Blog Home Contributor Shooting Portrait Photography That’s Anything but Ordinary

Discover tips from six pro photographers as they share their secrets for capturing intimate and extraordinary portraits.

Some portraits define a generation. Consider Dorothea Lange’s ​Migrant Mother, Arthur Sasse’s photo of Albert Einstein, age 72, sticking out his tongue, or Steve McCurry’s picture of Sharbat Gula, commonly known as ​Afghan Girl​—to name just a few from the 20th century. A photograph of a powerful face can haunt our imaginations and even restructure public policy, but in a digital world, it’s harder than ever to create a portrait that stands the test of time.

Take a quick scroll through Instagram, and you’ll see what we mean. There are currently over nine million images tagged #MakePortraits, and another two million filed under #PortraitOfTheDay. And that’s just a fraction of the portraits out there on the internet. But, as the popular hashtag #PostMorePortraits suggests, we still want more.

With so many images flooding our consciousness, it takes something special to break through the haze. Maybe it’s a piercing set of eyes, a striking historical reference, or a mysterious expression. We crave portraits that surprise us, stop us in our tracks, and defy the status quo. We asked six photographers to tell us how they collaborate with models and friends to create images that are far from ordinary. Below, they share their stories plus behind-the-scenes tips for emerging portraitists.

1. “I’m inspired by anything and everything that surrounds me: nature, people, objects, and the atmosphere of the moment.”

Alexei Vladimir

Shooting Portrait Photography That’s Anything but Ordinary — Seek Inspiration Everywhere

Image by Alexei Vladimir. Gear: ​Canon Mark II​ camera, ​50mm 1.8​ lens. Settings: Exposure 1/1000​ sec; f1.8; ISO ​1600​.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

This is a portrait of the model Raudha Athif from April 2015. For me, its meaning lies in the fact that the invisible part of who we are is more important than what’s visible. No matter how trite it might sound, the soul is what matters. To see that invisible element, you need to capture a special look, and Rauda had special eyes. It was sad that such a soulful person passed away so young.

Pictured: [1] Alexei Vladimir [2] Alexei Vladimir

Pro Tip

​I’m inspired by anything and everything that surrounds me: nature, people, objects, and the atmosphere of the moment. Most often, inspiration is unplanned and arrives unbidden, but you can also create it yourself if you take the initiative and look for the creative muse by browsing the works of other artists.

For example, I’m passionate about how Kristian Schuller captures the contrast between ethereal clothing by famous designers with extreme atmospheres and environments. I’m moved by the exuberant spirit of surrealism in the photography of Tim Walker and the naturalness and ease conveyed in pictures by Patrick Demarchelier.

Over the years, as I’ve tried to find new directions, I’ve learned from other famous artists, not just photographers. From some, I’ve learned how to use light or how to stage a scene. I’ve used that inspiration and developed it into my own style. My ideas come from art, paintings, exhibitions, films, and things I see on the street. Inspiration can come from the past as well. I do not know what will inspire me tomorrow.

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2. “We see a huge number of photos every day, so to catch the eye of the viewer, your picture must be different.”

Katerina Klio

Shooting Portrait Photography That’s Anything but Ordinary — Try Something Different

Image by Katerina Klio. Gear: ​Canon 5d Mark II camera, EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens​. Settings: Focal length ​24,0mm​; exposure ​1/200​ sec; ​f3,2​; ISO 400.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

We took this photo in late autumn. It was very cold, and the model had a warm jacket to put on during the shoot. Her blushy red nose is real, although, of course, I used special makeup to create the overall effect.

This is one photo where I did the makeup myself, which is funny because I am not a professional. I kept my technique simple in order to make the skin as beautiful as possible, placing pink accents in the right places, as Rococo (or Late Baroque) artists did.

My mom helped me during this shoot too. In fact, there were no flowers on this tree, so I cut almost all the flowers from my mother’s flowerbeds, and we placed some of them onto the branches of the tree. My mom sat down below and held a large bouquet. Things aren’t always as they appear. We create our own reality in photographs.

Shooting Portrait Photography That’s Anything but Ordinary — Create Your Own Reality

Image by Katerina Klio

Pro Tip

We see a huge number of photos every day, so to catch the eye of the viewer, your picture must be different. It could be your idea, an unconventional visual element or detail, an interesting model, unusual lighting or styling, or an unexpected sensation or emotion that sets you apart. The key is capturing something people don’t see every day. Think about a backstory for the characters in your photographs.

I strongly suggest collaborating with makeup artists when shooting portraits. If you have a good makeup artist, you’re already halfway there. For me, the kind of light doesn’t matter. It can be natural or artificial, but at the same time, it is important that my model is lit more than her surroundings. The viewer’s eye will go to the brightest spots in the picture first. For that reason, I either try to look for a dark background or shine a light onto the model.

The emotions of the model are key as well. And in order to get the feeling you want, immerse yourself in the state of mind you want to evoke. Create an atmosphere while shooting—music is one easy way to do this.

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3. “For me, a portrait is all about the artist’s personal vision.”

AnnaTamila

Shooting Portrait Photography That’s Anything but Ordinary — Personal Vision

Image by AnnaTamila. Gear: Canon Mark III camera, Canon 50 1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/4000 sec; f2.5; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

We did an industrial shoot with my friend James in an abandoned building in Porto, but as we finished and were about to head home, I saw this yellow fence. I like backgrounds and walls with strong colors, and I like working in the sun for fashion portraits, so I made sure I didn’t miss out on this moment. We did a couple of portraits there and then continued on our way.

Shooting Portrait Photography That’s Anything but Ordinary — Trust Your Gaze

Image by AnnaTamila

Pro Tip

For me, a portrait is all about the artist’s personal vision. The most important thing when I’m working on a portrait is the ability to see deeply. Trust your gaze, and then improve upon it. You can work very simply, without any stylists or accessories, or you can have a big team. Either way, you need to figure out what approach works best for you. It’s also important to remember that your vision as an artist is fluid and ever-changing. We develop and grow over time. My main advice, then, is to have confidence in yourself, search for your vision, and constantly expand upon it.

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4. “Before working on a portrait shoot, I write down several phrases and words on a piece of paper.”

Tatsiana Tsyhanova

Shooting Portrait Photography That’s Anything but Ordinary — Work with Color and Texture

Image by Tatsiana Tsyhanova. Gear: Nikon D700 camera, Nikon 50mm 1.4g lens. Settings: Exposure 1/160 sec; f2.0; ISO 250.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

Before this shoot, I knew that I wanted to evoke a soft, fluffy, silent atmosphere using colors, textures, and the position of the model in the frame. For this, I decided to use the maximum amount of white and a little bit of beige.

Shooting Portrait Photography That’s Anything but Ordinary — Create a Story

Image by Tatsiana Tsyhanova

Pro Tip

Before working on a portrait shoot, I write down several phrases and words on a piece of paper. These words help me to create and imagine an interesting story, which then helps me to choose the right model and location. Before the shoot, I always tell the model about the emotions and poses I’m looking for. Also, it often helps to collaborate with stylists and makeup artists who like my ideas and understand my vision.

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5. “Combine seemingly incompatible ideas to make your images stand out.”

Toporkova

Shooting Portrait Photography That’s Anything but Ordinary — Get Innovative

Image by Toporkova. Gear: ​Nikon D610​ camera, ​50mm f/1.4​ lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f8; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

It was my birthday, and I wanted to create something special. I got together with my team—my model and make-up artist—and we did this shoot. It was four years ago now, but I still proud of this photo.

Pictured: [1] Toporkova [2] Toporkova

Pro Tip

Seek inspiration from sources outside of photography, whether it’s architecture or nature. Combine seemingly incompatible ideas to make your images stand out. Always be one step ahead of new trends so that your work does not get lost in a sea of similar photos. Be sure to study art history as well as contemporary art, but don’t try to repeat or copy someone else’s work. Take inspiration from different sources, combine them, and add your own twist. We all have different backgrounds and unique experiences—tap into yours.

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6. “Always follow your intuition and pursue the projects that excite you.”

Lipik Stock Media

Shooting Portrait Photography That’s Anything but Ordinary — Pursue Projects that Excite You

Image by Lipik Stock Media. Gear: C​anon 5D Mark 3​ camera, ​Canon 300\2,8L​ lens with ​macro rings​. Settings: Focal length ​300mm​; exposure 1/125 sec; ​f29​; ISO ​100​.

What’s the story behind this photo?​

I did this shoot several years ago on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day. It just so happened that this was the only free date on the model’s schedule. In Ukraine, we don’t have many international faces, so I was happy to see this young girl in photos on my friend’s Facebook page. As I learned, she is some kind of African princess, and she’s here in Ukraine for university.

I invited her for a photo shoot. She looks beautiful all the time, so although I invited a makeup artist, she arrived at the shoot already wearing makeup. I wanted to shoot against a black background and play with light and shadow in post-production.

Shooting Portrait Photography That’s Anything but Ordinary — Follow Your Intuition

Image by Lipik Stock Media

Pro Tip

Always follow your intuition and pursue the projects that excite you. Those are the moments when you’ll make your best work.

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Top Image by AnnaTamila

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