How to work with people – Part 2: close-up portraits

(Image credit: Holly Wren)
Meet the pro: Holly Wren

Holly Wren

(Image credit: Holly Wren)

Holly is a UK-based commercial advertising photographer who specialises in portraits and lifestyle imagery. Her passion is to photograph people, the folk that she meets along the way, and she often shares her portrait technique and lighting advice in Digital Photographer magazine.

Close-up portraiture can take many forms, but anything that shows at its widest the head and shoulders, I would term a close-up portrait. Often referred to by actors or corporate clients as ‘headshots’, these are designed to really show you the face of your sitter. Often there is little to no context in terms of background, although that doesn’t mean considering where you take it isn’t important. 

If you have to take multiple portraits that are consistent in look and feel, you’ll want somewhere that the light can be controlled, such as a studio setup or an environment where the natural light isn’t constantly altering. Traditionally headshots were taken on more of a paper/colorama-style background, which gives you this control, but the modern twist has these taking on many other forms, and being more creative can give you a modern edge to an otherwise mundane image.

Professional The subject looks engaging and friendly without being overly smiley, a hard look to master (Image credit: Holly Wren)

Intention Although the subject looks sullen, you can see the clear connection with the camera (Image credit: Holly Wren)

The crop of the frame is really important in these images; I find that getting this right in-camera is especially important, as taking a wider shot and cropping in post-production seems to look more clumsy. The choice of lens and aperture plays a large role in these shots, but once you have those decided on it is important to concentrate on the positioning of your subject and their facial expressions, as a crop this tight leaves nowhere to hide. 

Brief, again, becomes very important. If you want your subjects to smile, it’s your job to direct them to a laugh, or a smile that looks natural and not forced, and the rapport you create with them will play a big role in this. If you feel like you are hiding too much behind your camera, you can always put it on a tripod. Try not to spend too much time checking every shot, as you’ll break the flow and make your sitter question whether it’s working! 

Using longer lenses can give you more distance between yourself and the sitter, which may make them feel more comfortable and relaxed. The difference between a 85mm to 200mm can be a few metres, so depending on the person and the space available you may choose to shoot longer focal lengths to achieve the same crop. 

Read more: 

• The best camera for portraits
• The best photography lighting kits
• Portrait photography tips: how to practice portrait lighting without a model

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Lauren Scott
Managing Editor

Lauren is the Managing Editor of Digital Camera World, having previously served as Editor of Digital Photographer magazine, a practical-focused publication that inspires hobbyists and seasoned pros alike to take truly phenomenal shots and get the best results from their kit. 

An experienced photography journalist who has been covering the industry for over eight years, she has also served as technique editor for both PhotoPlus: The Canon MagazinePhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine and DCW's sister publication, Digital Camera Magazine

In addition to techniques and tutorials that enable you to achieve great results from your cameras, lenses, tripods and other photography equipment, Lauren can regularly be found interviewing some of the biggest names in the industry, sharing tips and guides on subjects like landscape and wildlife photography, and raising awareness for subjects such as mental health and women in photography.