By: Craig Schreiner

One of my most inspiring assignments as a photojournalist involved the story of a dancer whose left foot had been crushed in a car crash on an icy road in winter. Over the course of the next year, my pictures showed how she persevered to teach, create choreography and, ultimately, to dance again.

When I first met my subject, she was sitting on the edge of the rehearsal stage, her foot in a cast, explaining her choreography to other dancers. The movements, feelings, expressions which she had been able to show the dancers, she now had to describe, explain, express in words. What does this have to do with portrait photography?

Over the past several months, we have had to adapt, be creative and find new, unexpected ways of working. Today, I’d like to give you some tips for doing professional portraits when you may have minimal equipment to work with.

Most cameras perform well with auto-exposure and auto-focus settings, so use those for simplicity.  Users of iPhones and Androids should use the camera’s highest resolution.  With a digital camera (DSLR), use the RAW or LARGE JPEG setting.  If you want to make prints or use the photo for a printed product, you’ll likely need the higher resolution file generated by a DSLR. 

Phone cameras can be zoomed in and out by dragging your thumb and index finger on the screen. Drag the frame into the middle range between wide angle and telephoto. For most professional portraits, we avoid wide angle lenses which distort features and make subjects appear smaller and farther away.  DSLR users, this applies to you as well.  Lenses with a focal length of 50mm. and more will work well for your portrait.

This should tell you something else: Don’t do a selfie.  Let someone else take your picture.

Let’s consider three things for success with your portrait: Light, background and composition.

Light. Indoors or outdoors, the light on the subject’s face should be even and soft.  The light source should be in front of the subject or slightly to one side.  Avoid both deep shade and bright, high-contrast light.

Indoors, position your subject near a window on a sunny day, where the sunlight coming in is diffused, not direct. Turn off electric lights and florescent tubes in the room.

Position your subject so they are slightly facing the window and the light is falling evenly and softly across their face. Make a picture and look at it. You should be able to see detail in both the highlight and shadow areas. It should have a natural kind of brightness.

Outdoors, if you are limited to the harsh light of mid-day, find some partial shade where the sun is reflecting from bright surfaces like buildings, stone, water and glass. Most people know the term “golden hour” for photography.  Early and late in the day, sunlight has a soft, warm quality which is especially pleasing for portraiture.

Background. Background is what we can see behind the subject. Keep the background simple. Some photographers are so intent on the subject, they forget to notice the tree branches, power lines and clutter in the background.  Sometimes, the background can add information about the subject. Example:  A portrait of a pilot might be done from a low angle with the sky and a jet contrail as the background.

DSLR users and some camera phone users have the option to influence depth of field. Depth of field is how much is sharp and recognizable in front of your subject and behind your subject. That’s determined by the aperture of a lens.  Using an f4 or f2.8 lens aperture means both the foreground and background will look softer, putting more emphasis on your subject.

COMPOSING.  Now you’re ready to put your subject in the setting and lighting you’ve selected.  Most portraits are vertical pictures, so hold the phone/camera that way. If you have a wall or solid surface for a backdrop, ask your subject to move forward a few steps. Ask them to look at the camera but twist at the waist toward the light source so one shoulder is closer. Positioning the subject at that very slight angle rather than directly facing you, results in a more three-dimensional look.

Make the portrait a team effort and have fun.  How the subject feels—stressed, relaxed, nervous, confident—will be seen in the picture.  Compose the picture by moving closer or farther away. Stand on a stool for a view from above. Frame the subject in a doorway or window. Include an ornate railing to add artistic lines. See everything in your picture. See the fine details. Is a necklace centered? Is a lapel pin right-side-up?  Is there a reflection in the glasses?  Does the clothing look straight?

If you have questions about portraits, camera settings, creative controls with camera and lens or ideas to share, feel free to email me at I am happy to hear from you.

Stay safe and stay well.  I hope to see you on campus again one day very soon.

Go Warhawks!

– Craig Schreiner