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portrait-shoot-tips Shooting Tips

Think Like A Cinematographer & Make Portrait Shoots A Breeze

By Max Bridge on November 11th 2015

The prospect of a professional shoot can be a daunting thing.  This feeling mostly affects new photographers but keeping your nerves under control is not a problem limited solely to amateurs. One common cause for concern can be directing, “What do I say/have them do?” Another might be the very real worry that you’ll experience a creative block. It happens.

If any of you read that little blurb at the bottom (the bit about me), you’ll know that I suffer from a back problem. At the age of 23, I’d achieved my dream of working in the film industry. That was ripped away when my back problems started, and I was housebound for two years. I made the decision a few years ago to stop letting it rule my life and instead to try and rule it. I couldn’t stand the thought of no longer producing images and so turned my knowledge toward photography.

It’s been a hard struggle; my back has had a significant impact on my twenties and as the five-year anniversary approaches, please forgive me for being uncharacteristically emotional.



Your Nerves Can Ruin A Portrait Shoot

Now, why am I telling you this? I’m not usually one to divulge my personal life online. Far from it. Due to everything that has happened, I put A LOT of pressure on myself and my business to succeed. In all honesty, an unhealthy amount. That pressure has led me to make mistakes.

On one of my first shoots, I was so nervous (verging on panic attack), that I barely changed any of my camera settings! Oddly enough, I got some really good photos, despite running on adrenaline only.

After that session, I vowed to stop letting my emotions get the better of me. Realistically, it doesn’t work simply saying to yourself “I will not let that happen again!” Things don’t work like that. So I came up with a system. Something so simple that it would allow me to continue shooting no matter how I felt. As time has gone by, the panic has subsided, but the technique remains.


Think Like A Cinematographer For Easier Portrait Sessions

Quite a while back now, I was watching Lighting 101, and Pye was talking about “working angles.” It got me thinking about how I approach a shoot, and thus the idea of divulging far too much about my personal life was born; don’t worry it won’t happen again. My technique came from my university education (clearly money well spent) and my work in the film industry.

I did a degree in Television and Video Production and one of the principles they taught us was how to capture a scene. I won’t go into detail with it, but the classic technique is to use establishing shots to begin your scene and then gradually move the camera in closer as the emotion or tone of the scene changes. Simply put, going from a wide establishing shot to a close-up.

In many respects, the method is comparable to the classic photo essay that used to regularly adorn magazines. We’re using our photography to tell a story. You can’t tell a story with portraits alone. Can you? Utilizing this technique not only gives you a fairly clear structure to your sessions, helping to calm the nerves, but it also provides your clients with more variety.



I’ve watched a lot of the SLR Lounge tutorials and have come to realize that Lin and Jirsa are masters of this technique, telling stories through their images. All the photographs you see here are taken from an engagement shoot on the Lin and Jirsa blog. Take a look at more photos of the shoot here.

How to Apply This Technique To Your Portrait Shoots

Applying this technique to your portrait sessions is very simple and will help you keep those nerves under control. Firstly, we split our shoot into scenes. Nothing too complex. On your recce (yes, do a recce), find locations that you like and decide on a few areas within those locations. It depends on what you’re shooting, but I wouldn’t have too many unless you want to do a 5-hour long shoot! For my family photography, I stick to 3-4 areas at the most.

When you’ve begun each scene, you then need to think about coverage. The simplest way to do this is to start wide and then move in. Start with your wide establishing shots, then gradually move in until you’re ending on close-ups and detail shots. It’s that simple.

Of course, it’s not that easy. You still need to think about good composition, directing your subjects AND change your camera settings. But having this defined structure will help you along the way.



You don’t have to follow my advice, or anyone else’s for that matter. I do encourage you, however, to come up with a system. You never know when panic may strike. Having a system in place will help you remain calm and, therefore, be more creative.

I’ve always found education to be another great way to raise your confidence. In the past, nothing would help me more than learning some new technique and feeling like a better photographer for it. Make sure you check out the SLR Lounge Store for some of the things we offer and also click on those Rewinds above, I haven’t put them there just for fun!

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Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Stephen Glass

    Great article.

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  2. David Hill

    Sound advice Max. Great article which I enjoyed reading. Dave

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  3. Paul Nguyen

    This is a very good article.

    Directing and showing subjects how to pose is something that is often overlooked in photography. For anyone who has had any formal education in photography (e.g. a bachelor’s degree), whilst most of it is very useful if you want to become a commercial and editorial photography, you lack the skills necessary to be able to pose people well (in my opinion anyway).

    The change is very stark for anyone who has spent a while working with models who know how to pose themselves and who are very good at taking direction and are very aware of how they look on camera.

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