My first portrait session and what I learned


Mar 2, 2012
One of my friends asked me to take her portrait for her new website (family counseling). She prefaced her email request with saying that “you take such wonderful dog pictures you think you could take one of me?” I didn’t say a thing, just wrote to her and said I would give it a try but warned her she would be my first subject and that there would be no charge. I did some reading on setting, things to be aware of, e.g., clothing, etc., and of course lighting, positions, and so on. I read some pretty interesting tips on the process and then post-processing. The lady was in her early sixties and had age lines, wrinkles, blemishes, and an assortment of other spots, and features that indicated a rich life. The shooting went fine, I found a nice completely shaded spot, a neutral wall about 10 feet in the background, and I had my 85mm, 135mm, and my 35 mm Sigma. I had her look to me over her shoulder and up as I was slightly above her and did my best to minimize any areas that I didn’t think were flattering.

I sent several thumbnails to her that I had processed and thought I had hit it on the head, pun intended. Her response was that they were too close and showed too much of her face. She then related to me that she hated her face. On receipt of this feedback I realized that I had assumed too much about what the client had wanted. Her idea about a portrait and mine were totally different. One of the “tips” I had found for doing portrait photography was to spend some one on one time with the client to get to know them and get a feel of what they wanted. Being a friend I obviously knew her but I didn’t really understand her expectations and it led to a failed session. I had assumed the client wanted a head shot in a serene setting for her website. I got that part nailed but it obviously wasn’t what she wanted. One of the things I took away was that there are many definitions about what a portrait is and guiding my client towards what that is should have been my first priority. I'm not posting the pictures because she didn't like them and I respect her privacy. The point of this post is to widen my understanding of what a client wants, how to direct them (and myself) to a mutual agreement prior to taking the shots, and other points that would result in a successful session.

Any comments appreciated.


I'm New Here
Dec 7, 2011
Hi westr70 !

Thank you for your report.

I assume your 5D III was the tool for that portrait session.

Additionally, could you tell us what lenses you used most during that shoot, among the three you mentionned ?

In similar situations, I find it safe to shoot quite a bit "wider than necessary" (eg. 35 or 85 rather than 135 mm, in your case).

This gives more options later on, to crop in PP and adjust to whatever's required by the model / client / situation.

OK you'll be losing some definition BUT ….

… we, as photographers, are often much more concerned by ultimate sharpness, detail etc. than our models are !

Even more true, considering :

- less than perfect skin, spots, wrinkles etc. that we'll have to somehow soften and restrain in PP

- the final purpose of the shot, in this case a low def. web site illustration

Bottom line, it's more a question of overall allure and expressiveness than technical perfection, for real world portraits (as opposed to overprocessed, unreal and so boring magazine pictures, for instance).

A friend of mine who runs a photo boutique somewhere in France, displays a wonderful large print headshot of a pretty model.

Actually, this is heavily recropped from a standing portrait of the lady, shot with a 12 Mpix Nikon D700.

Only a few Megapixels left over, for an unanimously acclaimed result : such a natural, lovely expression to fall in love with !


Thanks for this report- A very well-thought post, and some valuable info for anyone looking to get started in portraiture. I hope she gives you another chance, so you can get a final product you're both happy with, because it sounds like you did a lot of things well, and once you're on the same page you could give her some portraits she'll be very happy with!


Photography is a love affair with life.
Thanks for sharing your experience and lesson learned however I wouldn't personally call it a failed session. It was merely a pre-shoot to get to know the client. Now, it sounds like you're ready for the next session and will know exactly how to take the emphasis off the client. Being a family counseling service, maybe a shot of two people holding hands walking through a park (in the shade) or something that describes what the service is focused on.

Having other photos of the owner in the business environment might help in some way too.
If it were me, I'd ask the owner again exactly what some of her ideas are and build from that.

Good luck and keep us posted with the next one.

I fully understand how you feel about the first shoot. It's happened to me too. I did a shoot for a PT training company and focused on the facility and equipment that makes the gym what it is and separates it from the competition, however, the owner didn't want any of that! Ha! I did portraits of all the trainers previously and those are hung in the business and posted on their website but this second shoot was not what they wanted. ?
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