Best Books For Portrait Photographers
If you have interest in portrait photography, there are plenty of amazing books that will serve as a great resource in terms of camera settings, technique, composition, subject placement, posing and much more. Below is a list of the best books on portrait photography that I recommend.
“50 Portraits” by Gregory Heisler
While I’m including this book as one of the best books for portrait photographers, 50 Portraits by Gregory Heisler is a book that should be read (and reread) by all photographers, regardless of their preferred genre and subject matter.
As its name suggests, this book is a collection of 50 portraits that Heisler has photographed over the course of his career. The book its self is incredible. It’s hardback and the images could easily stand alone as a coffee table book. If you don’t immediately recognize Heisler’s name you will undoubtedly recognize his work. He has photographed everyone from Muhamad Ali to Hillary Clinton. Many of the images he shares in the book were photographed as cover images for Time, GQ, Sports Illustrated, Life, Esquire, and the likes. Every portrait is a study in lighting, of which Heisler is a master.
Along with each portrait, Heisler shares the story behind the images. He shares his thought processes, and how his ideas evolved into the final portraits. It’s the sort of stories and information one might share if you sat down with him to look through his images in person. The stories have depth and every one of them is more than a fun anecdote about photographing someone famous. They are an absolute wealth of information about what goes through the head of a photographer while working.
I once heard this book described as generous, and the description is apt. Heisler is generous with his stories, he’s generous with sharing his thoughts, his expectations, and the ideas that failed before ultimately being reworked into brilliance. As if there isn’t enough to glean from the stories behind the images, Gregory Heisler also shares his “Thoughts on Technique for each image.” This isn’t a place to get bogged down with f/stops, shutter speed, and iso (although he includes that information for each image in an appendix) but they are literal thoughts on why and how he used the techniques he did and why they work in that particular portrait.
Have you ever talked to someone who is an expert in their field, and sharing so casually and effortlessly while all the while you’re thinking “Hold on. Slow Down, I need to get a pen and write down every word!” This book is like that. I actually own it in both print and kindle- print because you need the physical book to do the images justice and kindle because I needed to highlight all the words of wisdom that Heisler shares so effortlessly, and I didn’t want to write in my print copy.
Heisler’s tidbits of wisdom range from his thoughts on portraits:
I don’t seek to flatter my subjects so much as to respect them. I want to give them their moment, a moment in which their individuality is heightened. Their uniqueness set into strong relief.
To his thoughts on technique:
If your picture isn’t good enough, your light isn’t close enough.
This book is a must-buy for all portrait photographers, but it really should be the cornerstone of any photographer’s library.
“People Pictures & Capturing Authentic Portraits” by Chris Orwig
What makes the books People Pictures and Authentic Portraits by Chris Orwig isn’t just the skill of the photographer, it’s the masterful and approachable way in which Orwig teaches what appears to come so naturally to him.
After having read his first three books (Visual Poetry, the Creative Fight, and People Pictures) I had to chuckle a little at the title of his fourth book, Authentic Portraits because authentic is the very word I would have used to describe both Chris’s photography, his teaching style, and his books.
While both of Chris’s books on portrait photography focus on connecting with people, People Pictures is more about finding your own voice and Authentic Portraits is about learning to create portraits that represent who a person is not what they look like. These are not books filled with lighting diagrams. While the words “voice”, “poetry”, and “plot” appear in the index of People Pictures, technical terms such as Aperture, Shutter Speed, F/Stop, and ISO do not. These books are not technical manuals and they’re less about Chris sharing his own work then about him teaching you how to take yours to the next level.
People pictures is a book of 30 exercises to improve your portrait photography. While the concept is simple the assignments are not. Every assignment is about connecting, seeing, and developing your own voice and vision as a portrait photographer. These exercises are not technical in nature; don’t expect lessons about trying different focal lengths or experimenting with the difference between broad and Rembrandt lighting. Instead, the assignment objectives include things like “explore how to capture an inner strength of character.” “Use the camera to respect and admire someone else.” While these objectives may sound ambitious, Orwig then walks you step by step through an exercise designed to help you achieve those goals. I am 100% positive that if you went through these assignments step by step and completed all 30 of them that you would not only be better at making portraits but a completely different photographer than you started out.
Every good portrait is a collaboration between the subject and the photographer.
In that one sentence, Orwig clearly lays out the entire premise and purpose of his book Authentic Portraits. He walks you through what makes a good portrait and then delves into more specifics of how to capture those images. This book does contain more technical information than People Pictures, but again it is more about capturing the vision and getting you started on the journey of making authentic portraits than an instruction manual or a formula for how to achieve a good portrait.
Both of these books are worth the read and they should be considered essential for anyone looking to get past the technical and learn how to make great portraits. Although People Pictures was released before Authentic Portraits, I recommend reading them in the opposite order. I think reading Authentic Portraiture would be a benefit before completing the exercises in People Pictures.
“The Headshot: The Secrets to Creating Amazing Headshot Portraits” by Peter Hurley
While at first glance the audience of Peter Hurley’s book The Headshot might appear to be very specific the depth of Hurley’s knowledge about faces, and how to make people look good in images is valuable for anyone who ever photographs people, regardless of their style or the type of images they produce.
This book is really sort of the opposite of Chris Orwig’s books above. While Chris’s books are about vision and voice, Hurley is all about the technical side. While they both focus on drawing emotion and expression out of their subjects, Hurley delves into the nitty-gritty details of how to coax and direct that expression from your subject.
Hurley started out photographing actor headshots when, as an actor himself he was disappointed with his own headshot. He was determined to create images with the expression that he felt his own headshots lacked. Hurley’s work is deceptively simple- inspired by Richard Avedon his headshots are generally shot on a white background with flat lighting. While Hurley does walk you through the technical aspects of lighting the subject, his setup is not complicated and it is clear that his technique goes well beyond the lights or post-processing. After decades of photographing countless faces, he has mastered the small details that can make or break an image.
While on some level we all know that subtle changes to the angle of the face or the tilt of the chin or the line of their smile can affect a portrait, Peter Hurley’s examples of just how much of a difference subtle adjustments actually make are amazing. And he doesn’t just teach us what makes a good headshot, he teaches us how to get those amazing headshots. This book includes an abundance of tips for how to direct our subjects to achieve expressive and flattering portraits.
It’s hard to explain the level of understanding Peter Hurley has about the human face, and the detailed explanations and examples he shares about how to make sure every element comes together. In one chapter he talks about which facial muscles are engaged when smiling genuinely (as opposed to that forced, fake smile), in another, he talks about the eyes and teaches his tricks for avoiding that wide-eyed deer in the headlights stare.
While every portrait isn’t a headshot, and every image may not require the same level of micro-adjustments necessary for a fantastic facial closeup, reading through this book slowly and really studying the examples in which Hurly demonstrates the difference small changes can make to the way your subject appears on camera, will benefit any portrait photographer.
“Secrets of Great Portrait Photography” by Brian Smith
Secrets of Great Portrait Photography is a fun, quick, and insightful read. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Brian Smith, Secrets of Great Portrait Photography is worth the read for anyone who enjoys portrait photography or just wants to read about the adventures of photographing some of the world’s most famous celebrities. This book is divided into 12 chapters, each containing one central idea such as find the place, see the light, create the look, less is more, etc. Within each chapter Smith shares a collection of images and a short story describing the “how” or the “why” of the image.
This is not a technical book, it’s a collection of stories about the images that Brian Smith shares in this book. Each story is short, and some feel more like fun anecdotes than a deep dive into the mind of the photographer. If you are looking for that deep dive then 50 Portraits by Gregory Heisler is the better choice. But this book is a great read for anyone who doesn’t want to get bogged down in something quite so weighty. Yet despite the lighthearted feel, there is a lot of meat tucked into these stories, Smith’s advice is tucked into the corners of his stories in a way that is very casual and conversational. It almost comes across as if you are standing there listening to him share information offhand, while he is setting up his cameras for the next shoot.
Smith’s portfolio is spectacular and spending some time with the images is reason enough to pick up this book. In that way, his book reminds me of Smith’s photography. His images are bright, fun, and straightforward yet technically masterful and the stories in the book present the same way.
“The Luminous Portrait” by Elizabeth Messina
Elizabeth Messina’s The Luminous Portrait: Capture the Beauty of Natural Light for Glowing, Flattering Photographs has now become a classic for any portrait photographer who wants to explore the beauty of natural light. She starts out by explaining why natural light is so attractive for portrait work, then goes over her film equipment, then goes straight into the parameters of a photoshoot.
The next big chapter is “The Anatomy of a Portrait”, where Elizabeth goes through such important topics as understanding your subject, location, guiding subjects to the best light, the nuances of exposure, and even goes over why it is sometimes important to use reflectors and scrims to add or control natural light. If you struggle with composition, the “Creativity and Composition” chapter has quite a bit of info accompanied by beautiful images to give you some ideas when taking portraits of people. Other chapters go through boudoir photography, child photography, celebrity portrait photography, and wedding photography. The last two chapters are dedicated to styling and props, as well as the business side of portrait photography.
What I like about this book (other than Elizabeth’s exceptionally beautiful portraiture work), is that it takes the reader straight to the point without adding too much unnecessary information, which makes “The Luminous Portrait” a very easy read – I finished it in one day. So you can count on getting some real inspiration, as well as great ideas for your next portrait photography session.
Note: the upcoming sections of this article will include our book recommendations for Nature Photography, Composition, Post-Processing, and much more, so stay tuned! In the meantime, if you have other book recommendations, please let me know in the comments section below!