What is a good portrait?


What is a good portrait?

My portrait subjects often ask me what has been my favorite photography session, Or, if I have a favorite portrait. I always struggle with that question, since I find it very subjective.

Over the past 10 years, behind the camera, I have probably photographed several thousand faces. In the last 3 years alone, I have photographed roughly a 1,000 different people for magazines, advertising companies, corporations, and their own personal use. I have worked with just a single subject on set as well as groups of up to 100 people for just one photograph.  My camera has seen all walks of life: actors, musicians, celebrities, politicians, convicts, business leaders, doctors, friends, and neighbors. I photographed managers dressed in 3 piece business suits underwater, cancer patients in ORs during complicated procedures, the rich and famous in their multi-million dollar homes, and the not so fortunate among us living in moldy one-room basement apartments without windows. I photographed celebrities for magazine covers, fashion models on the beach in summer wardrobe at below freezing temperatures, friends  on an active airport runway in a blizzard, high powered CEOs in their boardrooms, college students in my studio, and one subject, who I had never met before, in the middle of the woods carrying a chainsaw.

So which one of these is my favorite? It depends on the viewpoint. I know that's not the answer you were hoping for. You thought perhaps I might copy and paste a picture in here and call it a day, but, just hear me out.

Firstly, it depends on who or what the portrait is for. There is a purpose behind each photograph, so the intention of the portrait is equally important as the setting. And then there is my client's expectation. 

The editorial client's expectation is influenced by the demographics of their readership, the style, and vision of the creative director, the publisher, who often weighs in last minute, the storyline, and the magazine's layout restrictions.

My commercial client's expectation is usually pretty clear. Pre-production meetings, extensive briefings, mood boards, and detailed contracts are part of the planning process.

Secondly, there are the subject's expectations, which can often contradict the client's. The very first sentence I often hear from my subjects is: "I hate to be photographed!” Alright then. That is where I have to put on my psychology hat and gently try to figure out how to get over that particular hurdle, without making that sentiment worse! Is it something that Photoshop, some small talk, or a coffee can help with? Or am I just totally screwed at this point? 

Lastly, there is me, Stefan Radtke, the artist, who sometimes might have a completely different creative vision. My vision of the perfect portrait doesn't always align with the client's or subject's expectations, and rarely is it the same photograph that becomes the final favorite for all three parties involved. I often end up with 3 different images from a single photo shoot. One for the client, one for the subject and then one for myself.

And if you would like to know what I consider to be a good, effective portrait, here it goes:

An effective portrait has to make the viewer curious about the subject. That means the photoshoot becomes more about the idea behind the photograph, then about lighting, technique, wardrobe, and location. 

An effective portrait should affect the viewer, it doesn't have to flatter. That doesn't mean you can't use Photoshop. There is no rule that says the third-eye, that wasn't there last night, has to be part of the final image for eternity.

An effective portrait is about a person and not about their looks. It almost sounds like the same thing as "it doesn't have to flatter". But what I mean here is for the photographer and the subject to get past the stereotypical camera poses that we seem to have literally embodied in the age of social media. 

For any of those three things to happen, we all have to step out of our comfort zone, unless the subject is an acclaimed method actor, then only I have to get out my comfort zone. Either way, I have to be able to build a rapport with my subjects to make those three things happen.

What helps me with this is the experience I bring to the shoot beyond the technical side of photography. I led a public entertainment company with 120 employees, founded a hospitality business, created an online film company and lived and worked in several countries. I can walk into any CEO's office, an actor's or musician's studio, or meet a stranger in the woods, build rapport, and make a successful portrait session happen.

Stepping out of my comfort zone, concentrating in my photoshoot on the person, and having experience beyond photography skills, to build rapport, are for me the key ingredients of creating an effective portrait. 

And just in case you are curious, my favorite portraits are here at stefanradtke.com/portraits 

99 Portraits in a 60 Second Video

Instead of uploading a  typical click-next-gallery, or a GIF, I was trying to find a different way to show a series of individual portraits. All images were converted into a pretty wide panoramic image and then into a 60 second video all in Photoshop. And below the result.

All images were taken during the Stand Up for Heroes event by the Bob Woodruff Foundation in NY on November 7th, 2017.

Client: Bob Woodruff Foundation
Director: Stefan Radtke
Camera: Stefan Radtke
Assistant: Patty Watson
Hair: L'Oreal
Editing: SR Studio
Length: 0:59


How many awesome studio portraits can you possibly shoot in one hour?

How many awesome studio portraits can you possibly shoot in one hour? Last November I shot 50 portraits of 109 subjects in 126 minutes, and I think that’s the limit for the quality I can still be happy with.


During the 2016 Stand Up for Heroes event for the Bob Woodruff Foundation in New York I thought I would challenge myself again with shooting 50 portraits within 2 hours.  As a portrait photographer I usually plan for an hour, photographing one single subject. Photographing 50 in two hours creates several challenges. 

The technical part of photography has to become completely secondary during the shoot. There is just no time to think about light and composition, or to think about technicalities such as shutter speed, light output, aperture, ISO, etc. …. 

Everything needs to be planned ahead, including how the post-processing is going to be done. Plus I need backup equipment in case something breaks down, because there is just no room for an impromptu plan B.

The 2:30 minutes per session I spend with building a rapport with my subjects and directing them. 150 seconds to make people feel at ease in front of the camera, to build some form of trust, to have them open up, so I am not ending up with the dreaded deer-in-headlights-expression, and to make it a positive experience for the subject. 

If there is only such little time for each session, I find it more beneficial not to have my face behind the camera looking through the viewfinder. To check, if the equipment still does what it is supposed to do, I use a monitor tethered to my camera, which I keep in my peripheral view. During the shoot I want to be able to spend as much time as possible to interact with my subjects, which would be limited, if I am behind the camera. The shutter release is being pressed via a wireless remote control. As long as the equipment does what it is supposed to do, there is no need for me to have to touch the camera. The camera becomes completely irrelevant at that point, my work is all about the subject during the shoot.

In order to do this we needed a pretty large crew

  • we had 10 hair stylists
  • 10 make up artists
  • 4 men’s groomers
  • 3 assistants to manage the flow

Some other facts:

  • first to last image = 126 minutes
  • about 18 images per portrait session
  • around 150 seconds for each portrait session 
  • there were 42 groups of 2,
  • 2 groups of 8,
  • 1 group of 4,
  • 5 service dogs, 
  • and I snuck into 2 portraits
  • all in all 104 people photographed in 126 minutes, boom!


  • Nikon D800
  • F7.1
  • 1/160
  • ISO 320 to keep the recycle time of the strobe manageable 
  • Nikon 24-120mm F4 @ 31mm
  • Flashpoint StreakLight 360 
  • Photek Softlighter II 60 inch
  • CamRanger to connect wireless to iPad
  • Yongnuo RF-360 to trigger the D800 remotely

One pre-requisite here was also that the equipment had to be kept down to a minimum due to logistics.