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Find Your Portrait Photography Style by Wendy Cunningham

Years ago, when I first started shooting, I had no idea what ISO, F-stops, shutter speeds, yada yada… even meant! It was so difficult to grasp how one has to find the perfect balance between the three. It was like learning a foreign language! As I was learning how to shoot manually, I was taught to just make sure that my meter was centered on my camera’s meter. So this is what I did. And at first I was happy with that most of the time.

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However the more I learned, the more I realized that there were so many things wrong with the photos that I was producing. I was so envious of other photographers and the work that they were creating. I knew I had a great eye for composition, but I just couldn’t figure out why my portraits were so lifeless!  Then one day, someone finally told me something that clicked!  That person told me that every camera is different.  Every photographer’s style and eye is different. And you must set your meter according to what works best for you!

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Common sense tells us that anyway, but it took hearing another photographer say it out loud to make me realize that I needed to play with my camera settings. It was like getting permission from someone who wrote the book! So I started playing with my ISO and other settings, until one day I realized that my photos were coming to life, and today I have developed a style that is ME. It may not be for everyone, and that is okay. As a professional photographer, we want our clients to hire us because they like our style. Not because we can promise them anything they want for the lowest price.

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Most people describe my work as being very highly exposed. And that is exactly what it is. I purposely overexpose my images when I am shooting with natural light because it allows me to bring out details that are otherwise lost. I noticed that my subjects’ eyes started popping, and that the dark circles under their eyes disappeared. I noticed that details were coming out of the shadow areas within my frame. The trick, of course, is overexposing just enough to bring out those details without blowing out the rest of the photo. And since I mostly use Lightroom to edit my photos, I find that it is easier to bring down the exposure on an image that is overexposed, than it is to add exposure to an image that is underexposed. Why? Because adding exposure can also add digital noise to your photo. And nobody likes a noisy photo, right? I tend to cringe anytime I have to slide the exposure or fill light slider to the right! Now, I simply ignore my histogram and shoot how I want… and the cringing has ceased!

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We hear it all the time! We are told by many of the greats that we need to get it right in camera. But who’s idea of right is right? Only you can answer that based on what your style is. I want my images to be bright and colorful. So I tend to shoot at least 1/3 to 2/3 of a stop above the center of my meter. Most of the time I am able to produce exactly what I want in camera. But sometimes I rely on Lightroom’s black slider to bump up the umph, as I call it.

Photoshop actions are also very helpful to me in achieving my preferred style. And although I am fairly new to Jodi’s site and the Photoshop actions that she has put together, I can tell you that I am highly impressed, and I use one of her free actions on almost every photo that a client orders! I love MCP’s Free High Definition Sharpening action! But I have had my eye on the All In The Details as well as the Amazing Faces action sets for a couple of weeks.

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Find your style people. Do not let anyone tell you that you are shooting incorrectly! When you are editing, edit them to fit your style. Whether you choose to use Lightroom, Photoshop, actions or presets, just make sure you are doing it according to your style that you love. If you choose to outsource your editing, then find a company that can help you achieve your unique style. If you do not love your own work, then you can’t really expect anyone else to love it either.

I must say thank you to Jodi for asking me to be a guest blogger on MCP! Like I said before, her site is fairly new to me, but I am loving everything that I see.  I have learned so much from simply reading the posts on her blog every day, and I am honored that she asked me to be a part of it.

Even though I am primarily a wedding photographer, I really enjoy being able to get creative with a portrait session. The following images are a very recent maternity session that I shot with a couple that I had the privilege of photographing on their wedding day three years ago. This couple is very special to me because they were actually my VERY first wedding that I shot solo! I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when they contacted me to document this pregnancy!

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About Wendy Cunningham:
Wendy Cunningham is the photographer behind the camera with Wendy C. Photography. She is a wedding and lifestyle portrait photographer based out of Nashville where she lives with her husband and three children, and is heavily involved in Great Dane Rescue. You can visit her website at, and she really encourages people to get to know her and to share life with her on her blog at


No Comments

  1. Stephanie Tanner on September 14, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Thank you so much for your article. I also tend to overexpose my photos too and I get chastised quite a bit. I love the way it looks and the way the colors pop.

  2. PaveiPhotos on September 14, 2010 at 9:19 am

    thank you Wendy for the inspiration..and welcome to the MCP family!! =)

  3. kari on September 14, 2010 at 9:23 am

    LOVE it!

  4. Andrea on September 14, 2010 at 9:39 am

    I thought I was the only one and rarely admited that I slightly overexpose my shots! Good to know others do it as well. To me, it’s pretty obvious when an ameteur [which I am] relies heavily on their light meter. Some shots tend to me dark and lifeless but they must think it’s okay since the camera told them it was “right”.

  5. Lori on September 14, 2010 at 9:40 am

    OMG…I love these. And I love her advice. I have struggled with trying to find my own style and have found people who love it and people who want to change it, but I keep on goin’. How wonderful to see that I am not alone! I loved this article..and the inspiration to stay to true to me!!

  6. Dharmesh (db Fotografy) on September 14, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Wendy, like you said this was obvious but had to hear from someone else… It has kinda struck me that I need to define my style rather than try to mimic someone’s style.Plus, your post gave me a direction towards figuring out something with my photos. Generally my photos, may be because of RAW, look little dull SOOC when I view them on the my laptop as compared to when I see them on my camera’s LCD. I think I need to account for that next time.Thanks for posting.

  7. Ashley Daniell Photography on September 14, 2010 at 10:40 am

    This, to me, has been one of the most inspirational posts I’ve read in a long time. Wendy helped it hit home that maybe I shouldn’t compare myself to others as much and try to get THEIR “perfect” look. I really appreciate her insight and I hope to be able to incorporate her wisdom into my business. Thanks so much Wendy!!!!

  8. Avery Holder on September 14, 2010 at 11:25 am

    AMEN 🙂 Thanks for such a great article!

  9. Brittani Bowling on September 14, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    Great advice…seems like common sense but it is so very easy to forget to be yourself when you’re starting out and find yourself admiring other photographers work so often, wishing to shoot like them. Thanks for the great guest blog!

  10. Inger on September 14, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Beautiful photos, and a good reminder to stay true to who you are and what you want to achieve with your photos. Inspiring!

  11. Heather Odom on September 14, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!! I have been so discouraged lately! In fact, I was just venting to another photographer friend of mine this weekend about how I don’t feel like I’m seeing the results that “everything” in our area is seeing. Now I know that I’ve got to STOP comparing myself to everyone else and just shoot what I find beautiful. After all…..if all of our shots looked exactly the same it may get pretty boring!

  12. Jamie Solorio on September 14, 2010 at 5:57 pm

    I am so glad you posted this! I have been doing the same thing with over exposing my images and adding the darkness later in my editing. I have been searching all over the place to find some type of information on metering for portraits in natural light…and you have answered one of my questions for me! So, thank you very much. I am not sure if you can answer more, but I am going to ask away anyhow. When you have a back lit person and want to expose for them, but don’t want you sky to be totally blown out…what to meter on? Their face? The sky? Green grass? I am looking to have both the sky and person look great,with that beautiful golden glow around their hair/body. Thanks for your time!

  13. Fiona on September 14, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    Thank you thank you thank you. I feel like you did, like I’ve just been given permission to do what works for me instead of following all the rules!

  14. Raquel on September 15, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Just wanted to say thanks for posting this!! I loved the advice and found it refreshing to hear that whatever works for you may not work for someone else and thats okay…its important to develope your own style and be happy with your photography before anyone else is. I don’t think I’ve read a post with this type of message! I think I just felt myself relax a little…okay…a lot, actually!!

  15. Natalie Z. on October 23, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    YAY! I’m an over-exposer too! Thanks for validating that for me.

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