How to Shoot a Portrait, as Taught by a Pro

When you look at a portrait shot by Kristina Patterson, you don’t see a picture of a person.

You see a photo of a friend. The Californian photographer has a way of capturing the personality of anyone lucky enough to land in front of her lens. We asked Kristina for her advice on how to shoot a portrait and learnt it’s all about engagement, direction, and preparing for the unexpected. Here she is laying it down.


Conversation and engagement is super, super important to me. I always like to ease and relax a person by chatting and asking them questions—you know, I’ll usually start off with small talk, and if it allows me, and I have the time, it can open up into deeper conversation. For instance, the photo here of me shooting MJ (Marc Johnson)—he can be pretty silly sometimes. So with him it was like him being kind of cool skateboarder MJ, then him being jokester MJ, and then we got into some personal conversation and I got a very deep MJ. And that’s always really interesting—if I can dig in that deep and get those kinds of emotions out of a person.

I’m also one of those people that likes to throw people off by being a little bit silly or goofy to kind of snap them out of a funk, especially if they’re really stiff or awkward. There are people who have been photographed hundreds of times, like Ave, but he still hates being in front of a camera, but just by the conversation, or being silly myself, it kind of makes them smile and perk up differently than they would normally.


Some people might be accustomed to being in front of the camera, but in order to make it your own you have to direct to get the look or pose that you want. You might have someone that is completely stiff, or used to posing a certain way, so if you want to make it your own you have to direct and angle them.

I’m also not afraid to call out habits that someone may have, for example if they tend to keep their mouth open every time I take their shot, I’ll tell them “shut your mouth!’, or if they fiddle with their hair too much—Ben Nordberg! I’m always just really acutely aware of those things because I’m looking for a certain angle. I’m also not afraid to walk up and move their hand or hair in a direction to my liking. It’s been pretty oddly interesting since I’ve been shooting a lot of skateboarders and they’re usually accustomed to being shot by males the majority of the time. Normally guys aren’t coming up to them and fixing their hair or their collar, so it’s kind of nice because it definitely throws them out of what their normal photo pattern would be.

Knowing Your Light

This is simple, but everyone has to find the light that they like best. I always look for flattering light on the face, no harsh shadows on the nose or eye sockets. This is just my personal thing that I like—some people might like more shadows or angles, but I always want the light to be flattering.



I study face and body beforehand—wait, that sounds really weird. But when I have the time and opportunity to study the features of my subjects, it helps inform me about possibilities, features to enhance, and also obstacles. So, you know, if I notice someone has a really nice jawbone, or chiselled cheekbones, I think about how I’m going to angle or pose them. Or on the other

hand, if someone has a really big nose, or a double chin, or heavy bags under their eyes, it helps me think about what I want to do with them directionally. Also, do they have some interesting features, like really good tattoos? Or like with Dylan (Rieder), he always wore really beautiful rings, and he had “Smile” on his hand and all these features, so it’s good to get those little details in the shot.

Leave Room For Spontaneity

So, while you may have a plan for your shoot, you should always leave room to be open to spontaneous action or to surroundings that could bring unexpected results. I kind of have this rule where I plan about 75% of the shoot, and the other 25% is left to like, did they just drive up in a really rad car, or did they bring somebody with them that’s making them laugh, or did something spill over—it could be anything, you know?

Like, for example, when I shot Matt Hensley, he came up to my house in this really rad old truck. I didn’t plan on shooting him in the truck, but I saw it and was like, “You know what? I’m gonna totally change my direction.” I put him in there and it’s one of the best shots, and I’m really stoked about that. Sometimes certain situations bring an unexpected behaviour out of the person, which is really cool.

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