Want to be a better portrait photographer? Get in front of somebody else’s lens

Mar 21, 2024

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

Want to be a better portrait photographer? Get in front of somebody else’s lens

Mar 21, 2024

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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get better at photography

When was the last time you had your photo taken? I mean, not just a quick selfie or holiday snap, but an actual portrait of yourself taken by another photographer? How to get better at photography is not just about taking photos, but also about experiencing being in front of the camera.

For most of us, it’s often a case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes. We are so busy focusing on our clients and their perfect frame and exposure with the right ISO settings, that we rarely ever have time to update our own professional photographs. But in today’s age of visual branding, it’s more important than ever to practice what we preach. This means we should actually have a nice professional up-to-date photograph of ourselves for our website and social media.

Before we move on…

I’d like to emphasise that this article is beyond the usual “photography tips.” I will not talk about rule of thirds, camera settings like shutter speed, shutter or aperture priority, autofocus, focus points, depth of field… And I don’t want to discuss mirrorless or DSLR cameras, lenses, lighting, and other gear. I have nothing against those tips, of course, but I want to rely on personal experience and everything I learned from it. I want to show you how posing for someone else can help you improve your skill and creativity. Even though it may seem unrelated at first, we can truly become better photographers by standing in front of someone else’s lens. Learning how to get better at photography includes experiencing being the subject.

Meet Tamsin, a fellow photographer

Tamsin, a local photographer friend, reached out recently and asked if I’d take some new headshots for her non-photography work. I jumped at the opportunity and suggested we do a swap. It had been several years since I had my photograph taken by another photographer. So, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to do a photoshoot remind myself how my clients feel in front of the camera. Tamsin and I quickly set up a couple of shoot dates. Hers would be shot in my studio with a plain background and artificial light. Mine would be outdoors in a more natural, relaxed setting. Getting better at photography often involves swapping roles with another photographer.

Like many photographers, I don’t relish having my own picture taken, I am far more comfortable behind the camera. Most of my profile pictures have been self-portraits, with a whole year since I’d even done one of those. While many people find some joy in experimenting with self-portraits I generally find them to be somewhat of a time-suck. I usually yield just one image that is even halfway usable. Most of my expressions look contrived. Therefore, I was keen to see what another professional could get out of a difficult subject (ie. me).

Photographing Tamsin

improve photography tamsin portrait

Photographing Tamsin is an opportunity to get better at photography by facing the challenge of photographing another photographer. I tried to approach Tamsin’s shoot as I would with any client. However, I have to be honest and say that I was somewhat apprehensive about photographing another photographer. I really like Tamsin’s work. She has a very natural, candid style, something that I have always struggled to get right. My work tends to veer towards the more posed, static end of the spectrum. This is why I was slightly concerned that Tamsin wouldn’t like my style.

Tamsin does not generally shoot indoors with strobes. She prefers outdoor shoots and natural lighting. So I was curious to see how she would feel in front of all the equipment. It turned out that Tamsin, very much like myself, is also not particularly comfortable in front of the lens. This is like 80% of my clients, if I’m being honest. I spend most of even very quick headshot sessions helping them to feel relaxed and confident. A skilled photographer doesn’t only need photography skills but also lots of patience. It goes for portrait photography but many other genres, too.

I did have to give Tamsin more direction than I was expecting in terms of how to stand. Although, in hindsight, this makes sense. As the subject, we cannot possibly know the photographer’s perspective and what they’re seeing. We do need to trust the photographer on this matter. When I’m shooting I tend to almost over-direct to begin with. Then I back off a little as the person becomes more relaxed.

In general, the shoot went very smoothly. Tamsin gave me some information about what she wanted: poses, angles, the overall feel. She even brought a reference photograph that I needed to match the background of, so it was relatively simple. Although these types of images are fairly run-of-the-mill, it was fun to photograph another photographer and see her reaction. The experience was certainly a lesson in how to get better at photography by adapting to another photographer’s needs.

How Tamsin felt after the shoot

When I asked Tamsin how she felt she said that “it was certainly easier being in front of the camera in my 20s than it is in my 40s!” She continued:

“It’s also been a while since I’ve had professional photos taken but I think that as long as the person taking your photos has a sense of humour, reassures you throughout and helps you feel more relaxed it can make a world of difference.”

Phew, so I think I did OK during the shoot! Tamsin chose eight images, and I set about retouching them. This opened up another can of worms related to the retouching styles. We actually didn’t discuss it at all. We just agreed to ‘do our thing’ in Lightroom and Photoshop and make any adjustments later.

get better at photography

More and more recently, I have gravitated towards a much lighter retouching style. I want people to look refreshed as opposed to 10 years younger. However, I do understand that some people like a slightly heavier hand than perhaps I have been doing lately. Tamsin did admit to me later that she did, in fact, do a slight amount more retouching on a couple of the images. A great reminder to double-check with the client about how much retouching they want.

My turn to be photographed

improve photography alex portrait

The preparation

The following week it was my turn to be in front of the lens. You might think it would have been a breeze preparing for the shoot. After all, I’m a photographer myself, dishing out advice regularly to clients on what to wear. But no, I was a hot mess of anxiety. Of course, I left it until the day of the shoot to actually figure out what I was going to wear… Only to discover that half of it was in the laundry, and the other half was actually quite unflattering.

Despite having experience and knowledge in this aspect, I still felt unsure of myself. Honestly, I definitely would have benefitted from more guidance. This was a beautiful reminder that my clients are most likely feeling even more unsure of themselves and need a firm but gentle handhold through the whole preparation process. And it’s another reminder that not everything is about gear, composition, and purely photographic skills.

The shoot

Now for the actual shoot. We went to a park sometime before the sunset to chase the golden hour. Of course, we also wanted to find a spot with a pleasing foreground and background for the portraits. To the horror of horrors, there were actual live people around enjoying themselves! I haven’t felt this self-conscious and awkward since when I tripped up walking on stage for an orchestral audition and fell flat on my face in front of the entire panel of judges.

Beating the awkwardness

I am possibly one of the most awkward people to photograph, and I needed a lot of direction. There is a sort of vulnerability and blind trust in having your photo taken. To begin with, I felt I wanted to help with the locations and was analysing where the light was coming from. But after about 10 minutes, we started having fun, and I was able to relax and just be a little more natural. It was actually nice in the end to hand over the reins to somebody else.

Tamsin admitted that she’d had similar feelings to me before the shoot. “Would she judge the way I photograph?” she asked herself, “would my style of photography or editing techniques be her cup of tea?”

“More questions and insecurities can come up when you’re face to face with someone that does the same job as you, but luckily, Alex was incredibly complimentary throughout, and that made me feel instantly at ease and confident about taking her photos,” Tamsin said, “which in turn reflect how Alex comes across in the portraits I took.”

get better at photography

How I feel about the images

Saying that these are great photos is simply not enough. The images Tamsin took of me are some of my favourites that I’ve ever had! I’m usually very self-critical but, she is a great photographer who definitely captured a more light-hearted and playful side to my character. That is a testament to how natural and relaxed she made me feel as the shoot progressed. There was a mixture of goofing around, being a little bit vulnerable, and connecting with one another on a deeper level than just taking a few photographs. And it really shows in the images. Perhaps that is something I myself have got lazy with in my own photography.

The takeaway

All in all, it was a very worthwhile experience. As photographers, we are doing this process every time we shoot, and it is easy for it to become ‘just another day’s work’. For our clients, however, having their photos taken is not something that happens very often. To them, it is a big deal. We must remember this, from the first interactions and guiding them through what to wear, to the shoot itself, and of course, to the post-processing and file delivery.

It was fantastic to relinquish control and see what another photographer would make of a location as well. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of doing some of the things that Tamsin did, and I’m keen to use them as inspiration and add those ideas the next time I shoot. I hope she was equally able to take as much away from the experience as I did.

Our impressions after the shoot

“Despite my initial insecurities of photographing another professional photographer,” Tamsin later told me, “I was pleasantly surprised by how everything just flowed between us. That compatibility of us working together has encouraged and motivated us to join forces in the not-too-distant future, and I look forward to it!”

get better at photography

One thing I would emphasise is that Tamsin is very much a different photographer from myself, both in style and genre. She loves to photograph families, I love to avoid photographing families! We both appreciate each other’s styles, however. I think that this also helped because there were naturally no feelings of competition between us. I’d be happy to work with Tamsin in the future and would heartily recommend her to potential clients who fit her better than myself. I feel quite confident that she would do the same for me.

improve photography tamsin

So what are you waiting for? Go find another photographer to do a swap with. At the very least, you’ll end up with some new profile images that you don’t have to retouch. At the best, you might come away with a learning experience, a new partner in crime, or even better, a new friend. Is there a better excuse to reach out and find your new photography buddy?

You can see more of Tamsin’s work on her website and Instagram.

FAQ

What do you need to become a good photographer?

To be a skilled photographer, you need technical knowledge, creative vision, and interpersonal skills. This means understanding camera settings, lighting techniques, and post-processing. You must develop a unique perspective and style, capture moments that tell a story or evoke emotions, and work well with clients or subjects. Continuous learning and practice are crucial for improvement.

How can I improve myself as a photographer?

To improve your photography skills, learn technical knowledge, understand composition principles, and experiment with different genres. Explore creativity to find your unique style. Seek feedback, collaborate with other photographers, and take on new projects to refine your vision. Keep up with the latest trends and technologies in photography while nurturing your passion to fuel growth and mastery.

How do I make myself good in pictures?

For better pictures, it’s important to understand both the subject and photographer’s roles. When in front of the camera, being relaxed and confident is essential, and a skilled photographer can help by giving direction and reassurance. Trusting the photographer’s vision and following their guidance on expressions and poses is also important. A natural and relaxed demeanor, along with a genuine connection with the photographer, can result in pictures that capture your best self. To gain a fresh perspective, try swapping roles with a fellow photographer, further enhancing your comfort and appearance in photos.

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Alex Baker

Alex Baker

Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe

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3 responses to “Want to be a better portrait photographer? Get in front of somebody else’s lens”

  1. Kaouthia Avatar
    Kaouthia

    Not sure how that helps with the point the article makes about overcoming anxiety and putting yourself in your subject’s shoes. :)

    1. Kaouthia Avatar
      Kaouthia

      “I have been on the other end of the lens which causes me discomfort”

      Yes, and this whole entire article is about getting over that discomfort so that you can understand the discomfort your subjects may feel in front of YOUR camera. If you can’t understand that and don’t shoot portraits then this article isn’t really aimed at you. I mean. It literally says “portrait photographer” in the title.

      1. Kaouthia Avatar
        Kaouthia

        You’re totally missing the point. You realise that paying clients also step in front of cameras to get portraits, right? They’re not always (or even often) models. And again, this article isn’t for you. You’re responding to something that the article has nothing to do with and a point it doesn’t make.