Portraits - Difference between Professionals and Amateurs

Every photographer can photograph a model but not every photographer approach shooting the same way. The difference between professionals and amateurs is little about whom we’re shooting than how we shoot. If you’re looking to become a more competent portrait photographer, here are five things we think about that most amateurs don’t.

A few things to note:

Hana, my model I have photographed, is unfamiliar working with me and therefore a good subject to write about as we have minimal initial rapport. All the images(unless stated) are unretouched in Photoshop to give a clearer example of what was photographed.

01. We learn about the face we are shooting.

When working with models, I like to photograph a few straight-on headshots. Doing so allows me to judge whether a model has a preferred side. In practice, I have my model turn their faces to the left and then have them turn it back centre. Doing this for both left and right, you will often find that most people have a side which they prefer and I tend to photograph more on the side they are comfortable in.

Also, by shooting a starting headshot, I can also discover whether a model has a weaker eye — which will certainly affect the angle on which to photograph her. In the case of Hana below, she has a very slightly weaker left eye, though not something I’m too concerned with. If you pay more attention, you will also notice that she has a slightly higher left eye. When facing me with a level face, this becomes apparent, so in many of my photographs, I would have her tilt her face lightly for more flattering results.

02. We are aware of the subtleties within expressions.

Expressions are exactly that — an outward expression of a personal feeling. 

Many photographers don’t consider what makes one expression different from another. As a result, we tend to merge them into a pre-conceived “look”. For instance, it’s common to hear people ask for a “happy smile” without looking at the subtleties within the smile.

To become more aware of an expression, Professionals usually have an acute sensitivity to three important areas on the face. Namely the eyes, the lips and the brow. These are the three movable parts and either in parts of as a whole, they can alter a gentle smile to become a haughty smirk. 


Side glancing coupled with lightly parted and withdrawn lips makes a portrait feel more indifferent and almost unsympathetic. (Final retouched image)

Here’s another example — a pleasing smile naturally comes with a slight squinting of the eyes and this is useful when wanting to photograph more “engaging” portraits. Also through experience and years of comparison, I noticed lips usually look better when they are parted lightly in the middle. However, as opposed to a fully closed mouth, lips separated edge to edge tend to show hints of uncertainty and portrays a “detached” look.

So there you go… learning how the face work can significantly improve your shots. So the next time you see a captivating portrait, try to see if you can spot the subtle facial details that make it special.


Fully separated lips tend to feel more distant and absent — a nice touch if you are aiming to portray a “faraway” look. (Final retouched image)

03. We think (a lot) about negative space.

Being a studio photographer, my models are often placed against an empty plain white or black background. I do not have the benefit of many props (nor do I like them as I find them gimmicky). This led me to using the only thing I have to my advantage… and that is empty space.

Working with negative space is crucial if you want to be a better portrait photographer. Here are two examples.

Space for your subject to engage
In this example, I left more headspace than I usually would as the model’s upward gaze needs to have visual space to better portray an expression of “hopefulness”. (Final retouched image)
Smaller in context
By having an exaggerated headspace, I effectively made the model’s room appear larger and thus, herself, smaller. Instead of “hopefulness”… this is now an expression of “helplessness”. (Final retouched image)

As you can see, with the limitations of studio backgrounds, learning to use negative space to portray an expression becomes an important aspect to master.

04. We consider body language as an extension of the face.

In point 02, I mentioned the intricacies of expressions within the face. True enough, the face is probably the most important feature but to truly create a portrait that can tell a sell a clearer story, you will need the support of the entire body.. 

Body language is amazing and the study of it — even more fascinating. As portrait photographers, the objective is for the body to lend itself to present an expression, though we are careful not to let other parts distract viewers from the face. Here’s what I mean.

Without the rest of the body, this portrait essentially relies on that dipped head, slightly narrowed eyes and closed-off lips to sell the idea of a women looking lonely — even oppressed. (Final retouched image)
Looking at this face alone, you might have thought it felt like a women with an expression of “burden”. However, with a combination of the poised hand posture, I can fine-tune that expression into one that feels “burdened… yet perhaps trying to be brave about it”. (Final retouched image)
In this example, we look at the face and might see a women who looks like she has convinced herself on a decision. Looking at her body language however, and you can see that her huddling of herself shows she is still highly insecure and perhaps putting up a braver front than she can. (Final retouched image)

Many photographers learn posing as though it was a sure-fire way of making an expression work. I feel that posing is merely a way to flatter a person, but having supporting body language is what truly separates the great from the good.

05. Five expressions between “Neutral” and “Laughter”

I like to think of the “neutral” face as one that is simply at rest — with no hints of a smile nor of sadness. To put it in context, you can think of it as the “passport” face and here’s what it looks like…

Neutral Face

On the other end of the spectrum is the “Uninhibited Laughter”. With some clever remarks, you will be able to coax your model for it and it might look something like this…

Uninhibited Laughter

However, being neutral and laughing is two of the extremes of expression. To be a better portrait photographer, what I aim for is to portray the links between these two extremes. Here are five expressionsthat you should be comfortable achieving starting from the lows of despair, and building up to the height of happiness.

Almost always, a vulnerable expression is coupled with the right body language. In this case, her hands lend a good amount of “insecurity” to make this a more believable expression. Because vulnerability is indeed a part of fear, this expression is often coupled with a subtle enlargement of the eyes and widened eyelids.
This expression can be one of despair or thoughtful. The subtle difference in body language like having the lips apart can make this a more thought-provoking portrait. The slightly messy hair adds a further layer of depth to the expression.
Mostly a female expression, this is a shy and modest look that is soft and feminine. It’s fairly easy to look uncertain as most women won’t automatically present such an expression unless there’s a good amount of rapport built.
In most cases, being pleasant presents itself as a mild smile. It’s a very comfortable way of being happy without having it written all over your face. In the case of pleasant happiness, I usually don’t catch a lot of teeth showing but instead, gentle lifts to the side of the lips. If you have teeth showing, it’s usually a much more excitable expression as shown below…
Being delighted is such a common expression that it should come naturally for most models. Some naturally shows their teeth while others who are more conscious might not at all. A happy face naturally lifts the cheeks and lower lids, making eyes smaller, and that is often the benchmark for a natural smile versus the “fake smile”

So there you have it, five things that I feel differentiates the Professionals from the Amateurs. In my time teaching portraiture, I learned that the average photographer tend to judge photographs “ink-deep”. They feel something about it looks right, or perhaps the model is simply just beautiful, yet they’ve seldom stopped to question why? and what makes them tick.

I hope this article can be helpful to let you see things from my perspective. One that isn’t just for my love of the craft, but also one that hopefully peels open another layer for others to explore this beautiful genre.

Ejun Low

Special Credits

Model: Ms. Hana Cheng (Instagram @danhana.library)

About the Author

 Ejun Low might be a portrait photographer who spends too much time trying to understand people. Of course, deciphering how two strangers can come together to create beautiful portraits in a short time isn’t likely the hobby for most people, but this is probably what makes his portraits distinctively genuine.

With a love for film-like tonality and a relentless pursuit to understanding portrait psychology, Ejun continues to expand on his craft and share that knowledge with the community as a member of the Professional Photographers Association in Singapore. 


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This article has been reproduced for PPAS with permission from the author. You can view the original here: