David Giral Photography Blog | How To: 5 killer tips to build a great portrait portfolio quickly and improve your portrait skills dramatically!
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How To: 5 killer tips to build a great portrait portfolio quickly and improve your portrait skills dramatically!

Before I started shooting portraits in June 2009, I had no real clue on how to go about building a portrait portfolio. Considering I wasn’t planning on waiting 3 to 5 years before having one that looked great (even though I think it can always be better), I decided needed a plan and now I’m sharing it now with you!

Before reading the next paragraph, STOP for a moment think if you’re willing to INVEST time doing this.


You WILL get results if you put the time and effort and focus on following those 5 rules.


Tip number 1: Read Dale Carnegie!

Dale Carnegie? Who’s that guy? He has written the number 1 self-help book of all times;  “How to win Friends and Influence People” (published in 1937). Oh I hear you… you don’t need friends… well you’re wrong… A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.  It’s much easier to take photos of friends, even if they were strangers 5min ago. Your ability to put someone comfortable is a THE skill you need to be an efficient portrait photographer.

So if you on how to interact with people and/or strangers and if you wish you knew what’s missing in your social skills to be a great portrait photographer, then go ahead and read this book and follow those simple rules:

  • Become genuinely interested in other people : To create great portraits, you have to be in the moment, not think about yourself but about the person who is in front of you. Be curious, ask questions about them, tell some jokes and it’ll be a walk in the park to photograph them.
  • Smile: This one is number one in my book! It helps get rid of negative thoughts and will attract you happy and receptive people to photograph.

  • Be a good listener: It helps making someone comfortable, happy, confident and more relaxed. Being a good conversationalist is a great skill to have and it starts by … listening.
  • Talk in the terms of the other person’s interest: One way to succeed in portraiture is asking what other person wants. For that reason I always ask clients what’s his/her intent for their pictures and what they wish to project.
  • Make the other person feel important and do it sincerely: Your model has to feel important and comfortable, it is the center of attention and it should retain all your focus. When you shoot a portrait the world outside just disappears, it’s like a communion between you and your subject.

This is GOLD, it’s so easy to implement you’ll be wondering why you never tried it before. Stick this on your wall, on your IPhone and let the magic work. Use your camera to give you confidence and look at people straight in the eyes and SMILE! Reading this book has been a transforming experience for me and it could be the same for you if you take the time to go through the each tip diligently.

Tip Number 2: Shoot strangers, lots of strangers

First, you’ll learn to deal with rejection. You will also learn all the possible responses to “Hi, would you mind if I took a picture of you?”. Second, remember that

strangers are friends you haven’t met YET!

People who accept to have their pictures taken by smiling photographers are usually great people and you’ll make friends with a lots of them. It’s also a great way to adapt to different types of personalities and face types.

When I started shooting portraits, I went 6 weeks shooting people EVERY single day (for an hour) in the streets with just a D200+85mm F/1.8 and a SB800 with a diffuser (as a fill). I would walk to someone, smile and ask “Hi, would you mind if I took a few pictures of you?”. If the response was yes, I would snap no more than 15-20 pictures (2-5 minutes), take the person’s email and send them the picture once it’s edited. In that 6 week span, I approached close to 300 people in old Montreal, photographed close to 150. What the most important is that I met a LOT of amazing people, I learned how to work through the approach anxiety, how to get good shots within 2-3 minutes, how to adapt to people’s energy. After a while, you know who’ll say yes and who to avoid. By being courteous, smiling and even a little bit quirky, everything goes well 99% of the time. I also got really more confident along the way. Now, I do it from time to time when I see someone who’s

Remember to check your camera settings before approaching someone. Feel free to give them advices on how to pose (like tilting the head down… nooo… not that much… just a tiny bit… see, that’s much better!)

Tip Number 3: Value feedback

Honestly, unless you’re good at evaluating your pictures without judgment and with accuracy, post your pictures online, ask for honest feedback and criticism for professionnals but also from non-professionnals (remember that clients are non professionals, technical perfection is meaningless if the client does not like the picture). Failure does not exist and even behind a negative critic there is a lesson to learn.

Remember that when they will review the pictures, they will see it from their perspective, take their comments as feedback. Some (very very few) people just might never LOVE their pictures. This is fine as long as you feel you gave all you had into those shots.

Tip Number 4: Shoot events and/or do portraits marathons

The upgraded version of shooting strangers is shooting a LOT of strangers at the SAME time!

Yes sure what events? I can’t shoot portraits… now how do you think I’ll get hired for that! Here are a few options: Photograph people in a parade, people are happy to be there and will be more inclined to say yes. . Another option is to go to clubs and shoot all evening and post pictures online, it’s a great way to make yourself known and to get a lot of practice and once you’re good you’ll be able to get paid for it.

However, my personal preference to develop a portrait portfolio is doing portraits marathons. Shoot a group of persons one after the other during a whole day or an afternoon. My most memorable experience in that aspect was shooting headshots of a whole class (27 students) of 2nd year acting students in barely 4h less than 3 months after having started shooting portraits. Shooting a different stranger ever 5-10 minutes was like being on a rollercoaster and going in a trance, there is no room for over-thinking things in that situation. That experience was amazing and a stepping stone to more amazing experiences later.

Repeat this section several times during 6 months and your skills will increase so dramatically people will think you’ve been doing that for a long time.

Tip Number 5: Attends photography workshops

Now you’ve gone through the first 4 tips, it’s time to confront yourself to the reality and get feedback from professional photographers. First you will learn valuable advices about learning how to light and uses strobes and flashs. Second, you will see them work with models and you’ll be able to check how different your process is compared to theirs. You will also notice what’s missing in your workflow. I attended a Learning to Light workshop 5 months after starting doing portraiture and I got: great pictures from my portfolios, great advices from an amazing photographer and teacher with 40 years of experience, new photographer friends and a bunch of easy techniques and tips on how to light your subjects.

There are other workshops around, you’re welcomed to share them in your comments and share what you’ve learned from them.

Tip number 6: the usual …

Sorry I lied about the 5 tips.

The usual advices are to check websites such as:

  • Lighting Essentials: Great tips about lighting and pro photography business.
  • strobist: Great tips on lighting. I hear good things about their workshops.
  • Model Mayhem: Great place to find models, a good starting point too.

Thanks for viewing!

Note: all photos presented here were taken in the context of this post.

David Giral is a published Montreal/Toronto based editorial and commercial professional photographer specialized in architecture, interiors, portrait and travel photography.

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Text, photographs, and other media are © Copyright David Giral (or others when indicated) and are not in the public domain and may not be used on websites, blogs, or in other media without permission from David Giral.

David Giral
  • Alvin

    Well, thanks for the 5 killer tips and i appreciate that so much !! Especially the skill that u mention ” SMILING it’s good and that’s the way to take a good portrait photos ” Really like that’s and i’m going to learn that and will be using that skill in future =) Thanks David !

    2011/01/15 at 6:27 am
  • Hashim

    That was really helpful and has definitely given me something to think about.

    How did you attract paid clients to hire you? Is it to offer your prices low and build it upwards?

    2011/07/11 at 6:28 pm
  • Yolanda

    Thank you for all this information and ideas. I just wondered how does it work with model releases? Is it OK to show pictures of people for competitions, portfolios, advertising etc if you only had their verbal agreement to a photo?
    Thank you

    2011/08/13 at 4:16 pm

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