Having good reference photos to work from is very important to me as I’m working on a commissioned portrait. I know exactly what I need in order to produce a painting that will satisfy both me and the client. This is one reason for taking my own photos. I’m after a particular lighting effect (See my last blog for more on lighting), pose, gesture, expression, etc. and want to be the one capturing all of this through my own eyes as I see it happening. It gives me the freedom to compose every element of the portrait. I’ll be the first one to tell you that I’m not a professional photographer, but know just enough to be able to get the shots that I need in order to use as reference material back in the studio.


When it comes to taking photos during a portrait sitting, it’s much more than just pushing the shutter release button on the camera. This is the time when all of your creative instincts come into play and you have to be on top of your game. You can’t expect to be inspired back in the studio by looking at uninspiring photos of your subject. Work to pull out those interesting character qualities that you first saw in your subject during the portrait sitting, while they’re in front of you, rather than trying to incorporate those traits from memory back in the studio. There are many different ways of achieving this, but you have to find out what approach works best for the sitter. Some people are more outgoing and animated, while others are shy and more reserved. Some sitters aren’t bothered in the least by having their picture taken, while others won’t make eye contact with the camera at all. These are important things for me to note in the first few minutes of the sitting because it will determine how I’ll take photos from then on.

I once took photos of a child who enjoyed interacting and carrying on a conversation until I lifted the camera to take a picture. As long as the camera was up, she wouldn’t look at it or say one word. My solution to this problem was to put the camera on automatic, place it on a tripod next to me and snap pictures while talking to the child, always making sure that my face didn’t move behind the camera. It took a little longer to get the shots that I needed, but worked.

I’ve read that John Singer Sargent used some interesting tactics in order to keep a child’s attention while painting their portrait, from painting the tip of his nose red to chewing cigars. Sargent knew what he needed the sitter to do and did whatever it took to get the results that he was after. He also used an approach which I find to be extremely helpful while taking photos: the art of conversation. I am constantly talking to the sitter while taking photos because it helps to ease their nerves as well as bring out a more relaxed, comfortable expression. I find that a good time to snap some shots is just after someone has finished speaking because they are alert from their previous thoughts and have more of an energetic, arrested look about them. Sargent was a master at capturing this spur of the moment look in his portraits and would often paint sitters in what would be considered “unconventional” poses, looking as if they were going to speak to the viewer.

Sargent Examples

Portraits by John Singer Sargent

You can never take too many photos, so be sure to shoot multiple shots at one time, even if you think you have what you need. You can always get rid of any extras, but you never know what you may need later on. There have been times when I’ve taken over two hundred photos of someone, only to end up with one or two shots that I think would work for a painting. It didn’t matter that I took so many pictures, but that I ended up with the one or two photos that I needed. Digital photography has made this process easier because you can instantly see the photos that you have taken and have a good idea of what you still need for the portrait.


When working with children, I find it helpful sometimes to have them look away from the camera at first and focus on some other object. I will then count to three and have them turn towards the camera as I’m taking photos. This series of multiple shots will often contain one that I can use as a reference photo.

Have an idea in mind as far as possible compositions and poses when you are taking photos so that you can assess whether or not you have all of the information that you need along the way.

Speaking of poses, I will often role play for the sitter in order to give them a better idea of what I had in mind. So, instead of trying to tell them how to pose, or trying to pose them myself, I will simply demonstrate what I would like for them to do. By doing this, the sitter gets a good idea of the general pose, but falls into it naturally, which is what I’m looking for. This “natural” pose is a reflection of their unique personality, which is important to capture in a portrait.

At the beginning of the photo session, I’m focusing on getting the overall gesture and pose, taking note of the value relationships that occur in both the subject and background. Once I have some shots of a pose that interests me, I will then concentrate on getting some good head shots in the same lighting conditions. Once I have the pose and head shots that I’m after, I will then concentrate on getting extra photos of other elements that will be in the painting, such as different hand positions, folds in a dress, background props, etc.

As I’m taking photos, I like to be at least four or five feet from the sitter. This not only allows them to feel more comfortable, but also cuts down on the amount of distortion that you get from photography. The closer you get to your subject, the greater the distortion. Here’s an example of what can occur if you’re too close to your subject.


Notice the distortion that occurs in the photo on the right as a result of being too close to the subject.

Also, the height at which you take photos is an important factor to consider. Distortion can easily occur if you’re too far above or below your sitter, so I like to position the camera lens at about eye level when taking head shots and chest level when taking three quarter or full figure shots. When it comes to taking photos of children, this could mean that I’m squatting down, sitting on my knees, or getting as close to the ground as possible in order to get the best angle.

Multiples 3

Here are some photos that were taken at different heights. The molding on the wall behind the child is a good indicator of the differences in height. The higher or lower that I go from the subject’s eye level, the more distortion and foreshortening I get.

t’s also important to give the sitter frequent breaks during the photo session so that they will remain interested and alert. Whenever I’m working with children, I usually give them a break after about 10 or 15 minutes of taking pictures.

When it comes to deciding on which camera to use, it’s mostly a matter of preference, but there are a couple of things that you may want to consider before the portrait sitting takes place. I find it extremely important to have a camera that is capable of fast shutter speeds so that you can quickly take photos when you need to. If you’re using a digital camera, it helps to have one that can store your images instantly so that there is no delay in taking the shots that you need. I use a Nikon D-70 digital SLR camera, which is an older model, but does exactly what I’m looking for. It also allows me to view images instantly to determine if I have what I need.

This wasn’t the case when I first started painting commissioned portraits. Digital photography hadn’t come on the scene yet, so I would take photos using rolls of film, not knowing if I had everything that I needed until the film was processed. This was a nerve racking experience that helped me to greatly appreciate today’s digital technology. If you haven’t yet switched to a digital format, I would highly recommend doing so. Also, be sure to have enough memory in the camera to store all of your photos. I use an 8GB memory card, which is more than what I need, but gives me peace of mind and allows me to shoot as many photos as I would like. It’s also a good idea to make sure that your battery is charged before the sitting. You may also want to consider having a fully charged spare battery with you just in case something unforseen happens.


My Nikon D70 digital camera that I use for portrait sittings.

Once I have all of the photos that I need, I then back everything up by transferring all of the files to my laptop computer, as well as a separate external hard drive and a blank DVD. This may sound like overkill, but if you have a portrait sitting that takes place half way across the country, you don’t want to have to call the client to inform them that all of your photos were lost. If you’re going to invest all of the time that it takes during the portrait sitting, be sure to take the extra minimal time to back everything up.