Formal Portrait – Questions For a Novice Photographer to Ask Beforehand

Most beginners take photos to capture an event or moment in time: a birthday party, a trip, a new family member, a cherished pet. These are usually considered “snapshots”. What we all like about good snapshots is that they remind us of stories.

techniques formal portrait photo

Photo by Elvin; ISO 160, f/4.5, 1/160-second exposure.

What about a portrait taken in neutral surroundings, thereby robbing us of the story aspect? See if you can answer the following seven questions the next time you want to shoot a portrait.

1. What part of the subject’s character can we capture? For a portrait to be considered good, it must reveal an important part of the subject’s character that can be identifiable to those who know them. Talk with your subject, and discuss what part of their character or personality they want noticed.

2. Is the subject ready? A portrait needs to be taken when the subject is comfortable and at ease, both with his or her appearance, and the surroundings. If people are stressed or rushed, this is not the right time to try to grab a great portrait. That stress will probably be visible in the finished product.

3. Is the photographer ready? The need for this question should be self-evident. Keep in mind that it is not enough that the photographer feels ready. Does the subject feel that the photographer is ready? If not, we will be back to question #2 above. The photographer needs to be prepared and relaxed throughout the session.

4. Is the lighting correct? Without a doubt, the best light for capturing a portrait is natural daylight. A talented photographer can take full creative advantage of the lighting choices brought about by outdoor conditions. A common technique is to have the subject sit near a window. Since nature can be fickle and uncooperative, photographers need to have artificial lighting available. An on-board camera flash tends to be harsh, so access to one or more studio flashes is a necessity.

5. Is an appropriate background available? You must always pay close attention to the scenery behind the subject. Outdoors, you may have access to trees, flowers, mountains, sea, or a beautiful morning or evening sky. Indoors, one can use a backdrop. In today’s high tech world, it’s very easy to digitally replace a backdrop with any background you desire.

formal portrait photo techniques

Photo by Jane Gross

6. Are special clothing and props required? A portrait is usually a rare photograph of a subject, and there may be times when special clothing or props help tell the story. Think of a drum major or an athlete. They may want to be photographed as if participating in their favorite activity. In some cases, even a hint of their special clothing tells the right story. Just make sure that props do not distract from the main subject.

7. What type of frame is being considered? The kind of framing that the subject is considering can influence how the portrait is taken. Talk to your subject and, if possible, talk to others in their immediate circle. Find out how people plan to display the finished work of art.

Producing the perfect portrait may seem hard at first but answering these seven questions can help novices produce portraits that will be cherished for decades.

About the Author:
Richard Killey ( is an amateur photographer who shares the love of his hobby with readers of his website.

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5 responses to “Formal Portrait – Questions For a Novice Photographer to Ask Beforehand”

  1. Thank you for using my photograph of “the groom” as an example. To see more of my photos please check out my website at Thank you so much!

  2. K.Murat says:

    Nice article. Excellent exposition and colors on the second photo!
    I guess an article about common mistakes made by novice photographers might complement your tutorial:

  3. These are great wedding formals tips which are very helpful to get everyone posed and ready for the formals. As a wedding photographer in San Francisco Bay Area, I have photographed many weddings and the group pictures are the one which everyone is looking for after the wedding. People just love to see themselves and be able to remember the wedding day afterwards.

    There are few tutorials I have also created and posted on my wedding photography blog site:

    Hope these are useful for others while preparing for the formals. The process is easy when one is prepared and plan ahead.


  4. Dan says:

    Good beginner tips. Thanks

  5. I do like it when you said that a portrait is a rare type of photography that captures the subject, so it is important that a special clothing is worn to make sure to tell the story. I guess since it is going to be a professional portrait, the only reasonable thing for the person to wear is formal clothing. This is something that I will take note of so that I do not make a mistake during the picture taking day. Thank you.

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