Creativity Exercise: The Single Subject Portrait

Over the past few months we’ve talked A LOT about the story. When you’re shooting lifestyle and documentary photographs the story is paramount and can often make or break an image. But, even with all that said, sometimes it’s really nice to peel back back all that narrative and capture a simple portrait of one person.


This week is going to be very intentional and is going to allow you to slow down and consider all elements of the images before you click that shutter.


Your exercise is to gather one of your favourite people (or get really brave and ask a stranger!) and make a single beautiful, natural light portrait of them.


Before you even get your camera out, consider what type of light you want for your portrait. Each type of light will produce a different mood to the portrait, so when you’re thinking about your portrait location, often the deciding factor will be the mood you want for your image.

Your natural options are:

  • side light

  • back light

  • soft front light

  • hard light (indoors or outdoors)

  • outdoor soft light (open shade)


Once you have your mood established, then you’ll be able to narrow down your locations. Although it’s not entirely necessary, often having a really simple background is helpful when making a more classic portrait. If you have a busy background, full of personality, then it can add to the narrative and lean more towards an environmental portrait than a classic portrait. Environmental portraits are wonderful (Jenny and I LOVE them), but for this exercise, that’s not the focus.


Watch for catchlights. In an ideal situation, a portrait will have catchlights in at least one eye. Catchlights are really tricky to obtain with backlight and sometimes with overhead hard light.

Once you have your location and mood established, then it can often be helpful to rotate your subject around a bit to see how the light falls on their face and when catchlights appear.

Carolyn Becoming-181.jpg

It’s up to you if you want your subject to be camera aware or not.

If you decide you don’t want them looking at you, then I recommend you give direction for them to focus on something in the distance so that eyes still stay alive. One trick I use when I have a subject looking out a window is to ask them to scan their eyes over something over and over. You can direct them to scan the skyline or to look up and down a tree - whatever you choose, it will keep the eyes from looking dead and will also give you multiple eye positions to choose from for your final image.


If you decide on camera aware, then make sure you tell the person to look into your lens. If you tell them to look at you, they’ll often look at your eye they can see and their eyes will be slightly off in the final portrait.

If you’re working with a child it can often be really helpful to pretend that something is in your lens and to ask them to look for it. I always tell kids that other kids have told me they’ve seen chickens inside my lens. Then I’ll ask if they can stay where they are and if they can see them too.

In order to have a natural portrait that doesn’t look stiff, it can also be really helpful to keep the conversation going. This applies to adults and children. Ask questions, wait for answers, then shoot. Tell a funny joke. Make fun of yourself. Anything really to make them forget about the camera can be really helpful.


Ok, there you go!

I am super excited to see what you come up with and can’t wait to see the beautiful faces of your loved ones!

Make sure to tag us on IG @unscriptedmentoring and #unscriptedmentoring so that I can find you!