Artist demonstration: how to create a photographic portrait

How can a pizza box improve your photography?

Photographer Gisela Torres looks at portraits by various artists to examine some of the decisions photographers make before they press the shutter button. She asks how their choices affect their portraits. She also shares her top tips on lighting, composition and perspective, offering practical ideas using everyday items for you to use in your own portrait photography.


  • Hi, I’m Gisela Torres and I’m an artist and I’m going to show you how to create a photographic portrait.

    To give this a go, you will need a camera or camera phone, a source of light, a reflector, a tripod, or a stack of books and a sitter to photograph.

    Photography has changed a lot since it was invented. While a lot of professional photographers use digital cameras, now one can use camera phones and tablets.

    Some of the important elements in photography involve lighting, composition and perspective. So here are some of my top tips.

    Look at this portrait of Malala Yousafzai. Malala is a campaigner for young girls all over the world. In this portrait of Malala, you can see how the artist has used shadow and highlight detail.

    There are many different types of lights that you can use, but my favourite is natural light. Because you can go outside and take a photograph and if you’re indoors, have the sitter sit by the window.

    A great tool to use when you’re lighting your subject matter, if you don’t have very much light, is your reflector. Now, if you don’t have a reflector you can actually make your own. I use a pizza box and I line it with tinfoil and that pizza box becomes my reflector. Just make sure that you play around with the light.

    Now, once you’ve decided what type of lighting you want to use, then you need to start thinking about how you’re going to place the sitter, within that composition.

    Here’s a self-portrait by Grace Lau. Grace Lau is a photographer and a writer. She specialises in exploring Chinese identity and issues of race and imperial history. Look at the composition in this portrait. There’s something in photography called the rule of thirds, which helps you think about composition.

    The rule of thirds basically means dividing up your screen to help with the composition.

    By using this grid, you can place your sitter in different positions, and that will convey the narrative that you are trying to say.

    Now, once you’re happy with the lighting and composition of your portrait, start thinking about the type of perspective that you would like to use.

    This is a portrait of Darcus Howe. Darcus Howe was a civil rights leader known for his campaigns to combat racism. This portrait uses perspective in a creative way. Perspective affects the portrait, so it’s important to think about the camera angle that you want to use.

    If you’re shooting straight on, it means that you have become a little bit more familiar with your subject matter. So it creates this kind of closeness.

    Now, if you want to shoot from above, which is called bird’s eye view, it means that the subject matter or the sitter, is going to come across as possibly being a bit small.

    And if you want to shoot from below, that means you’re tilting the camera, looking up at the subject matter, the subject matter might look empowering, bigger, stronger.

    So question what kind of camera angle you want to use, to help tell the story of your photographic portrait. There you have it.

    When I’m trying to create my own photographic portraits, it’s important for me to think about lighting, composition and perspective in order to create the best possible portrait I can.

    And remember, what’s wonderful about digital photography, is that you can experiment and play and try many different ways of shooting your subject matter. Just have fun.

Learning objectives

  1. Explore creative practices, tools and techniques used by a portrait photographer.
  1. Discover tips on making creative decisions in portrait photography.
  1. Gather inspiration from a variety of sources.

You will need

  • Camera or camera phone
  • Source of light
  • Reflector
  • Tripod or stack of books
  • A sitter to photograph