A Pre-Portrait Checklist

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Communication is the most important aspect of portraiture. It starts with initial client contact and then moves onto communication during the session. To make the best possible image, you need to start before they arrive. Here’s a few simple tips that will make your subjects look better during future sessions. This translates into better portraits and happier clients. Feel free to copy and even improve these suggestions and be sure to send them to a client before a shoot or post them on your website.

Keep jewelry to a minimum—unless the subject is a jeweler or sells jewelry. Even if a bracelet or necklace is a good luck charm or was given to the subject by a beloved family member, I ask they use it for just one series of images. The same is true of watches. They especially distract from the subject of the portrait.

Wear solid colors. Nothing detracts from a subject’s face more than clothes covered in busy patterns and prints. I always tell clients that the time to wear these kinds of outfits is for fun, not during a portrait session when emphasis should be on the their face.

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Make sure the clothes fit: While this might seem obvious, too many times I’ve seen subjects wearing ill-fitting clothes that do nothing but divert the attention of the viewer.

The camera shows the truth. If the subject has skin problems such as peeling from a sun tan, or incomplete tan coverage for the clothing they’re planning to wear, I suggest they reschedule. Makeup, filters, or even digital tricks can correct minor problems but they’re not miracle cures.

Hairstyles. To provide variety in the portrait, suggest that the subject style their hair slightly differently for each change of clothing during a shoot. You can change the kind lighting used, but nothing photographic can change the way their hair looks.

Don’t forget hats. Hats can change the look of a subject’s portrait too. Look for fun and interesting hats in thrift and discount stores.

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Makeup. Suggest that female subjects change their make up style and color when changing hairstyles or outfits. I made some suggestions to one client about the type of lipstick she wore, and not only did she like the resulting photographs better, her husband liked the way she looked too.

Footwear. Wearing the right shoes can make as a much a difference as the right makeup. Ask female subjects to bring along at least one pair of shoes with the highest heels they have—or can borrow—even if it won’t show in the portrait. It changes the way they stand and gives them a bit of height that adds to the overall drama of the subject.

Expression. There is an old photographer’s expression—ESP—Expression Sells Portraits. The expression on a subject’s face tells the story of who they are. If they only have one look on their face, their portraits will appear monotonous. Most people—even supermodels—have one side of their face that photographs better than the other side, but don’t let that stop you from posing them one way or another.

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