places. So far, my favorites are the States, Greece and Japan…

  3. Steve says:

    They are all excellent, but the red-taped boxer’s hands is a masterpiece. Lighting, depth-of-field, timing, composition and subject matter are my priorities in that order. Note how subject matter is the least important.

    1. My French Heaven says:

      Oh I know. Light is 80% and composition 19. The rest doesn’t much matter. Does it… I’m glad I have Mimi as a photographer friend, but you and I should have done much more together when you were here. Missed opportunities…

  4. anjlm says:

    Amazing photos and great tips!

  5. yellowpaintt says:

    Lovely read!!!!! 🙂

  6. Jodi says:

    Such helpful tips – can’t wait to try! I love the idea of shooting from the hip and being surprised!

    1. My French Heaven says:

      I think you’ll enjoy that, especially for portraits… It’s interesting to watch people’s reaction to this. They either think you are crazy or some kind of genius creative mind… Have fun with it 😉

  7. platedujour says:

    As much as I didn’t agree on many points on your food photography tips I agree on these ones! For me moving objects are the most difficult things to capture- any kind of movement or emotions, I guess another challenge ahead of me 🙂

    1. My French Heaven says:

      Hi Marta, Which points did you disagree with on the other post. I quite like your photos, so I’m interested to get your feedback…

      1. platedujour says:

        It’s really nothing, trust me- I love your photography, I think it’s the way of working- mine is different that’s all, I wouldn’t be able to take a picture of a person like you do. But fine, I will get back to you on it this week- I’m making bread this evening, it’s important! xx

        1. My French Heaven says:

          Are you kidding? Bread is EVERYTHING! Have fun!

          1. platedujour says:

            haha yes, this time spelt and einkorn flour- the recipe soon on my blog- here is my email, I can give you a few comments on some pictures of food you took- if you want a different view- only a different view, since I’m sure it is me who can learn from you, not the opposite 🙂

          2. My French Heaven says:

            We can all (and should) learn something from each other. You can e-mail me your comments by using the contact page on the blog. Enjoy the bread!

  8. thank you for showing us such loveliness. Time well spent.

    1. My French Heaven says:

      So glad you enjoyed it!

  9. Emilio Pasquale says:

    Great examples to a great, informative, post. I’ve only done street photography once but reading this makes me want to try it again. Thanks, Stephane.

    1. My French Heaven says:

      Do it and have fun Emilio! Street photography is truly fun. It’s like going hunting 🙂

  10. Dipti says:

    lovely pics! and what’s endearing is that some of them are smart phone-taken at night and a tad grainy nevertheless totally bring out the beauty of that moment. Magnifique 🙂

    1. My French Heaven says:

      Thank you! Yes, some of the best pictures are taken with telephones which makes me mad sometimes that I feel compelled to spend money on high end equipment 😉

  11. Well I learned something new! “Shooting blind from the hip.” Who knew? Great tips, and I love all the shots of Mimi. And yes, your last one of Conor stuffing his face made me laugh out loud! Priceless!

    1. My French Heaven says:

      Ha ha! He was a champ about it. I offered to take the photo down but he said it made him laugh too 😜

  12. elle says:

    So, so impressive! You take such stunning photos!! Even following all of your tips, I don’t think I could ever manage this 😛

    1. My French Heaven says:

      Thanks! And of course you can! You should see the crap I used to take (and still do sometimes) only one rule: Have fun!

  13. Great post! All your portraits are so incredibly engaging. I want to meet every single person b/c they all look so intriguing!

    1. My French Heaven says:

      Thanks Kristen! That was the intent. Have a lovely evening!

  14. judilyn says:

    My camera has an articulated view finder which is helpful for shooting from odd angles. I’ve used it mostly on bugs, but see I will need to branch out to people.

    Ancient knees also inhibit a quick dip to the ground to shoot upwards. The articulated finder is a dream come true in this instance.

    As always, your so very appealing portraits are an inspiration for me to get out and shoot. If only I had your talent for evoking those perfect expressions. ;->

    Virtual hugs,


    1. My French Heaven says:

      You are too kind dear Judie! I am so glad that you feel inspired to create more stunning art. Have fun, it’s all that really matters in the end! 😉

  15. Conor Bofin says:

    I had a very hard, long day today. At the end of it, I got to see this picture. I should be upset, but instead, I just laughed and laughed. You are a wicked man.

    1. My French Heaven says:

      I’ll take it out if you want. My ONLY intent was to make you laugh. I know it’s hard to see oneself in a photo, but I find this one quite endearing actually… I hope you have a better day tomorrow my friend!

      1. Conor Bofin says:

        Please keep it in. It is funny and it is an accurate representation of me enjoying myself. I don’t get to see enough of those!
        Best, as ever,

  16. chef mimi says:

    Hahahahahaha! Poor Conor! I wasn’t aware that I ever didn’t have food in my mouth!!! Great post and great tips. I’ll have to study all of them so i can actually remember them!

    1. My French Heaven says:

      I hope Conor doesn’t kill me!!! I actually quite like the damn picture to be honest….

      1. chef mimi says:

        I agree! It’s better than a smile with a bunch of cheese glued to your front teeth!!! love this post!

        1. My French Heaven says:

          Oh come on. You look so amazing!

  17. Peggy McGill says:

    I enjoy the editorial style of your photos. You have a way of making the viewer feel as though they are there in the room with that person. Great shots!

    1. My French Heaven says:

      Why Peggy thank you! Your comment means a lot, because that is exactly what I am trying to achieve… Thank you for such kind words!

  18. Craving4More says:

    You know how much I love your photos, my friend. These are fabulous and make my heart sing. Thank you.

    1. My French Heaven says:

      So glad you liked them Ashley. I couldn’t believe to tell you how much photography has changed my life these past few years…

  19. What a beautiful post. Reading about your craft is fascinating and your shots are truly some of the best I’ve seen. They say something about you, your view of the world, the way you view people and where you find and see beauty. I’m really amazed that you get such gorgeous photos shooting blind from the hip. And I love the photos of Mimi. She’s so joyful here. I’m so glad you wrote this post.

    1. My French Heaven says:

      Thank you dear Amanda. Your kind words mean so much to me! Yes, Mimi calls the shooting blind from the hip the “Stephanique”… 🙂

  20. all great tips Stéphane. I’m totally going to try the “shooting blind”…we’ll see what happens :>)

    1. My French Heaven says:

      Yep, just point, shoot and pray. Take several at a time. One is bound to be good…

  21. Once again, wonderful tips. I’ll have to practice with my kids. 🙂

    1. My French Heaven says:

      Yes! Go harass those kids! They owe you!!!

      1. LOL. It gets a bit tricky in the teen years. 🙂

  22. Wonderful photos and tips, Stephane 🙂

    1. My French Heaven says:


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