I recently had occasion to shoot a couple of location portraits for very different clients and thought I’d share my approach in terms of preparation, gear and execution.

First things first. By location portrait, I mean away from the studio – usually at the client’s home, office or at a venue. Most of the time, this means no studio lights, no packs, no backgrounds and, depending on the venue, no power. In the case of these two shoots, one was a business portrait for an executive client in his home and the other was a promotional portrait for a singer/songwriter in a very large, vacant, ballroom. Very different, but if you standardize your approach by following a few simple concepts, you’ll spend less time obsessing over details and more time getting great results.

Meet with the Client

If possible, meet with the client in person. This will give you a sense not only of the subject’s physical appearance (skin, hair, eye colour, etc.) but also of their personality and demeanor. Are they comfortable being photographed or will they need a lot of direction. Get answers to the following questions:

  • What is the portrait for? Is it to be formal to hang on a wall or appear as an announcement or is it more environmental where aspects of the office or plant need to be shown?
  • How much time will you have with the subject on the day of the shoot?
  • Will it be an individual portrait or are there other people or things to be included?
  • Is there a mood that should be conveyed (happy, pensive, determined, etc.)?

Visit the Venue

If possible, visit the venue where the portrait session will occur at the same time of day as the session is scheduled. This will give you a sense of what the ambient lighting is like, the effect of any windows present and how much fill you may need.

Make a shot list with lighting diagrams.

This will ensure you get the shots you’ve visualized and free you up to experiment without worrying that you may have missed something.

Standardize Your Equipment

Have a location kit or list of equipment that is both easily portable and will meet your needs almost all the time. This way, you can just pick it up and go knowing nothing is forgotten. This should include, not only the obvious (cameras, lenses, lighting, etc.) but also things like duct tape, a multi-tool, notepad, colour checker, etc. Here’s my kit:

  • ThinkTank Airport International roller case with:
    • 2 camera bodies
    • 17-35 f2.8 lens
    • 24-70 f2.8 lens
    • 70-200 f2.8 lens
    • 135 f2 DC lens
    • Quantum flash head
    • 2 Speedlights
    • 3 Quantum Turbo batteries
    • Lightmeter
    • PocketWizard radio triggers
    • Colourchecker target
    • Lumiquest folding reflector
    • 2 Lumiquest Quickbounce reflectors
    • Cable release
    • Lenspen
    • Flash/Battery cables
    • Spare batteries for everything
    • Multitool
    • Notepad
    • Tripod (attaches to outside of roller case)
  • Large canvas bag with
    • 3 Lightstands with umbrella adaptors
    • 50″ collapsible softbox
    • 2 collapsible striplight boxes with grids
    • duct tape
    • spring clamps
    • Manfrotto superclamp
    • Painted backdrop (only if necessary)

That’s it. Once you’ve worked your way through your shot list, have some fun. Use all your lenses and try different angles and poses. Break some rules – ’cause pixels are free and you just might surprise yourself.