News + Features

2021 RF + WPPI Portrait Photography Tips and Trends

May 10, 2021

By Rangefinder + WPPI Staff

© Sue Bryce

A portrait by photographer Sue Bryce.

When Rangefinder and WPPI polled hundreds of photographers in the U.S. and abroad on their approach to portrait photography, three-quarters of respondents said that they look at a shoot as a creative collaboration with the subject. Many told us that they are open to their clients’ ideas, and ask them what they want out of the session, or even encourage them to bring their own outfits and props.

“I always believe it’s a joint effort,” one photographer said.

“We create a concept around their ideas and my expertise,” another explained.

This year, Rangefinder and WPPI began offering photographers monthly educational content to reset their businesses as the industry begins to emerge from a difficult year. (Read here on how some photographers pivoted their portrait photography business in light of COVID-19.)

Nearly 60% of respondents photograph strictly portrait work, with only 4% who focus on weddings. Just under 40% said they do both. Within portrait, more photographers shoot individual portraits over groups, and the most popular types were high school seniors, children, maternity and beauty. Two-thirds work in a studio, while the other third do not.

Whatever your focus or style is, building a rapport with your client from the get-go is key to a smooth shoot.

“The connection you create with your clients in the consultation is the starting point, finding out how they dream of being photographed, and then hopefully providing the perfect experience that they desire,” portrait photographer Sue Bryce told Rangefinder in 2018. Survey respondents named Bryce as the portrait photographer they admire most, as well as the best photographer to follow for creative inspiration and new techniques.

Photographers fear an uncomfortable subject far more than limited time or tight spaces, according to the survey, and they were in agreement that personality is the most important thing they want to convey in portrait photography. Nearly 90% of respondents told us that they intentionally highlight or amplify a subject’s personality in their images. Nearly all photographers said the best way to achieve that is through open communication and posing. Many also found wardrobe to be beneficial, but decor and set design ranked last.

To prepare for a shoot, 82% of photographers said they chat with their clients ahead of time to understand their personality, ranking that as more important than scouting locations (64%), mapping out lighting ahead of time (37%), creating a mood board (26%) or offering a mini session before the main event (9%).

Though only around a quarter of photographers opt for a mood board, for Bryce, who photographs studio portraits of women, she believes it’s a crucial step.

“It’s exhilarating for me as I watch the client get more and more excited about what we are designing for them,” Bryce says. “It makes them feel special and connected.” (Read about Bryce’s creative evolution here.)

When photographer Cheryl Walsh takes portraits of high school seniors, she flips the script, having them put together a Pinterest board—“not just images of people, but ones that they are drawn to in general,” Walsh said in her list of senior portrait pointers. “A picture is worth a thousand words, so I learn a lot about their visual style by seeing their collection.”

Though only 28% of respondents said they offer mini sessions—less expensive, shorter and scaled-down shoots—out of those who do, the most popular reason (34%) was to reach new clients, while 20% use it to fill empty slots and 14% offered it as an alternative service due to the restrictions of COVID-19. Others offered up that they feel like they must include them to stay competitive in the changing market.

“I often hear that photographers stay away from mini sessions because they worry that offering a short, less expensive version of their services will keep clients from booking their longer, more expensive packages and, in the end, hurt their business,” photographer Sandra Coan wrote for Rangefinder in “The Right Way to Do a Mini Session.” “The truth is, mini-session clients and full-session clients have different needs and are looking for different experiences,” she continued, pointing to parents with impatient kiddos or families who only need a quick holiday card. “Offering full sessions and well-timed minis can actually help grow your business by meeting the needs of both types of clients.”

How do you plan for a shoot where time and location are not in your favor? “You have to brace yourself for the worst circumstances, and go in fully armed and ready to problem-solve,” celebrity and editorial photographer Mackenzie Stroh said in “Making Good Portraits in Lousy Settings.” “OK, worst-case scenario: What’s the plan B, what’s the plan C?”

When working under time restraints, 71% of photographers said the best way to prep is to plan multiple setups and stay flexible, over bringing references images or developing a creative brief.

To improve a lousy space, more photographers said they’d get minimal, with 35% saying they’d remove decor from the space over the 7% who said they’d bring their own. About a quarter of photographers noted that they’d bring multiple backdrops to see what works in the setting.

Stroh also went minimal for a shoot with actress Saoirse Ronan for The Wall Street Journal, recalling how she had to move all the furniture from a tight location that could barely fit her lights.

“My mantra is: It’s about the person…you’re here to engage with the subject. It’s not about the space,” she said. “The space can help, and it definitely is a huge part of portrait photography sometimes, but it should never be the focus.”

For portraits with impact, photographers said that lighting was the most important element (60%), over composition (21%), posing (5%) and setting/set design (5%). In a separate question, photographers ranked quality of light over posing, expression and focus when they considered the elements they thought about when taking portrait photography.

Godox and Profoto were ranked the most popular lighting brands, and the softbox was the most popular accessory. Of the photographers, 43% agreed that the biggest lighting challenge was midday sun.

To create mood, photographers favored side-lighting (39%) and low-key lighting (27%), while the least popular options were high-intensity lighting (6%), silhouetting (5%) and spotlighting (5%).

Portrait photography nof woman in shadow.
Tom Sanders photographed this model and fashion designer in her studio. “She wore black leather and had this bruise on her left arm; I sensed both a toughness and vulnerability to her personality,” Sanders said. “So I went for dramatic lighting and treated it like a Renaissance-style portrait.” © Tom Sanders

For inspiration, see how commercial photographer Tom Sanders used creative approaches to lighting to match a portrait’s mood in this breakdown.

When selecting a portrait lens, half of photographers said that aperture is the most important feature, over prime (21%), autofocus motor (9%), image stabilization (9%), zoom (8%) and weight (3%). Nearly a third of respondents prefer an 85mm lens, and a quarter prefer a 70-200mm zoom lens. The 35mm lens was the least popular option at 3.4%. Nikon and Canon remain the two most popular brands for lenses, at 37% and 31%, respectively.

Having multiple backdrops in your arsenal can enliven—or even save—a shoot. Photographers preferred muslin/fabric (33%) to seamless paper (25%), collapsible backgrounds (11%) and vinyl/pvc backgrounds (3%). And while Savage and Westcott were the most popular brands for backdrops, many photographers told us they make or hand-paint their own.

But using a backdrop requires its own techniques. “While it’s a classic, timeless look, you do need to take care to create some depth and separate your subject from the background. If you don’t, you could get a strange effect where your subject’s head and background blend into one,” wrote contributor Greg Scoblete in 2018.

When distinguishing subjects from the backdrop, photographers said they use a rim light (30%), light their backdrop (26%) and use contrasting color (24%). Rangefinder put together this guide to separating portrait subjects from the background, from lighting techniques to using tricks like water mist.

Watch Our Latest Session Now: Including Creating Portraits that Pop and get Susan Stripling’s Portrait Photography Guide.

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