8 Tips to Help You ALWAYS Shoot a Striking Portrait Photo

All photos © Dean Zulich

Regardless if you are dealing with limited time, adverse circumstances, or a lack of props, there is always a way to create compelling portraits on the run. In the below tutorial, pro photographer Dean Zulich shares portrait photography tips from his shoots from different locations all over the world. Zulich is a member of Datacolor's Friends with Vision

1. Be Opportunistic

This was a very last-minute shoot with Kenyan fashion designer Nike Kondakis during Fashion Week in Los Angeles. We scrambled together a very talented team featuring renowned international model Ivana Kukric and decided to shoot in the piñata district of Downtown, LA.

As we were setting up the street shot, a younger gentleman walked by with this miniature horse. I didn’t waste any time and offered him $5 to use the horse as a prop, which he gladly accepted.

Everything went flawlessly and we got the shot that had even more of a story than we had initially envisioned. The horse behaved during the shoot and the designer was more than pleased with the final result.

It’s true what they say, if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And so I always try to stay on the lookout and try to be opportunistic.


2. Play to Their Strengths

This shoot was part of a self-assigned creative project titled “Dance for Animals." It took place in the Wild Is Life Wildlife Sanctuary outside of Harare, Zimbabwe.

The idea was to gather local artists with wild animals to raise awareness of the great job this sanctuary is doing for both the local population and the animals. One of my models was a very athletic dancer, and we decided to play to her strength and get this image that displays her physical ability while remaining graceful and flowing with the background.

I always spend time with models prior to the shoot to ask about their hobbies and favorite activities, including any sports. Results, just like in this shot, can be quite impressive.


3. Minimal Props - Maximum Results

This shoot with NBA Hall Of Famer Grant Hill in his house in Orlando, Florida was a last-minute project. As busy as Grant is, it was not easy to find an opening in his schedule and prepare the props and the shot list properly. We managed to get this ball and use his closet for outfits.

I improvised a makeshift studio in one of the rooms in his house, and with truly great styling, even the basketball itself was enough. The key here in my opinion was to connect with Grant without being starstruck - as I was always a huge fan of him. He was obviously comfortable in front of the camera, and the rest just happened. As far as the props, sometimes less is more, and it’s truly crucial to connect with your talent as much as possible.


4. No Equipment? No problem!

This shoot for jewelry designer Magik Grace outside of Nairobi, Kenya was full of challenges. After accidentally stepping into a large ants nest – and completely understanding what the expression ‘ants in the pants’ means! – the biggest challenge was completely my fault.

I dropped one of my PocketWizard transceivers into the stream before firing the first shot, which meant my strobes became completely useless. Instead of panicking, I started thinking about what other ways I can create light. Luckily the Elinchrom Quadra strobe I was using had a modeling LED light built-in, so I had something going on.

Though not very strong for the sunlight, that light was just about enough to provide key light for this cave shot. For the rim lights, we improvised torches and they completed this compelling image.

If something goes wrong with the equipment, or anything else really, do not panic, but feel free to improvise and go back to the principles of photography. Results can often be more impressive than what was initially planned.


5. Stay Creative; Things Will Happen

This conceptual creative project was inspired by Herb Ritz, after seeing his exhibit at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Model Sedina and I decided to head out to the El Mirage dry lakebed in the Californian desert, and all we brought was a long piece of fabric and a lot of goodwill. My model was also a strong stylist, so she was able to pull off this look with minimal accessories.

Though it’s always breezy in the El Mirage, this time the wind picked up quite a bit and was able to lift the long fabric and contribute to this captivating image. There was no immediate intent for usage, yet this photo has been used by Elinchrom lighting in Los Angeles and has been exhibited several times. When you surround yourself with creative people, goodwill, and some sort of idea, great things can happen.

6. Be Alert on Set, Keep Looking!

This shot was taken in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, where I traveled to take a much-needed break after a very busy stretch in LA. Being passionate about photography, I still brought some new equipment in order to test it.

I met some amazing and eager natives, and it didn't take long to come up with a small team for a creative shoot in this jewel of the South Pacific. This shot was taken between the setups, where I was looking for blue skies to overpower the sun with my new strobe.

Clouds crept in, and we were on a short break when I saw one of my models, Christina, enjoying the moment. My camera was ready, and I was able to sneak in this capture. I always try to stay ready on the set and keep looking for moments like this, that are sometimes right in front of us.


7. Let People Be Who They Are; Let the Pets Be Who They Are Too!

This shoot with NBA center Ivica Zubac of the LA Clippers and his fiancee in his Los Angeles home for an overseas magazine was quite challenging. The shot list was pretty broad, and I had to be both the photographer and creative director, with no team and very limited time for execution.

I was fortunate to deal with a very relaxed and laid-back young couple, and since they are pet lovers, it was not difficult to create real-life moments, with the help of their adorable three dogs. In this instance, instead of overthinking the setup, I just lit the set and let the people be themselves allowing me to catch these stunning moments.


8. Recreate the Moment If You Miss It. Even If You Have to Steal It...

This shoot in Havana, Cuba was one of my all-time favorite projects for a regular client. As I was preparing my equipment for this setup, our talented hairstylist was having fun and shooting the model with his phone as she was crossing the street.

Even though my lighting wasn’t ready, and I didn’t capture that initial moment, I decided to recreate this shot and steal this idea. The image turned fabulous and got a great response all around.

So, even if you miss the moment, do not be hesitant to recreate it, and as mentioned in tip 6, always be ready on set! This particular client tends to print images very large - sometimes more than 30 ft wide, meaning color management is truly crucial. That’s why I always have a SpyderCube on set for RAW calibration, and all my displays are regularly calibrated by the SpyderX Elite, regardless if it’s my laptop on the road or my external displays at home.


To view more of Dean’s photography, check out his Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/dee_riot/

shanzida's picture

I read the full tips. This is awesome and resource full information. Now i'm corrected about of my portrait click.