National Press Club

Portraiture Tips From a Pro

June 3, 2009 | By Vineeta Anand

hotographer Clay Blackmore demonstrates professional portrait techniques with help from audience member Tracey Foster.

hotographer Clay Blackmore demonstrates professional portrait techniques with help from audience member Tracey Foster.

Photo/Image: Ed Hazelwood

Clay Blackmore laughs about his early days as a photographer. Blackmore, who assisted the portrait photographer Monte Zucker for 25 years before going it alone, imitated the legendary photographer so completely that Zucker had trouble distinguishing between his photographs and those shot by his student. “I used to be so nervous, I would glue photographs to the tripod” and copy them, Blackmore told more than 150 National Press Club members and their guests at a talk “How to Photograph Everyone” on May 27.

Blackmore isn’t nervous any more.

“When you start to learn the technique, you get really good at this, and you learn to relax,” he said.

Whether he’s shooting weddings, bar mitzvahs, or celebrity portraits, Blackmore has a set of rules that he adheres to:

  • Seat or stand the subjects in the pose you want. Then light the subjects. Then adjust their bodies. Remember “Pose, lighting, then lift them up,” Blackmore says.
  • Hide the body of the subject, focus on getting “great” expressions on the faces.
  • If the subject has a scar or blemish, shining light on it will diminish it.
  • When the subjects are seated, face the man toward the light, and the woman away from the light.
  • If the subjects are standing, make them look slimmer by asking them to place one leg in front of another. Another slimming trick is to make subjects pretend as if they’re walking on a high-wire.
  • If the subjects are seated, make sure their bodies are apart, and heads are together.
  • Give the subjects something to focus on, such as an outstretched hand.
  • When the subjects are seated for a portrait, make sure their shoulders are not level, bring their elbows out, and seat them sideways, instead of looking directly at the camera.
  • The subjects should be leaning forward from the waist; keep their chins down.
  • Build groups of people like pyramids—seat the women in the front, stand a row of men behind them, and if the group is larger, stand a taller row of men behind them, or elevate them by standing them on a bench.
  • For group photographs, place the subjects in the middle of the room, not against a wall.
  • For portraits, Blackmore uses green, blue and gray backgrounds. They make the subjects look radiant, he said.
  • Harness natural daylight if you can.
  • For profiles, use backlighting.
  • When photographing children, remember they have a very short attention span. Try to keep their attention using toys, feathers, bubbles and other props.

Blackmore belongs to an exclusive group of 78 of the most influential photographers worldwide dubbed the “Explorers of Light” by Canon. Blackmore, who gave the audience tips on “batting 1000 every time” when shooting portraits, was named among the best wedding vendors of 2009 by Washingtonian Magazine. His roster of clients includes Tiger Woods, Forrest Whitaker, Maria Sharapova, PGA of America and the United States Golf Association. He’s also an instructor for Disney photographics, a member of the Cameracraftsmen of America, and on the board of the International Hall of Fame of Photography. His portraits start at $7,000 and wedding photographs can cost $20,000 or more.