Lessons Learned :: Portrait Photography and Beyond

The concept was simple. A study in portrait photography. I gave myself parameters: mothers, but no children. Capture the essence of the woman. It would go on for a month so as to fully immerse myself in the project. The lessons, it turned out, while perhaps equally simple, weren't at all what I expected.


I expected to come away with lists of portrait photography do-s and don't-s. Maybe a better understanding of how to use fill and bounce and which lenses make for the best portraits. And while I did learn some of these things, in the bigger picture what I learned is that there's no such thing as an ordinary mother.

Teachers, doctors, homemakers, artists, fundraisers, managers, activists, students, sisters—each amazing in their abilities. Each bringing themselves to their mothering, each enriching the lives of their children and their communities with unique experience, each with a point of view to share.

It was enlightening to enumerate the exceptional women that I know. But I am certain that these women live everywhere. I know with every fiber of my being that if you open your heart and your door that you will see them all around you. And if you let yourself, you will see them inside you. It doesn't take an astrophysicist to be special to a child. A graduate degree doesn't make for a better friend. A mother who makes sacrifices in order to be home for her children or a mother who works two jobs in order to make ends meet or a mother who works a part time job in order to fulfill her personal needs. All are equally valid and all can be equally heroic to her children and those whose lives are touched by her.

And to capture their image? Well, here's what I learned about that.

  • A big part of getting a good shot is just getting out there and shooting.
  • Going where the subject was most comfortable helped with the mood but didn't always prove to be the best place to shoot.
  • Change your perspective.
  • Pay close attention to the background because it can ruin an otherwise lovely portrait.
  • Props don't have to be cheesy and can help give an otherwise uncomfortable subject something to focus on.
  • Following the 'rules' of portrait photography is a good place to start, but they're also sometimes worth ignoring.
  • Don't be afraid to post-process the photo to get the desired results (read more about my thoughts on this here).
  • Don't shoot outside in bright sun or in partial shade (which might be worse because of spots of brightness).
  • Ideally shoot near a window or in open shade where the sun is behind you but not right in the subject's eyes.
  • Time your shoots according to the light. Early in the day or the two to three hours before sunset are the sweet spots.
  • Learn how to adjust the white balance setting on your camera.
  • Knowing your subject may help but isn't always possible, or necessary, so be prepared to help your subject feel comfortable.
  • I like to ask my subjects what they usually like and/or dislike about photos of themselves and then reassure them that I get it. (And I do. For example, I always hate the way photos make me look like I have a double chin.)
  • Help your subject prepare to be photographed by encouraging them to dress in a way that makes them feel good about themselves. For some that means their everyday clothing, for others it means dressing up. It's the same way with makeup. The important thing is for them to feel at ease.

Somewhere during the course of the month I began to feel restricted by my own rules and wanted to photograph women in my life who don't have children. So I've decided to expand the project to include them. I'm not sure of the frequency, but I'm planning on a feature here on the blog where I'll share portraits of extraordinary women.

Thank you to the women who agreed to be photographed for this project. Your trust in me was uplifting and I hope I helped you see in yourselves some of what I see in you.

To those of you who visited and commented this month, your encouragement was my fuel.

It turns out that portrait photography isn't just about taking pictures.