How To Shoot Powerful Portraits

How To Shoot Powerful Portraits - Mastin Labs

When I first dreamed of being a photographer, I was mainly interested in shooting discreet photojournalism, or travel photography like that I'd seen in National Geographic. Still, after twenty-plus years of being a photographer, something strange happened. I went from shooting expansive landscapes with no people to shooting only people. And then, only their faces.

I am hooked on portraits. I am a portrait junkie.

Looking at my last ten years of work, I'd wager that 80% of my work is very tight portraits with unrecognizable backgrounds. Everything I need as a photographer, I can find in the human face. My focus on close portraits would go on to define my photography career and carve a small space for me in the world of photography.

These days I mostly shoot these portraits as part of my film tests for making the most accurate film presets for digital on the planet, or when I speak at incredibly inspiring photography conferences like Way Up North (where these portraits are from).

I want to share exactly how I shoot my portraits so that YOU can add these skills to your repertoire. 

Three Tips for Working with Your Subject

A good portrait is one where you show something real about your subject: an inner strength, anxiety under the surface, the warmth of personality, a sense of humor, or a feeling of loss.

A bad portrait is a mask revealing nothing. It shows nothing beneath the surface, and although the portrait can be pretty, it is ultimately forgettable.

I want you to make unforgettable portraits. And you can start with anyone you know or people you've just met.

‚Äú...a portrait is a collaboration between a photographer and the subject.‚Ä̬†-¬†Kirk Mastin

1. The biggest thing you need to realize is that a portrait is a collaboration between you (the photographer) and the subject.

Your subject WANTS you to succeed and is probably as nervous as you are that they are not giving you what YOU need as the photographer. We often feel that our subject doubts us, or is in a hurry and that we are wasting their time. Both ideas are false projections we place on our subjects, and the easiest way to internalize this is to be the subject of a portrait yourself.

If you haven't done this already, find a photographer friend and trade portrait sessions. You will learn so much by being the subject and feeling what the subject feels. You will discover that your subject is in it to win it with you, and will be patient and ready to help you make the best portraits possible.

This realization is why I can be so relaxed when I take portraits and never feel rushed. You can see this in the video in this article.


Two portraits from Stockholm, Sweden. Shot on Portra 800 film with a Pentax 645.

2. The first thing you should do is break the ice and establish trust. And this means touching your subject.

It can feel incredibly invasive to touch someone, but it is the fastest way to get two people on the same level and comfortable. We do this all the time actually when we shake hands with someone, or give a friend or a loved one a hug when we see them after a long absence.

As a portrait photographer, shaking your subject's hands, or lightly posing them or guiding them to where they should stand by touching them, is critical in starting the collaboration between photographer and subject.

In my video, you will see that I do this with every single subject. Of course, you should never do anything inappropriate, but by touching your subject, you establish that you know what you want from the shoot and that you are comfortable with them.


Two portraits from Stockholm, Sweden. Shot on Portra 800 film with a Pentax 645.

3. If your subject starts to feel self-conscious, don't be afraid to crack a joke, or talk about something unrelated for a moment to direct their thoughts away from themselves.

Like I said in the first point, your subject wants the portrait to be a success, and many people will start to feel that they are failing YOU and not doing 'a good job' as the subject. When I see this insecurity and anxiety begin to build, I will even say a nonsense word to break them out of it. Try it your self and see what happens.

The Gear I Use

From left to right: Sekonic LiteMaster Pro L-478D, Portra 800 120 film, Pentax 645. By Kirk Mastin, edited with Mastin Labs Portra 160 preset

I personally feel that gear is the least important factor when it comes to making a great photo. Really -- you can use nearly any camera made, ever, and get an amazing photo from it if you understand that camera's advantages and limitations. Location, quality of light, and most importantly, WHAT you are shooting and WHY are the critical factors. However, I do want to go over what I use for my portraits because it affects how I work with my subject. The limitations of my gear are what made me discover my way of shooting.

First of all, I shoot my portraits on film.
I use Portra 800 because I like the color palette of this film. Rich color, warm tones, and an emphasis on turquoise and orange. It works for me and the feeling I want.

Portra 800 is a very easy film to work with.
Just expose it as though it were ISO 400 (meaning, overexpose it by one stop on purpose) and you will eek out every last bit of quality from this film. If you overexpose this film, it will turn out great. This means I don't have to be overly careful with exposure, which I would need to be if I was shooting black and white film or slide film.

Because I'm shooting film, I don't have a lot of shots to work with.
This has always made me slow down and really consider three things: the light I am shooting in, the background behind the subject (is it clean? uncluttered?) and thirdly and most importantly of all, I have to decide the moment when the subject is showing something real to me about themselves in their face. I don't want to start an unproductive argument about film vs. digital, because both are great. But with my personal work, the amount of shots I have per roll is actually a good thing: it focuses me on getting the exact shot I want and nothing more.

For my camera, I use a relatively inexpensive Pentax 645.
I used to shoot with a Contax 645, but those cameras break easily and honestly don't produce superior results. For the same price, I own four Pentax 645s. I have backups of my backups. Since I shoot my Pentax 645 on manual (manual exposure, manual f-stop, and manual shutter speed) it doesn't matter how good the meter is or any other electrical aspect of this camera. It just needs to open and close the shutter. My brain and my light meter do the rest.

For my light meter, I use a Sekonic L-478D.
It doesn't matter which meter you use, but I do believe it matters to use a meter because once you have taken a light reading, you can set your camera settings, and then shoot without thinking about technical issues. Instead, I focus on the connection and vibe between myself and my subject. If I am not managing a supercomputer (ahem, nearly every digital camera made in the last 5 years) I can completely give myself over to connecting with my subject, and this allows me to get under their mask and take a photo when I see the true person in front of me.

How do I meter?
I set my meter to ISO 400, my f-stop to 2.8, make sure the bulb is IN (not sticking out) and meter right in from of my subject's face. I push the meter reading button, and my light meter tells me what shutter speed to use.


With Portra 800, my Sekonic light meter, and my Pentax 645, I can make exactly the portrait I want.

My Location and Lighting

I like to keep my setup minimal and independent of artificial lighting. This allows me to keep my work as consistent as possible.

I look for a clean background without any marks or distractions if possible. Imagine a blank wall: this is my ideal background.

Secondly, I shoot with my aperture wide open at 2.8 and keep my subject between four and eight feet away from their background. This allows me to blur out the background even further to make it even.

Last, I find even or flat lighting. Usually, this is open shade. Think: standing under a small overhang outdoors, or under a tree without dappled light. I want the light to come from in front of the subject and not from overhead. Shooting later in the day helps with this as well.

And that's it!

I basically create a makeshift outdoor studio with a clean background and flat, indirect light, and shoot wide open straight at my subject.

Between having only three pieces of gear, and making a clean background wherever I go, I make powerful portraits without an assistant or lights, anywhere in the world.

I hope you try this, if even for fun, and share your results in the comments below!

I didn't upload all 123 portraits here but you can view and download them from our Pic-Time Gallery.