By Peter Dench

Jamie Oliver – School Dinners

Olympus Visionary Peter Dench has been commissioned to shoot professional portraits by high profile publications for over 20 years. We asked him to give us some some do’s and don’ts on how to approach the genre and he shares his thoughts on the importance of composition.

Note from the author: We are currently on a forced sabbatical from our profession. In this unique time, we can use our time, to hone and practice our photography skills. When we are unleashed we will be ready, hungry to achieve that perfect shot!

Taking portraits can be easy, don’t let the heavyweight protectors of the genre tell you otherwise. It’s as complicated as you want it to be. The composition is the heartbeat of a great portrait. That fraction of a second when everything fits, the final piece of the journey that began the moment you arranged to take the portrait.

Olivia Colman on set of filming Rev 2.

If you’re practicing at home on a family member, lover or someone else you live with, approach the portrait with the same professionalism as you would a paid assignment. Perfect your routine, think about why you want to photograph them and what composition would enhance those characteristics. A close-up of granny’s lived in the face might work best or a full-length to capture your glamorous partner.

First, compose the picture in an environment where the sitter feels comfortable. If the surroundings are relevant, maximise them, don’t be afraid to cram things in. Personal items in a composition can help the sitter to relax and the viewer to take an interest. Even the wallpaper or a pair of jazzy curtains might make a good backdrop but remember, it’s not an interiors shot. If the surroundings are a problem, blow them out with minimum depth of field and compose tightly.

Hello! magazines steely social fixer. The Marquesa de Varela riding on the beach near her home in Uruguay.

Get one ‘safe’ portrait in the bag, then push for the unexpected. Perhaps light one location for formal composition, then move the subject into a more fluid environment. Get them looking directly into the lens, then vary it.

For a triumph in composition, prepare to be flexible. You can never be sure how the shoot will unfold. Have enough kit to be calm and confident. If you’re unsure, ask family, friend or a flatmate to help. Let them unpack kit while you have a conversation with the subject, be respectful but not overawed. A portrait is a collaboration, take on board their ideas, shoot some of them so they feel involved in the creative process. If they are relaxed and inspired, it will ultimately help you achieve a great portrait.

Former professional footballer turned actor Vinnie Jones.

When all the elements have come together, have faith in your ability. Let your eye rove across the frame. Check the corners, direct any diagonal lines towards the subject, compose and shoot. Be aware of perspective, symmetry and tone, work with them. When the moment passes, move on.


Composing a professional portrait can be an intimate and bonding experience but remember the boundaries, don’t flirt or ask your subject for a date. This will rarely end well. If however, they ask you, by all means, accept.

Beware of having any preconceptions about your subject (unless of course, it’s actor Danny Dyer). If your subject is an actor, don’t quote one of their lines. If they are a comedian, don’t ask them to tell you a joke. Don’t tell them a joke. Don’t immediately overwhelm the subject with suggestions.

If you’ve bought or hired kit specifically for the shoot, don’t feel obliged to use it. Match the kit to the sitter. Some will want a more theatrical portrait experience, others a more subtle and simple approach. Don’t prolong the shoot, if you think you have achieved what you want after 20 minutes or if the subject becomes disengaged, wrap it up.

Pamela Stephenson (also known as Pamela Stephenson Connolly)

Above all, don’t get stressed, have fun – it’s only a portrait. As the American photographer, Edward Weston probably said: ‘Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk. Rules are there to be broken. Somehow as photographers, through practice, you will learn to just know.’

Heston Blumenthal in his kitchen laboratory.

Some final advice: after this period of COVID19 and quarantine, if you are lucky enough to be commissioned to take a professional portrait for a publication, the location is often a hotel, a great hotel, and great hotels have great bars. Don’t rack up an exuberant bar bill before or after the shoot and then bill it to the subject’s room. I learnt this at great cost and don’t eat garlic before a shoot, ever!