Book Reviews

How to Shoot Great Portrait Photos: Advice from Tamara Lackey

February 26, 2018

By Jacqueline Tobin

Do you know everything there is to know when it comes to shooting a portrait session? Tamara Lackey seems to, and now she’s sharing all that knowledge and experience in her latest book, From Start to Finish: The Portrait Shoot Playbook.

“There are a lot of little things that can make a big difference in not only how well a portrait shoot can go, but also in how much value and impact the images can garner afterward,” Lackey says. “Sometimes just following a manual of sorts can help you pull it all together.”

All Photos © Tamara Lackey

In her new book, Lackey dives into the basic but essential aspects of being a portrait photographer—how to prep, shoot and deliver a session—and she explains it all “as clearly and as succinctly as possible,” she says. “Although there really is a lot to shooting a session well and effectively, when it’s all laid out step-by-step, it suddenly becomes a lot easier to process and master.”

Relevant topics include essential gear and accessories, preparing for the shoot (i.e. what to do the night before), techniques, lighting, posing, composition and details, and so much more.

“Yes,” Lackey admits in the foreword, “I have made a whole mess of mistakes along the way. I have had cameras fail without a backup. I have showed up to shoots with not one but two memory cards reading error messages, unable to record any data at all. I have experienced repeated malfunctioning lens issues. I have plugged my lights into ancient outlets that completely fried my equipment. I have lost data on memory cards; some data retrieved, some lost forever. I even missed an entire portrait shoot once.” Her losses are your gains as she sets out to help you avoid these previous mishaps.

Nations Photos Lab is offering a $25 gift card to all book purchasers, to be used for prints, canvas pieces, gallery blocks and more; ON1 is offering a $20 gift credit, and Fundy Software a $50 gift credit.

Price: $89

Here, Lackey shares an excerpt from her new portrait book—on all the ways you can make photographing toddlers more of a breeze.

I am dedicating an entire chapter to photographing toddlers. Why? Because toddlers are just FULL ON. They go everywhere, are into everything, are very clear about what they do and do not like, and rarely to never want to sit there and stare endlessly into your lens. They are a lot like puppies, just larger and somehow still more vulnerable.

Let’s step through some suggestions on how to better photograph this wonderful, difficult, beautiful demographic of society.

Pay attention to your settings on these shoots! Shutter speed is your best friend when it comes to speedy subjects. I try to not slip below 1/1000th if I can help it, just to ensure I don’t capture unintentional blur in my frame. Consider your aperture. I love to shoot wide open and often do. And I’ve managed to get a few fantastic portraits of toddlers at f/1.4. Most of the time, though? I’m starting at f/3.2, f/4, f/4.5. It’s just far too easy to miss the focus on a fast-moving little one.

Speaking of focusing, give some thought to the focus mode you are using during these shoots. Unless a toddler is quietly sitting there, or content in a parent’s arms, I am probably in a continuous focus mode. I’ll let my camera do the chasing for a bit.

Try being the destination. Instead of going round and round with a child in an open park, figure out where he is going and try to be the one on the other end of their trajectory. Some of my favorite shots are ones of a toddler barreling directly at me.

Work with parents to have your little subjects photographed in a couple different outfits and accessories, if they will tolerate it. A toddler in a casual t-shirt presents pretty differently than a toddler in a little man outfit.

Lastly, consider attractive destinations for them to lean against while they are still getting their sea legs. If you have to bring an additional element into the frame, be the one to decide what it looks like in the shot.

Use those they love to your advantage. I get Mom or Dad involved a lot here. By teaming up with them to achieve what we both want, I’ll often get better shots, as I am able to take advantage of all the love and affection they already feel for their parents and showcase it in my images.

Sometimes you can do everything right and still, you’re mostly just tracking your subject. In these cases, I suggest you just go along with the hunt. Switch up your angles, your compositions, the different looks and feels you are capturing. See the world as they see the world and just enjoy those precious moments when, just for a micro-second, they turn your way and smile.

Note that it’s a smart idea to bring along wipes, at the very least. Toddlers often emit all kinds of fluids from all parts of their bodies. It’s not worth it to suffer through snot removal in post. Take a minute to clean things up, enlist help from parents to help “style” their children—I often call for hair and makeup when I see drool coming out of a toddler’s mouth—and bask in better shots every time.


Related: Depth of Field: Q&A with Tamara Lackey, Portrait Photographer and So Much More

What’s in Tamara Lackey’s Gear Bag?