How Top Photographers Shoot Great Portraits

by David Walker

 A good way to improve your skills in any genre of photography is to study the work of the masters. For those interested in portraiture, Greg Heisler's new book, called 50 Portraits, is an invaluable resource. A student of the late portrait master Arnold Newman, Heisler has spent his career making memorable portraits of musicians, actors, politicians, athletes, and other notable people. His new book is full of engaging stories about his encounters with those subjects and how he conceptualized the portraits he made of them. The book also offers detailed information about the cameras, lighting, and props he used for each portrait. 

This month's issue of PDN features  excerpts from the Heisler's book to give our readers a sampling of Heisler's creative range and technical methods. Meanwhile, previous issues of PDN have featured stories about the work and techniques of other accomplished portrait photographers. Their styles and approaches vary widely. But all offer useful how-to insight for PDN readers interested in honing their technique or exploring ways to connect with subjects, or who are looking for creative inspiration.

Portrait Lighting 

How I Got That Shot: David Bowman Lights a Rock 'n Roll Portrait

Shooting Brian Setzer's portrait in a busy hotel lobby–a location chosen at the last minute–meant adjusting the lighting to compensate for reflective walls.

How I Got That Shot: Portrait of a Football Hit Man

Nathaniel Welch talks about lighting and shooting James Harrison, one of the NFL's most controversial linebackers.

How I Got That Shot: Lighting Death Row Portraits

How Justin Clemons lit the death row portraits that he photographed for Marie Claire UK.

Creating Environmental Portraits

Danny Clinch: Documentary-Style Portraiture

The music shooter talks about approaching environmental portraits like a documentarian, keeping the light source natural and relying on an arsenal of cameras.

Photo Gallery: Danny Clinch's Environmental Portraits


Mackenzie Stroh: Exploring Personality Through Portraiture

The portrait photographer talks about going on location "blind" and using lighting, props or anything else to highlight the subject's personality.

Photo Gallery: Mackenzie Stroh's Environmental Portraits


Jason Schmidt: On the Importance of Space in Portraiture

The photographer discusses why he's not comfortable shooting on a blank background and his ongoing series of portraits featuring contemporary artists.

Photo Gallery: Jason Schmidt's Environmental Portraits


Eric Ogden: Environmental Portraiture That Tells a Story

The portrait photographer explains how photographing his subjects in a setting helps him draw out their personalities and bring a fresh perspective to a celebrity photo.

Photo Gallery: Eric Ogden's Environmental Portraits


Assistant to Professional: Miller Mobley's Transition

Miller Mobley taught himself how to shoot and light portraiture by studying books by Annie Leibovitz and Richard Avedon, and then practiced by photographing strangers he met on his travels, as well as by self-assigning thematic portrait projects. 

Working With Subjects

Shelby Lee Adams: An Ode to Appalachia

The portrait photographer known for documenting Appalachian culture explains his connection to the people he makes pictures of.

Rineke Dijkstra: Seeing is Believing

A mid-career retrospective of the work of Dutch portrait photographer Rineke Dijkstra, organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum, emphasizes photography’s role as a tool for empathy and understanding. In this story, Dijkstra talks to PDN about her best-know portrait projects, and how she approached them. http://www.pdnonline.com/features/Rineke-Dijkstra-See-4457.shtml

Costume National: Jim Naughten on Photographing the Herero People

For his new book, Jim Naughten created typological photographs of Namibia’s Herero people, whose military and civilian clothes are symbols of their historic struggle against colonialism.  

Picture Story: Beijing's Basement Dwellers

In photojournalist Sim Chi Yin's "Rat Tribe" series, service workers who live in the basements of Beijing office towers provide an inspirational reflection on China's economic and cultural transformation. 

Storytelling Through Portraiture

Alejandro Chaskielberg's Moonlit Portraits for Oxfam

The Argentine photographer known for his cinematic images discusses his unusual assignment of taking nighttime portraits in drought-stricken Kenya for the NGO.

Joel Meyerowitz on What He's Learned: Part I

Within this wide-ranging interview with Joel Meyerowitz about his 50-year career, he discusses his approach to making portraits with a view camera.

Helping Refugees Tell Their Story in Words and Portraits

Brian Sokol explains his inspiration and technique for portraying refugees in an unusually intimate, human way, and the lessons he’s learned from refugees he’s met around the world. 

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