how to achieve character portraits

How to Achieve Character Portraits

By Wendy Atkins Photography

The most important part of taking a portrait is for the final image to create a ‘sense’ of who that person is and to provide an indication of their character.  The more flamboyant your subject the easier this is to achieve as generally they will have some props and actions that really speak about who they are.

   character portraits

Unfortunately however, most people are not flamboyant and so you have to work quite hard as a photographer to achieve a character portrait.   Sometimes these are also referred to as environmental portraits mostly because they are taken in surroundings which characterize the sitter, eg a busker in a railway tunnel, a woodchopper in the woods etc.

For this reason it is important that you get to know your subject prior to the shoot, here are some suggestions:

Best of all, talk in person with the subject, meet them and have an informal chat.  I find inviting them for a coffee is the best way for a relaxing conversation.  I always tell my sitter that it is best we chat before hand as a way of ensuring they are more comfortable on the day and so we have built up a rapport.  During that session I will gently quiz them so that I can find out what makes them tick so that my photos are true reflections of the person inside!  Of course asking pertinent questions in a relaxed manner is what it is all about.


At this session you need to analyze them as much as you can, look for quirks – their laugh, hand gestures, distinctive looks etc. so that you are ready for them on the day of photographing.  Mostly you want to know about them: free spirited or conservative?  Reserved or outrageous?   Strong or gentle?  so that you can plan a session around what you know.

In addition some physical characteristics are important to note, if I am photographing someone very tall I might want to bring along a crate to stand on for example.  If they have some distinct characteristic such as a lazy eye or a tattoo it would be worth having a discussion on how they want that treated prior to the session so that they are not distracted by discussion of it on the day.

I would also find out about their personality, their likes and dislikes, their hobbies, what they love and see whether that is worth building into the session.  A recent client of mine just wanted some basic shots in the park until we talked, he discussed passionately his love for his car, his pride and joy and how he spends his free time washing and polishing it so that it looks perfect.  I asked him how he would feel about taking some shots with the car and he loved the idea.  We have now ditched the park and the whole session will be around the car!

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Another girl mentioned just as we were finishing up that she was off to a Fifties Fair.  Turned out she loved all things Fifties and had several outfits so I asked how she felt about using those in the shoot and she loved it.  We designed a 50’s cooking shoot for her.

Finding something the sitter loves makes the portrait session easy, they are much more relaxed and including props such as musical instruments or tools gives them something to hold and something to do and they feel much less ‘on show’.  It is like a security blanket for them and puts them in a position of control as opposed to sitting on a chair having to pose.

If you can’t find a time to chat in person, talk on the phone, use Skype or at least ask some questions via email!  Get them to bring some props and bring along anything you have that may suit as well.

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I particularly love to photograph musicians as they have such affinity with their instruments that you can create very intimate character portraits.  In addition because music is generally such an important part of their life they are more likely to buy the portraits with the instrument than just them on their own!

Here are some examples of character portraits you can try:

  • A horse lover – portrait of her looking over the fence towards her horse.  Timed for the right hour of the day with the right lens you can create stunning backlit portraits with the horse beautifully positioned in the background or nuzzling up behind.
  • An old man – is he a brandy lover? Have a glass in his hand and try and capture that twinkle in his eye…maybe get him to have a sip or two to relax him!
  • A ballerina – pirouettes in the street!
  • A war veteran – holding his medals, polishing them
  • A women who loves to cook – get her to prepare something before hand and shoot her with the masterpiece or shoot her preparing it.

Character portraits take a bit of thinking but are lots of fun to shoot for both the sitter and you.  Generally everyone gets in the swing of it and you have to stop before the ideas become too outrageous!

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Have fun and feel free to post some of your shots on our site.

how to achieve character portraits

Copyright: Wendy Atkins Photography


About Christian Tudor

professional photographer, main editor at Academy of Photography and