Practical Portrait Tips [Duel]

In Portrait by Jim Harmer

For the weekly duel this week, Dustin and Jim each had only 30 minutes to photograph the same model, who they had never before shot with or seen.

New to the weekly Improve Photography Duel?  Check out this page, where we explain how it works.

Settling the Score

The overall score from past weeks of the duel is Jim: 2 wins, Dustin: 2 wins, and 1 tie.  Let's see who wins this week…

Portrait Photography Duel

Jim Here:  Dustin was the first to shoot the model and I assisted for him by holding the light stand during his shoot.  During the shoot, I paid close attention to the model's face, posing, and expression.

I noticed right away that she has more of a round face, but when she gave a no-teeth smile, it made dimples appear on her cheeks which added more shape to her face.  That was definitely her look.

Jim's Process:  I used an Einstein studio strobe for this shoot with a 24″ softbox.  I could have accomplished the same thing with a simple speedlight, but since it was Dustin hauling around the heavy studio strobe and battery pack for me, I didn't mind the weight 🙂

Since we were shooting at high noon, I knew I needed to control the lighting.  The sun was extremely bright between the buildings, but there were also heavy shadows from the buildings as well.  I looked for a place where I could better control the light and found a little alleyway that was mostly in shade.  To block out the sunlight coming into the alley, I had someone stand to block the sun.  I had Dustin hold the softbox in very close to the model.  The edge of the softbox was touching my camera and just barely outside the frame.  I wanted the light in close to wrap around blemishes on the face to make the skin look smooth, and also to keep shadows off the brick behind her.

senior portrait of a nampa teenager

Jim's entry to this week's duel – Click to view large

Shutter speed: 1/200, Aperture: f/2.8, ISO 100.  Focal length: 70mm,  Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, Lighting: Einstein studio strobe at half power and a 24″ softbox placed close to the subject above and to the right of the camera.


Dustin Here: In the time that we had to shoot with the model, Erin – we took her around outside our studio at noon day and did some quick shots in the studio as well just to make sure that we exhausted all our options of creativity. After going through all my shots – the one I fell in love with the most was one we took in the studio right at the end. In the process – I got a more candid and natural expression from her.

Dustin's Process: As for the posing – I had Erin face her back to me and then turn back towards me so that we could get the movement in the hair. Each time she turned around, I asked her to have a different expression a variation to her stance. Since she is a “professional” model – I asked her to switch up the expression every time I clicked the shutter and for the most part I was able to get a look that didn't look like a “stunned model.”

The Lighting – The lighting was actually very simple. We placed a beauty dish on a boom stand above and in front of her and angled it down. You can see the how the light falls nearly straight down on her. You can do the same lighting style with a simple soft-box and avoid the need for a beauty dish.

As for Photoshop – I took the time to make sure that there weren't any blemishes or imperfections in her skin. I added a touch of makeup, lipstick, and hair highlights. I then used the liquify tool to give her hair more volume and tuck in the clothes where they seemed to fan out more as she was spinning around.

After that, I made sure that the lighting  was how I wanted it and that shadows and highlights were drawing your attention in the right places. Your eyes are drawn first to the highlights in the photo. Then, of course, I did what I needed for contrast, saturation, and finishing effects for the photo.



by Dustin Olsen

by Dustin Olsen

Shutter speed: 1/160, Aperture: f/8, ISO 200, Camera: Canon 6D, Lens: Canon 24-105mm lens, Lighting: Einstein studio strobe at half power with a beauty dish placed above and in front of her using a boom stand.

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About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on