Portrait photography tips: learning the craft and culture

Portrait photographer Horst Friedrichs shares the lessons of his career in a two-day workshop with recent graduate Emma Bentley.
Two smiling people sat at a table with a Canon EOS R6 on it. On the brick wall behind them are several framed black and white prints.

As arts graduate Emma Bentley (left) discovered when she joined pro photographer Horst Friedrichs (right) for a two-day workshop, portraiture isn't just a studio pursuit for big brands or the rich and famous. Nor is it an out-of-bounds format for the budding student photographer. There is another side to portrait work that is equally rewarding and just as vital – documenting the general public. Whether it's musical subcultures, football fans or market stall holders, this is a practice where the world is your studio. © Horst Friedrichs

Portrait photography is a complex blend of preparation, technical prowess and people skills. And as pro portrait photographer Horst Friedrichs will attest, this work is not just an artistic pursuit, but a vital historical service – capturing the characters that shape human history – so it needs to be done well.

Students and budding photographers needn't be put off by a lack of professional studio space or lighting accessories, however. When Horst mentored arts graduate Emma Bentley for a weekend, the world became their studio and the public their models. Here, we find out about their workshop and discover their tips for professional portrait photography.

A black and white portrait of an older man wearing a leather jacket.

Horst followed the British rocker tribe for his 21st Century Rockers series, photographing its members in parking lots, pubs, cafes, dance and pool halls. "As a photographer, you can take a picture, snatch it away, and then just disappear," he says. "I always write an email to say thank you – it's a matter of respect." Taken on a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) and a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/5.6 and ISO320. © Horst Friedrichs

A woman with long curly red hair stands in a busy London street with a Canon camera in her raised hands.

Horst took this portrait of Emma in action as they wandered the streets of London, UK, together. "Shooting on the streets of Camden was interesting due to all the culture and unique things to see," says Emma. "The crowds were a little bit daunting, but Horst made me feel comfortable and confident in my composure, as we walked and talked about the ins and outs of street photography." © Horst Friedrichs

The fundamentals of portrait photography

Horst has had a long career working for titles including National Geographic, The New York Times and The Independent, and has taken portraits of everyone from Robbie Williams, Peter Gabriel and Tony Blair to Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking. Though he made a name for himself with commercial work, it is his long-term book projects, documenting subcultures and architecture, that truly bring out his passion. From Sufis in Pakistan to the mods and rockers of the British underground, London-based Horst has spent decades exploring different scenes and cultures, and capturing the characters involved.

During the workshop, Emma learnt the fundamentals of portrait photography. Split across two days, Horst went through handling a camera, exposure and framing before transitioning into the more complex human side of portrait work. Emma used a Canon EOS R6 and a Canon RF 14-35mm F4L IS USM lens for the workshop, which Horst was particularly impressed with.

"The camera is small and light – it really feels good. The tactile experience is very important, if I find a camera not nice to touch, I have a problem," he says. "Sometimes a camera can look like a weapon, you can scare people. The EOS R6 is more friendly, it has that retro look."

Emma took part in Canon's collaborative project with The Drum, Class of 2021. She specialises in advertising art direction and creative strategy, and won the two-day workshop with Horst as part of the programme.

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A close-up of two drinks dispensers with bright red and blue liquids inside. Both have handles saying 'PULL'.

Horst explained to Emma that capturing the essence of a subculture is as much about photographing the character and details of the places where members congregate as it is about taking portraits. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 14-35mm F4L IS USM lens at 34mm, 1/100 sec, f/4.5 and ISO100. © Emma Bentley

A floral display by the side of a doorway.

Emma says she feels very lucky to have learnt about the dos and don'ts of subculture photography from Horst. "A camera can intrude on these moments, so it's just really knowing how to go about it," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 14-35mm F4L IS USM lens at 23mm, 1/60 sec, f/4.5 and ISO10000. © Emma Bentley

On the first day, the two photographers explored landscape photography, street photography and portraiture in a park in London. For Emma, the biggest lessons came from observing how Horst approached people, and the humour and energy needed to engage them. Straight away, Horst could see that Emma had an eye for interesting angles and approaches. "She had that sense," he says. "Once she had the exposure basics down, she was quite confident with composition."

On the second day, they took some more street photographs in Camden, London, before going to a venue to shoot at an all-day ska music event. This was a truly unique photography experience, where Emma got to dive into the heart of a lively subculture, learn how a seasoned pro operates, and try to nail some shots herself.

Here, the Canon EOS R6 and Canon RF 14-35mm F4L IS USM really came into their own. As a small, unobtrusive body, the EOS R6 was well suited to letting Horst and Emma shoot in a fairly tight and private environment, in extremely low light. "What I found a total eye-opener was the sensitivity of the camera and this lens. To be able to photograph in such darkness was really impressive," Horst says. "I don't normally use zooms, but this lens was snappy and sharp – I like it a lot."

A black and white portrait of a seated figure leaning against the trunk of a large tree.

As part of the learning process, Horst took Emma to a London park. "I practised seeking out striking compositions and getting used to the camera by photographing in the park," she explains. "This helped me to feel confident with the camera and my technique." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 14-35mm F4L IS USM lens at 35mm, 1/80 sec, f/22 and ISO3200. © Emma Bentley

Student perspective: Emma's portrait photography tips

1. Get the approach right

"Horst is just very natural," says Emma, reflecting on the way Horst interacts with his subjects. "Even just the simple things, like the calm way he'd stroll up to people and introduce himself. Everyone we met was very friendly and willing to have a conversation, and that made people open up to the idea of him taking photos. Just be really natural and show an interest in the culture you are trying to capture."

2. Get up close and personal

The Canon RF 14-35mm F4L IS USM lens creates beautiful creamy bokeh and remains super sharp when shot wide open. Its useful focal length range allows you to zoom in closer, which Emma urges aspiring portrait photographers to do: "Get close! You can pick up so many little details with a nice camera and lens combination, so make sure you get right in there," she says.

3. Know when to move on

"Assessing the vibe is really important. This one guy agreed to have his picture taken on the dance floor, but then he started to become a bit rowdy," Emma says. "I watched Horst try to get the shot, but then quite quickly step away. He explained that sometimes you have to make a decision and move on so you don't ruin the magic."

A man in a blue shirt sitting at the wheel of a red sports car in a leafy lane.

On a very simple level, Horst says it's important to remember that you should try to make photography a positive process. "I make people feel good with a camera. I give them a moment, make them feel important," he says. This portrait is from Horst's book, SPEED, a two-decade celebration of British subcultures including mods, rockers, cyclists, motorcycles and vintage cars, which he produced in conjunction with Canon. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) and a Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/2 and ISO320. © Horst Friedrichs

Pro perspective: Horst's portrait photography tips

1. Prepare for everything

"You need to do your homework, because you only get one go sometimes. Before you go on a shoot, you need to read about the person or the collective or movement that you're documenting," Horst explains, calling on his experience of editorial assignments. "Maybe they are anti-establishment and they want to know a lot about who the piece is for or what it's about. Maybe you want to check how other people have done the shot and look for something different."

Horst also suggests doing a recce of the location before a shoot, so that practical matters don't trip you up. "Where can you park? Where are the plugs? Who is doing the make-up? What about the hair? A good portrait photographer knows all of this before they step foot on set."

A young woman holds up printed A5 postcards featuring her profile and examples of her work. Behind her is a brick wall covered in framed black and white prints.

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2. Work the light…

"You need to think about the light situation. If you have access to the location maybe even go and get someone to be a light double and see how the light works with a subject," Horst advises.

A self-described light hunter, Horst says the key to that killer shot sometimes requires moving the subject into or around a light source. "This can be the difference between a fairly bland reportage shot and a fantastic portrait." Sometimes it's worth intervening, but at other times it will break the magic of a moment. If you have done your research (or at least observed the person for long enough), then trust your gut and make a decision.

3. …or modify the light

Relying on natural or continuous light is a good option, as you can expose in real time with the EVF on a Canon EOS R6, but Horst also encourages portrait photographers to get creative and bring supplies to manipulate the light if necessary – be it professional light modifiers or homemade equivalents.

"You can bring some tracing paper or even kitchen foil, whatever you need to highlight or disperse the light – keep it in your kitbag," he says.

4. Think long term

Unless you are being sent on a commercial job for a quick turnaround, Horst says you should always have a long-term project in mind. "I would always advise this with students and aspiring pros. You need a long-term project. I have projects I spent 12 years on, but it could even be 12 months or more – just think long term. That is something you create that will maybe win a prize or result in a book.

"Single pictures… I don't know. You can create like this and have maybe 120,000 Instagram followers, but I'm not jealous of that. For me, this approach is kind of like a fashion and it will die off. It's much stronger when you really listen to yourself, what you want to do and make it a project."

Jack Fittes

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