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7 People and Portrait Photography Myths Busted

In this article, I'm going to list and then bust eight common portrait photography myths and just people photography in general.

First, let's look at the list of myths. Do you buy into any of these?

  1. I need expensive gear to do portrait photography
  2. I'm too shy to do portraits
  3. I don't have a studio so I can't do portraits
  4. Portraits are for professionals only
  5. I'm a natural light photographer I don't need to use flash
  6. Shooting portraits in burst mode is a good idea
  7. Portraits are always too stiff and boring

Maybe a few of them did get you, so let's take a deeper look as to why those are all false and do a little myth busting.

#1 – I need expensive gear to do portrait photography

The myth or thinking here is that in order to do good portraits and people photography you need to have top of the line camera and lighting equipment. That you need full frame camera bodies, professional-grade lenses, brand name (e.i. expensive) speedlights, and all the bells and whistles that go with all that.

But the truth couldn't be farther from that.

False: You can do great portraits with an entry-level mirrorless or DSLR camera and kit lens and a simple piece of white cardboard.
This portrait was created in Pushkar, India using the setting sun as a backlight and a simple $16 collapsible reflector I had packed in my suitcase.

While it is true that you need the right tools for the job at hand, you certainly don't have to break the bank. At the simplest level all you need are:

  • A camera with adjustable settings (Manual or some semi-automatic ones are ideal)
  • A lens that is either normal or slightly longer (35mm on a crop sensor or 50mm full frame or more). A mid-range zoom works just fine even a kit lens like my Fuji 18-135mm (or Nikon, Canon, etc. equivalent lenses), for example, does the job.
  • Some type of flash or speedlight. There are many great third-party brands and options (try looking for a used one) on the market now that you can easily pick up a flash for around $40-100.
  •  A reflector to bounce light. This could be as simple as a white piece of cardboard you already have in your house or pick up at an art store for $5 or less. Or you can get a more convenient folding one for not much more than that. You can find those for about $15-50.

So, assuming you already have a camera and at least one lens, you can get started for $50-150. Of course, as you advance and improve your skills you an upgrade but don't let it stop you from getting started.

55mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/250th – NO flash. Notice the settings here – a kit lens will do the same job!
47mm, ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/250th. I wanted to add some light into their eyes so here flash was used. I used a Canon flash but you can get a Yongnuo one for about $50, add that to a white umbrella for $16, a $10 bracket to hold them together and the whole setup can be yours for about $75!
NOTE: See my list of recommended equipment for portrait photography here. It includes both small and larger budget options.

#2 – It's not something shy people can do

Many people believe that you have to be outgoing, extroverted, and cannot be shy if you want to do portraits. That being shy in some way will inhibit or prevent you from creating good portraits.

While it does help in some scenarios it's certainly not true in a general sense.

False: I was very shy in high school and college but I went on to photograph over 250 weddings and many, many portraits. Portrait photography isn’t about public speaking, it’s about relating to people one-on-one.

So how does one overcome or work around being shy then?

My first bit of advice if this resonates for you, is to start with people you know and trust. Someone who will be patient with you and not make you feel intimidated.

Once you get started, though, you will quickly find out that people aren’t as scary as you may think. All you have to do is ask them about themselves and let them do the talking.

An easy way to get started is by photographing kids. They are usually animated and some will pose willingly for you, make faces, stand on their head, etc. But kids are easy to talk to, just act silly and they're all yours.

This was supposed to be our chance to capture an epic sunset shot of the Taj Mahal. But it was so cloudy and smokey we could barely see it and there was no sunset to speak of. So I paid this kid 20 rupees to jump for me a few times to add a human element. It wasn't until later when I reviewed the images did I notice the head at the bottom of the frame, but I think it's funny and adds something.
Three chicas posing for me in Nicaragua. All I did was point the camera at them, the rest is all attitude! That's a lotta sass from 5-year olds, I love these kids.

People feel a rapport with others who they feel a connection with, and ironically being a good listener is a quality that will endear people to you. So you may not need to say more than 10 words and they will like you and want to work with you because you put them first. Made them feel important.

You can start there and work your way up to photographing people you don't know as well or even making street portraits. Or you can jump into the deep end as I did and rip the bandaid off fast.

Street portrait in Havana, Cuba.

My Story of Getting Over Shyness

As part of a college assignment, I had to photograph the following theme – “human form”.

I was petrified.

All my fellow students were photographing nudes and that was WAY out of my comfort zone at the time. But I knew I had to do this if I wanted to progress and grow as a student and photographer.

So I marched down to the gym and found the biggest, buffest, football player looking dude and gathered up all my courage to ask him if he would be willing to come to one of the school studios in 10 minutes and pose for me with his shirt off. The answer? HE was shy!

Can you imagine?!

Anyway, he agreed and we were both terrified but did it anyway and survived. I got a good grade and he got a cool photo of himself.

The moral of that story is that if you want to get past some of your own limitations, fears or perceived weaknesses, sometimes you just have to get over yourself and go for it!

You get to decide what you want to achieve or do, and how badly you want it. Then put in the appropriate amount of effort to get there.

Just remember that most people are more afraid of being photographed than you are of photographing them!

Three generations of lovely Cuban ladies. Now, many years later I'm confident approaching strangers on the street when I travel, even if I don't know the language. People are usually flattered when you ask to take their photo, and want to see it. I send them a copy when it's possible too.

#3 –  I don't have a studio

Another myth is that portraits have to be created in a studio environment.

While many are, that is not the case and environmental portraiture is more popular and common than ever.

False: Some of my best and favorite portraits were taken on location using mostly or all natural light. It’s all about knowing how to find good spots and to use the light effectively.

If you don't have a studio or ever plan to so do, just make sure you have the right equipment for shooting on location (see #1 above).

Learn how to use your gear properly including your camera and a flash (see #6 below). Then practice, practice, practice.

This was shot in a classroom I was teaching in using only light coming from the window. The background is a bit busy though…
So I had some of my students hold up one of my black reflectors as a background in order to make this portrait. A second reflector (silver one) is adding a highlight on her hair from the left. Doesn't this look like it was done in a studio with tons of expensive lighting gear? Nope! Just the window light and two reflectors.

Finding good locations to do portraits isn't always easy but once you find a few good ones you're set. S

hooting indoors is an option too but becomes more limited for space and the amount of light can be challenging to work with as well.

NOTE: We cover a lot of this stuff in more greater depth in our Portrait Fundamentals online course. The doors will be opening soon for the course, for a limited time only.

Make sure you don't miss the early-bird pricing.

Save 25% and grab my free guide, “How to find good light for portraits at midday” just fill in the form below:

#4 – Portrait photography is only for professionals

You may be thinking, “I'm just a beginner to photography, I can't possibly do portraits”. Or that it's something best left for the professionals.

While that may have been true years ago, now it's a lot easier to get started even if you're a newbie.

False: You don’t need to be a master photographer to do portrait photography. Some basic skills and practice is the key. You can even take great portraits with a kit lens.

Anyone can do portrait photography, all it is is taking photos of people.

If you do street photography, or travel photography then likely at some point you have photographed some people. Those are more candid portraits, but they are portraits nonetheless.

Portrait made in Nicaragua in this lady's work area of her house. She's roasting coffee in a pan.
Portrait of a man on the street in Pushkar, India. Of all the images from our tour to India that I posted on Facebook, this one got the most likes, comments and WOWs. You do not need to be a professional photographer to make photos like this. It's images of people that get the most attention in my experience.
This is one of my favorite street portraits, partly because of the story that goes with it. This man was a guide who took people on buggy tours of New Orleans. His mule was misbehaving and he wagged his finger at her and then said, “Give me a kiss”. I had been chatting with him, saw it going down and captured the shot. A print of this image now hangs in tour company's office as tribute to them (they have both passed on).

So it pays for you to learn more about this genre of photography so you can apply to all the types you enjoy doing, especially if you’re an amateur!

You likely also may get asked by family or friends to take their photos for them because you “have a great camera”. So why not be ready and prepared to go a good job of it?!

#5 – I'm a natural light photographer I don't need to use flash

This is a biggie!

Many photographers claim to be “natural light photographers” but what does that even mean exactly?

Yes, it is possible to take some really great portraits using just natural light, I do it myself all the time. In fact, I prefer it!

BUT to say that using flash isn't necessary or to avoid using it as a style really isn't doing anyone any favors.

You're leaving a lot of opportunities on the table that way, on one hand, and on the other, you may not be making the best portraits possible in a given situation.

False: You will frequently encounter less than ideal lighting conditions and as such, it may require using a flash to either overpower the existing light, or to complement or or fill in the shadows.
Here's an example of an image shot with only available or natural light. There is a lot of flare and the windows are blown out or overexposed. You cannot fix that without using flash (or finding another shooting location).
So here's the flash setup using a remote trigger, a speedlight and an umbrella to soften the light.
Here is the resulting final image. Notice how there is now detail in the windows? That is because the flash is providing the light on her and the shutter speed has been increased to expose for the windows.

Two reasons I see some photographer's not using flash also include:

  1. Laziness, it's simply easier to use natural light – Sure using flash is more work but isn't anything that's worth doing, worth doing right? Flash does add complexity, require more gear be hauled, etc., but when you need flash and have it handy – the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.
  2.  Fear – Some photographers are afraid of their flash. It's still in the box it came in and the batteries have never been charged. I can't tell you how many times students have come to my class and taken it out of the box for the very first time.

I will admit I'm guilty of the laziness aspect sometimes. But when it matters and I know I need it to do the best job, I dig out my flash.

As for the fear aspect, anything in the realm of the unknown, anything new you're doing for the first time, can be scary. But flash really isn't that hard or scary if you have the right tools, and learn to use it properly.

Here is another example of just natural light. There are two windows directly behind the camera, so he is being lit from the front which make him look flat and lacks depth. The light also falls off quickly so the background gets really dark, and another issue is the pants hanging from above are getting the same amount of light and are the same tone as the subject so they take too much attention.
This is the same background, same model, but flash has been used here to create more dramatic lighting on him and make the background even darker.
One more example. This was shot at sunset on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. This one was using only the natural light. There are some issues though; the light on his face isn't great, he's mostly in shadow, and the sky is blown out and too bright.
So we added some flash to create this final portrait. The light on his face is much better, you can see light in his eyes. And the added flash has allowed me to underexpose the sky, while still having him correctly exposed.

Make the effort, you'll be glad you did and you may see it transform your portraits from good to great.

#6 – Shooting portraits in burst mode is a good idea

It may seem like a good idea to shoot portraits using burst mode, but trust me, it's not.

Firing off 10-20 frames (or more) in a row of a group or couple, surely you'll get the best images that way, right? Avoid any blinks from the subjects?

Wrong!

False: It is best to press the shutter button deliberately when all the pieces fall into place. The light is right, the pose is right, and the person has the best expression.

There are a few reasons why the theory doesn't work.

First, just shooting rapid-fire doesn't allow you as the photographer to create any rapport with the people you're photographing.

Second, they feel like their the target in a shooting gallery, which doesn't generally help people who are already nervous to relax in front of the camera.

It also creates a lot more work culling the photos to select the best. That means extra work for either you or the subjects or both! In my 25+ years of experience doing portraits, I can tell you without a doubt that people will be a lot happier with THREE really good photos to pick from than 30 mediocre ones.

When you give them only a few carefully shot and selected images where they look good in every frame but have different poses and expressions, there are no bad choices. But when you give them 30 that are all very similar it's actually much harder to pick the best one or two.

I find people agonize over the smallest differences (both photographers and the people in the photos) that really don't matter much in the end.

I've photographed groups of 30 and more where I've managed to get not a single closed eye from anyone in more than a few frames. How did I accomplish that?

By using a tripod, and engaging the people in eye contact so they looked at me, not the camera. Then by pressing the button when I saw they were all in position and looked good. You will get way fewer closed eyes that way – trust me, I know from many, many years of experience.

#7 – Portraits are all stiff and boring

Yes, that is true of many portraits, especially those taken in a studio setting. But it doesn't have to be the case or the norm.

You're the creator, the photographer, you get to do whatever you want.

False: It used to be more common to have posed portraits that were very structured and stiff in appearance and feeling. But that is not the case anymore and lifestyle portraits as well as candids are becoming more popular.

You tell me, are these images stiff and boring? I hope not. Do they each tell a story? I hope so, and that it comes across in each of the images.

One of my husband's uncles and one of his horses.
The other uncle on the homestead. You don't even need to see the person's face to make a compelling and interesting portrait.
Cuban tobacco farmer smoking a cigar from her own product.
Morocco metal craftsman at work.
Organic pineapple farmer in Nicaragua showing his crop.
Indian camel herders having coffee before the day's camel trading begins.

Interesting History Fact

You may find this interesting. Back in the 19th century, when photography was still in its infancy, the film's light sensitivity (we call it ISO now) was very low and exposures had to be quite long. Sometimes a person sitting for a portrait had to hold perfectly still for 2-30 seconds, sometimes minutes!

So to help keep them from moving and keep the face sharp, a sort of torturous looking device called a neck clamp was used to hold their head still. They also usually chose a very somber or serious expression because it was easier to maintain for the duration of the exposure.

Needless to say, those portraits do look a little stiff – no doubt the portrait sitter was also quite uncomfortable. But I think we've come a long way since then and you have more options than the 19th-century photographers.

Conclusion

Hopefully, you've enjoyed this little myth-busting article and picked up some tips that can help you as well.

There are many other myths and misconceptions about portraits and photography in general.

Do you have any you'd like to share? Please do so in the comments below.

Cheers,
Darlene Hildebrandt photographer DPM

NOTE: We cover a lot of this stuff in more greater depth in our Portrait Fundamentals online course. The doors will be opening soon for the course, for a limited time only.

Make sure you don't miss the early-bird pricing.

Save 25% and grab my free guide, “How to find good light for portraits at midday” just fill in the form below:


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