When it comes to real estate, this is a phrase that most people are familiar with. Much emphasis and value is placed on the location of a property in order to get the most return on an investment. The same could be said for a portrait sitting. Look for the best locations when taking photographs in order to reap the greatest return on your investment when it comes to reference material.

This starts by first asking the client if they want an indoor or an outdoor portrait. This is important because if I’m going to paint an outdoor portrait, then the sitting takes place outdoors in the location that the client wishes to have painted. I don’t recommend taking photos of someone indoors and then painting an outdoor portrait of them. The reason is because the lighting is so different between indoors and outdoors that it would be very difficult to try to fake a similar situation. Also, it can be very challenging, even for the most experienced painter because the value relationships that occur in the background affect the subject much differently in both of these lighting situations.


Notice the close value relationships that happen in the face when painting a subject outdoors.

Mary Kathryn

The figure in this painting wouldn’t work with an outdoor background because the value relationships would be different.

Once I know which setting the portrait will be painted in, I then like to find out what type of clothing the sitter will be wearing so that I can begin to get ideas about painting either a formal or an informal portrait. When I talk about the formality of a portrait, I’m not just speaking of the actual clothes that are worn by the sitter, but also the pose. There are certain poses that work better with certain clothing and others that don’t. Casual attire may call for more of a relaxed, informal pose, while formal wear may invoke more of an elegant, distinguished pose. The client will also indicate which one they prefer based on previous conversations as well as the portraits that they tend to gravitate towards when viewing my portfolio.

 John Singer Sargent was a master at posing his sitters and is a great one to study if you want to get some ideas on how to pose your own subjects.

Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer 1901 by John Singer Sargent 1856-1925

Painting by John Singer Sargent

I also like to find out if there are any specific props that the client wants to include in the portrait. If I think that it might be a possibility, then I will plan on including them as well.

So, now that I know what the sitter will be wearing and whether or not the painting will be indoors or outdoors, the next step is to scout out the actual location. This happens after the initial meeting with the client, which I talked about in my last blog, Let’s Talk Portraits.

I like to arrive the day before any photos are taken in order to be better prepared for when the sitting takes place. The client and I discuss some possible locations and then visit these sites so that I can get an idea of what I have to work with the following day. For me, the most important quality of a good location is lighting. I don’t use any artificial lighting when taking photos, so it’s important for me to determine where my light source will be coming from and to predict how it will change during the photo session.

If I’m going to shoot indoors, I look for windows that have a nice, soft light coming through. The ideal situation would be North light, but that’s not always possible when working with available natural light. The indoor lighting location that I tend to avoid is where direct sunlight is shining through, producing harsh shadows and sharp edges on the features of a person’s face. A softer, more subtle lighting situation works well for portraits of women and children, while a stronger light source may work well for a man’s portrait.

If I’m taking pictures outdoors, I like locations that will provide an opportunity to shoot photos with the sun coming from behind my subject (contre-jour) or a dappled lighting situation. I’ll go into more detail about the subject of lighting in my next blog, but I just wanted to mention it here.

When working with natural light, you are at the mercy of what the weather is like on that particular day. It’s easier to control this problem indoors but can sometimes be tricky when working outdoors. I love taking photos in the morning on a nice, clear day that is full of sunshine, but it doesn’t always work out that way for me when I travel for a portrait sitting. Sometimes the sun doesn’t come out until later in the afternoon, sometimes it only comes out for a few minutes at a time, and sometimes it doesn’t come out at all. Whatever the situation, I have to be able to adjust very quickly in order to get the photos that I need in the limited time that I have with a sitter.


When working with children, be sure to have a location in mind so that you’re ready to take photos instead of spending time looking for that perfect spot. The more time you spend in preparation, the less time you will need when taking photos. This will also allow you to capture your subject at his or her best.

The quality of adapting is important and one that plays a critical role when it comes to working on location. I’ve been on sittings where I’ve only had fifteen minutes with a CEO and must be able to get the shots that I need in a small amount of time. I’ve also been on sittings where time was not a factor, but the age of my subject was. When working with children, I have found that there comes a point when they become tired or played out. Because of this, I mentally prepare for shooting everything I need in the first twenty minutes when taking photos of children. I may not always get what I need in those twenty minutes, but that’s my goal. Anything after that is an added bonus. I’ll say more about taking photos in a future blog.

Location is extremely important, whether you are taking photos or working from life. I’m always conscious of this fact during the sitting and am looking at the background and figure as a single unit because everything must work together. I like what Burleigh Parkhurst says in his book, The Painter in Oil: “The slightest change in the background is equivalent to that much change of the head itself”.

Don’t just look at the sitter’s head, but look at all of the other elements behind the figure and then compose those elements as you take photos, just as you would compose elements in a painting. I find that if you don’t take photos with the elements and the location that you need, you’ll be spending your time trying to figure out what should have been there, wishing it was there, and not knowing how to go about putting this missing piece into your painting. Don’t waste time. Get what you need while on location.

Be picky when it comes to finding a location for a portrait sitting. When you get back to the studio, you’ll be glad you did. After all, you’re the one who has to paint the picture.