Questions about portraits.

What does it mean when a client phones and says they want a “different” portrait? I believe they are saying they want a better portrait, not a run of the mill every day capture. In 43 years of capturing portraits the most common questions and comments are:

  • I don’t want it to look posed.
  • What should we wear?
  • Where should we go to take the pictures?

Can we take a few minutes and deal with those issues?

I don’t want it to look posed.

What does posed look like?

I will never forget a bride that told me she didn’t want posed pictures and when I asked her what she wanted her wedding photographs to look like she said “like the advertisements in the bridal magazines.”  I said great, we’ll need a budget of about 50 – 100 thousand dollars and about 3 days.  She looked at me like I had lost my marbles. I said “You think the photographer just walked by saw the shot, took it and submitted it to the magazine for an ad? There were designers, lighting crew, and if it was an ad for the wedding gown you can bet the designer was on hand to make sure the gown hung perfectly on the model and the fabric blew gracefully in the artificial breeze of the fan.”


When your taking a selfie do you strike a pose and make an expression; whether a smile or a funny face? Trying to look good, or sexy, or silly?  What you’re doing is acting, which is another word for posing.  If you do it, it’s just having fun, but when someone else directs you to do it, then it’s posing.

Leonardo Da Vinci suggested artists should walk around with a pad of paper and pencil, making notes and sketches of the way people look when they are in conversation with each other versus when they are in an argument.  I often say to a subject “get up and let me show you” because I have spent hours practicing, looking in a mirror, so when I sit a certain way I know how it feels when it is just right. And, when it is just right lines and shapes are formed with the body that are pleasant to look at, and lead the eye through the composition.

Is posing used on every image? No! But, it gets me started and shows the subject what we are striving for.  Once the subjects feel more relaxed I resort to giving suggestions and directions. This is when the best images are produced because the subject is presenting themselves in a visually pleasing manner, that is more natural to them.  (If I say cross your arms left over right and you normally cross your arms the other way it is going to feel awkward. If I simply say cross your arms, you’re going to do it in a manner that feels more comfortable and natural to you.)

Expect your portrait creative session to begin with some posed images, progress to some directed or suggested presentations and finish with the directed image with some minor refinement for visual impact from me.

What should we wear?

When a performer goes on stage they wear a costume. What role will you be playing and with whom? Sound silly? Think about it. You choose your clothes very carefully when you are going on a date or to a dinner party, so why would you give any less attention to what you wear in a portrait. I have a few basic rules that I share, and suggestions that I offer after a consultation. The main thing to remember is the clothing is a prop to bring attention to you in a positive way in an individual portrait, while the goal in a group portrait is to make sure everyone is equal and harmonized.

For example, my first rule is the tops must be lighter than the bottoms. Why? Lighter colours project and darker colours recede.  As an example, I have often witnessed gentlemen walking down the street wearing a black shirt and tan slacks.  Very smart looking, but what my eye sees first is the tan slacks. This is drawing my eye down the body first when in a portrait my goal is to draw the eye into the face.

The image below illustrates group harmonization. Everyone does not have to be dressed in the same colours,  but each individual must harmonize and complement the others.




Where should we go for the pictures?

If you are asking what photographer you should chose for your portraits; me of course. If you are asking what setting they should be done in then we need to do a planning session. Like clothing, props, and everything else in the portrait the location must contribute to the desired mood of the the image.  Once agreed on the desired mood, I will make suggestions for location. And, once we have agreed on the location I will tell you when it has to be done (time of day).  Yes, you can ignore my time frame, but then you will not be getting my best work. Why? I don’t pick the time because it’s convenient, I pick it because it is when the quality of light is best for the mood.

A couple wanted me to do their wedding photography but I was already booked. They wanted to know if I would do a portrait of them on another date? We agreed on the mood and location. It was fall, and the leaves were turning colour. We chose a spot on Grand River and they decided to do it the day after their wedding. The bride slept in head dress and they awoke in the “early” morning so they could meet me on location at 5:30 a.m.  We got ready and when the pre-dawn light glowed on them the setting had mist rising off the river as they gazed out at the sunrise with an array of  fall colours behind them. Only in the early morning could we get the mist, the light, and the mood.

Another couple said one of their favourite places and times was enjoying their morning coffee on the dock of the family cottage at sunrise. In total darkness we tripped into a conservation park, stumbling over rocks and stumps so we could be on location as the sun rose. Again, in the pre-dawn light, with mist rising from the water, I captured them cuddling as they enjoyed the dawning of a new day symbolizing the new beginning that their engagement and forthcoming marriage represented.

In the image below we sat and waited. The client was in position and the camera set and ready, yet the light wasn’t right. Waiting for the sun to set a little further and changing the shadows and colour of its rays yielded the desired results.

When and where will your portrait be done? The first step is to call me today.

It all begins with a conversation.

John Mitchell is a master photographer accredited by the Professional Photographers of Canada for general portraits, family portraits, legal photography, and wedding story. John specializes in portraiture that captures the essence of the moment and the personality of the subject.  Now is the prime time for family portraits. For more information please call 519-624-8460 or e-mail

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