Capturing Personality in Portraiture

Capturing Personality in Portraiture

Portraiture-Personality.jpgThe following guest post on capturing personality in portraiture was submitted by Christina Dickson, a portrait photographer and photography instructor from Portland, Oregon. Her work can be seen at:

Question: What’s the difference between the generic “take your pictures in 20 minutes” portrait studio’s in every mall, and the portrait artists who make hundreds of dollars on a single portrait session?


The end goal of many generic portrait studios is to make a sale.

For successful portrait artists, capturing personality is the end goal.

Great portraitists know how to capture personality, and that is how they make their money.

Capturing personality is an exciting challenge, but it is not impossible. All it takes is attention to detail, and genuine care about your subject as an individual.

First, Investigate

Spend some time getting to know your subject

Portraiture-Personality-Nicole.jpgBefore every shoot, ask questions with sincere interest. Is your client dramatic, or laid back? Do they like quiet moments, or bold statements? Are they more likely to be found surfing a wave, or sitting in a library? Imagine how unprofitable it would be for you to take portraits of a book-worm in the middle of a skate park! You won’t find out about these details unless you inquire.

When I met up with Nicole (pictured left), we spent some time scoping out the location of our shoot at the Dallas Arboretum. As we walked, we talked about her interests, and her pursuits. I found out that while she was a very chic and adventuresome girl, she also had a really soft feminine side that could be captured perfectly in a garden setting. I also noticed that she had a tendency to brush back her side-swept bangs when she was feeling shy. Though this motion seems to be spontaneous in the portrait, it is actually very signature to her personality.

Second, Observe

Watch your subject as you interact with them

Find out their little tendencies. Do they favor one side of their face more than another? Do they blink a lot? Do they like a serious expression more than a smile? If you can find these hidden “signatures”, you will be empowered to capture your client’s personality like no one else.

Third, Engage

If you truly want to highlight your clients’ personality, you will draw them out of their skin.

Portraiture-Personality-Caleb.jpgWhile you are shooting, guide them through the emotions you want to capture with your conversation. Talk to them. Laugh with them. Entertain them. People are most readily themselves with someone they can be comfortable with. Endeavor to be that person.

Unbeknownst to me, Caleb (pictured right) was an aspiring filmmaker who liked very few portraits of himself. As I shot, I chatted with him as friend-to-friend, catching smiles and glances that really defined who he was as an every day person. When Caleb received the prints, he told me that this was his favorite portrait ever taken, because it reminded him of a portrait of his icon, and role model, film maker Mel Gibson.

If you want to be a successful, high income, portrait photographer, remember that your job is to show people the way they see themselves … their personality – and in the most flattering way possible. If you capture the personality of your subjects well, they will tell their friends about you and will continue coming back to you again and again.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography and leadership with

Some Older Comments

  • Lyudmila Menshov May 29, 2012 03:41 am

    I can not agree more that capturing personality is the end goal of a photographer. But does this goal contradicts the goal of making a sale?? I think, on the contrary, it all comes together.

  • D April 19, 2010 01:37 am

    Ha ha, if you can photograph me without the photo looking terrible (over-exposed, under-exposed ect.) or making me look like I've just smoked a whole Central American country's worth of illicit drugs, you know you've made it as a photographer. At least that's what all the *ahem* professional school photographers couldn't do. I've only managed to do it once, anyway.

    I would scroll up to read what Roberto wrote as all I can do is repeat that in mildly different terms.

  • Roberto Galindo February 22, 2010 01:03 pm

    The portrait of a person could be like a landscape one finds while traveling. You do not need to know anything about the geography or history of the place to make a superb picture. In the case of faces, one finds many nuances carved there by the experiences (good or bad) of the individuals, something called expression. Look for the expression and shoot. No need to know anything about the individual.


  • Roberto Galindo February 22, 2010 12:39 pm

    When I saw the picture of Nicole I was distracted by the fact that her arm seems longer than her legs, an effect perhaps do to the angle at what the picture was taken and or the lens. I just don't know. Also I wondered about her left hand. Is it holding her face? And finally, why should she be smiling? Obviously she is smiling at the photographer, like any well behaved subject should do.

    As to Caleb, his portrait could be called "Man with Open Mouth". That's what it is. The rest of his face is not smiling and his paleness adds flatness to it, specially exagerated by his red hair.


  • oluyami January 23, 2010 01:04 am

    Very educating! MyNikon D3000 is to be dlivered to me tomorrow and i've been wondering what to first take with it. Its actually my birthday gift from my mum,so I'll remember all these when capturing her as the first shot on it!

  • Gabriel Meyer January 22, 2010 05:40 pm

    I totaly agree. There has to be a "connection" between the photographer and the subjet. It is always hard to be there facing a person taking shots with a big camera.....I believe that a relaxed model will show much more of its own personality when feeling comfortable.

  • Cheryl January 22, 2010 05:33 pm

    wow the guy smiles like mel gibson. how did that happen? :) very nice!

  • Remi January 22, 2010 01:47 pm

    Great tips, but sometimes you don't have the time to get to know your client.

  • Wayne January 22, 2010 08:04 am

    The question I would have is if trying to catch a natual shot why take the photo on the angle? I do however like the natural presentation but may have cropped harder on the first one. Too much garden in my view, but we all have different perspectives.

  • Michael Silberstein January 22, 2010 07:23 am

    There is a still of portraiture that over looked almost every time. They are Representation Portrait.
    One good example is Gravestones. Portrait of Gravestones are like going down town and taking photos of strangers walking around. They tend to be a little harder to do but worth it. One hard part is you cant ask for them to "pose" for you. You have to give the best portrait with what you have. After all the gravestone is all that we can see of the person.

    [eimg link='' title='Lydia Smith' url='']

  • T-Fiz January 22, 2010 07:16 am

    I tend to tell my models to "never be still", meaning that I want to capture as many "planned-candid" shots as I can, which is why I will use the continuous shutter mode on my camera. Models tend to be more relaxed and themselves just after they think a picture has been taken. So I tell them things like, "Keep walking then turn around; touch your face; walk towards me; etc..." And I always try to capture them as they're getting ready for a pose, and when they laugh at some awkward moment...those tend to be the better shots.

  • Michael Silberstein January 22, 2010 06:58 am

    There is a stial of portraiture that over looked almost every time. They are Representation Portrait.
    One good example is Gravestones. Portrait of Gravestones are like going down town and taking photos of strangers walking around. They tend to be a little harder to do but worth it. One hard part is you cant ask for them to "pose" for you. You have to give the best portrait with what you have. After all the gravestone is all that we can see of the person.

    [eimg link='' title='Lydia Smith' url='']

  • jenny January 22, 2010 05:19 am poor, poor soul! Were your comments meant to be taken constructively? Assuming so, your ill-fated, "clumsy effort" only resulted in a rather "unflattering" & "UNgraceful" portrait of YOUR character! I think you missed the overall purpose of the photographs you destructively slandered. Rather than demean them for their lack of professionalism, perhaps you should have seen them for what they WERE...a magnificent illustration of HOW TO CAPTURE THE TRUE PORTRAIT of a subject. She accomplished this beautifully by each of these example(s) pictured...but specifically (I believe), the young lady in the garden...not because of the garden or props around her...but because of the way she's moving her hair out of her eyes...the same way the photographer described her typical gestures while speaking to her prior to the shoot. The photo literally DESCRIBES her personality and character without words.

  • JackBenedict January 20, 2010 06:32 pm

    I agree. I see so many baland portraits,A face smiling ( or not ) out from a piece of photo paper. I always try to get some background info on the subject. For instance if my subject plays tennis,then I will always try to get a racquet or similar into the pic - after all it tells the viewer something more about the subject.

    That's my view,although I do know that many would argue aginst this.

  • Katya January 20, 2010 07:11 am

    I find this article very useful! Thank you for sharing your experience. Now I need to learn my new camera so I can take nice portraits.

  • Amandalynn Jones January 20, 2010 06:17 am

    Great article. I think that personality is so important. Nobody really wants family portraits where everyone is stiff and lifeless, nor do they want pictures of their kids that look bored, even if the photos are technically perfect and physically flattering, if personality is missing it's not going to connect.

    I think it's part of the reason that parents fall in love with photographing their children. Kids are unfailingly honest about who they are, their personalities are always right on the surface.

  • Roman January 20, 2010 04:04 am

    I like these photos, and especially some from your website...good tips and well written, thank you for the re post Mr. Darren I have only been reading EVERY day for less than a year so I appreciate the archive. I cant WAIT for Larrys post his photos must be fantastic! I never knew this was an ALL-PRO website Larry, I guess us beginners and mid-levelers should just stop reading time do me a favor Larry, either construct your criticism in a respectable way, or do not comment...thanks.

  • T January 20, 2010 03:12 am


    So, before the shoot would you do a "pre meeting" with them to get to know them a little? Or just plan to meet up a bit earlier, before the shoot, and take that time to get to know the person? Do this on the phone?


  • the666bbq January 20, 2010 01:00 am

    unless everything is reposted again at once, reviving a post occasionnaly will not harm anyone does it. unless you are called Mr Larry Thomas, but than the harm is self-inflicted.

    I'm not a big fan of the first shot with the cello, but I like the one with the girl. If I was the client, I would buy that one... ok, it may be a bit conventional on the composition, but I like the colors, the light, the scene, the girl ("why a full body picture of a non-professional model", what ? is she abnormal to your standards Mr Larry ?, nothing unflattering about her pose, the body language fits the shy person she supposedly is, I can imagine that this is different from the gestures of pro-anorexic fashion/pron pro-'subjects' Mr Larry only wants to work with, and an over-busy garden ? come on there are only two plant variaties in this part of the garden how can it be too-busy ?),....
    In fact, could I have a slightly bigger version for my garden shed ?? ;-) For the Salvias of course ...

  • Darren Rowse January 19, 2010 09:22 pm

    Chris - from time to time we feature content from our archives. 2 years ago we had a readership of around 20% of the size we do today - as a result a lot of our archived content goes unseen by newer readers. As a result we dip into the archives occasionally, update content and feature it again.

  • Chris January 19, 2010 08:03 pm

    Am I missing something or is this a repost from two years ago?

  • Mei Teng January 19, 2010 03:39 pm

    I like the last portrait. Your subject do resemble a young mel gibson :)

  • Iain January 19, 2010 01:47 pm

    To thatmanrobert, while these are good tips for composing ok portraits, having a fixed mindset will just deliver you a whole series of ok results but never anything outstanding. The same thing always applies to photography or any other art, there may be some guidelines which could improve some images but it certainly doesn't always apply. Only by breaking the rules will you achieve truly outstanding images.

    To larry thomas, the girl is not lost in the greenery, she stands out from it by contrast of colour and depth of field. She is clearly the main subject and the gardens give the shot context and vibrance. The full length portrait shows off the feminine side which the article talks about and does it wonderfully too.

    I think it is very nice natural portrait and if I was only looking at that alone without the context of the article I would see a shy attractive girl full of life and personality.

  • Jim Maguire January 19, 2010 12:20 pm

    I'm just beginning to take portraits, so I am thankful for any tips I can get.

  • burningphotography January 19, 2010 11:05 am

    Funny, my first studio portrait was last week and I think it captures my subject personality well.

  • Jason Collin Photography January 19, 2010 07:50 am

    I will keep in mind that the client wants to be photographed how they see themselves.

    Here is a recent portrait I made in the middle of photographing an event that I was pleased with:

    [eimg link='' title='"Serve the Servants"' url='']

  • Kimberly January 19, 2010 07:19 am

    Great suggestions. Thanks!

  • Ryan McKay January 19, 2010 07:02 am

    Funny Larry, the picture you tore apart would have been my favorite as a client. But hey, who cares right? I mean what does it matter if the client LOVES the shot!

  • Shannon January 19, 2010 06:37 am

    Getting to know your subjects is key. I like being able to post pictures that reflect their persoanlities and in my blog posts talk about their personality and family dynamic. I think it helps me get a happier client.

  • Jesse Kaufman January 19, 2010 06:07 am

    good notes to take into account when preparing for a session! this is one of the areas i struggle with, since i'm much more of an introvert than extrovert ... gets me out of my comfort zone which is (obviously) uncomfortable, but a good thing to practice doing anyway :) ... and personally, i like the shot of the girl in the garden

  • C Edwards March 5, 2008 08:00 pm

    Dear Mr. Larry Thomas:

    Deliver me from such amteruish arrogrance as you! Sound advice indeed.

  • Larry Thomas February 22, 2008 11:07 am

    Your first "portrait" of the young lady is such a clumsy effort
    that I would be embarrassed to even show it - much less to
    present it as a "good" example of portraiture !!!

    Her pose is unflattering and UN-graceful.
    She's lost in the busy-ness of the garden.
    Her hand gesture to her face is awkward.
    ...and WHY a full-length photograph with a non-professional

    Deliver me from such amateurish arrogance as you!

  • sabira February 16, 2008 08:23 am

    Great advice, l'm not a talkative person but i'll give it a try.

  • thatmanrobert February 16, 2008 02:48 am

    There is so much more in the picture by way of technique

    eyes- around a 1/3 down from the top

    head- cropped ,100% ok to do this

    arm- raised to show the background,avoiding white shirt blob,and giving some indication of size

    shoulders- different hights ,nearest always lowest

    and above all depth of field seperating subject from background to stand out.These are all fundamentals which underpin the process here

  • murr February 16, 2008 12:00 am

    Thanks for posting. I shoot portraits of only my friends so I can capture their spirit, and I've never known how to capture someone I don't know. The example questions are terrific and will help, and make me think of many more. Maybe I'll try to shoot someone whom I don't really know, and get inside their soul.

  • jayvie February 15, 2008 09:52 am

    Very helpful especially for a novice photographer like me whose interest in capturing the inner beauty of a person through my lenses. Great advice.

  • Klaidas February 15, 2008 08:02 am

    Exactly why all my portrait photos are of people I know :]

  • Nancy February 15, 2008 07:18 am

    Soime good tips. (I need all the help I can get!) I find my grandson can never smile naturally for a picture. He thinks he is though and it never looks like him. I started sitting around holding my camera and taking him when he was unaware. Might not be a professional portrait but when I have zoomed in close it works. What it lacks in professional quality it makes up for with naturalness.

  • Joel Rojo February 15, 2008 07:17 am

    I would also add that it's not just how your subject "is", but how he sees himself, and how he wants to come across. If he's struggling to develop confidence, if he sees himself as adventurous, and you capture that side of him, then he should be happier, and talk a lot more about your work and will probably showing it to everyone at every chance.

  • Squidman February 15, 2008 06:58 am

    This is why I resist (or maybe de-emphasize) a lot of the general guidelines for posing (hand position, head tilt, etc). You could spend a lot of time adjusting these things and the subject is so focused on their posture they can't possibly be themselves. The point of engaging is great advice. That's what I'm finding is so fun about doing social photography, the interaction and capturing the reaction.

  • brian February 15, 2008 06:41 am

    I really like what you have to say, and would love to hear more from a technical standpoint how the photos are acheived. What lens is best for what situations? Are they all natural light? etc.

    The author is definitely a fan of off kilter framing and taking pictures at very harsh angles. I almost got sea sick watching the slideshows on the website. But the locations and colors are fantastic and you can definitely see personality.


  • Sam (Stock photo review) February 15, 2008 06:10 am

    good article. i think portraits can be very hard or very easy depending on how you engage the subject. i think (i hope...) the "say cheese" type ones should be obsolete...

  • Alan Hyde February 15, 2008 05:48 am

    Thank you. A very well written article that oozes enthusiasm. Nice photos too.

  • Veerasundar February 15, 2008 03:14 am

    Managing the light is always a challenge in portrait photography. Good tips.

  • AC February 15, 2008 02:22 am

    Agreed - the best snaps comes when you know the person who is being photographed. Also helps if the person is comfortable with you. Well written article.

  • Rodrigo van Kampen February 15, 2008 02:14 am

    I think, on the other side, that portraits can also highligh one aspect of the personality. For example, I wanted a portrait to make me look dynamic, interesting and trustful, although I'm not the best example of these kind of guy. (Even if I'm not totally the oposite) My girlfriend took a lot of pics, so we could choose the best one: (And yes, I know the background is cluttered)

    Nice article, thanks!

  • Joseph February 15, 2008 01:16 am

    I agree it's easier to shoot portraits if you know how to use a camera. Great feedback!

  • Pete Langlois February 15, 2008 12:37 am

    I agree it's easier to shoot portraits if you know something about your subject. Great tips!