Ah, portrait photography. It’s one of the most popular and common genres that photographers find themselves dabbling in. Trouble is that not every photographer can successfully pull it off. While it obviously helps to have a healthy interest in strangers, you’ve got to have more than just a curiosity about your subjects to make portraits work.
Sure, technical skill helps ensure success, such as a solid understanding of composition and finding interesting subjects in the first place that your viewers will want to examine. But there’s also much more, such as thinking outside the box with portraits and being unafraid of taking some intelligent, calculated risks.
For much better portrait photography than you’ve ever created, try the following tips.
Composition is an integral part of photography in general, but more so with portrait photography because the viewer will focus on the person or people who are your subject. Getting right on the level of your subject, particularly when your subjects are kids, is a best practice.
Let’s say you’re taking shots of babies and toddlers. Well, it’s more than alright to get on your hands and knees, crawl around with them, and then get that up-close-and-personal shot.
photo by Ben Minor
Using different focal lengths can also put an interesting perspective on your composition. This will change up the angles of your shots and lend your portraits a more unique angle. For example, when you use a wide-angle focal length as you get in close to your subject, you open up the angles and infuse your images with eye-catching angles.
Choosing the Subject
Choosing your subject depends on a lot of different factors. From your perspective, factors such as your education level, subjective sense of beauty, interests, and even the availability of people around you influence the subject you’ll choose.
The word “interesting” is curious when it comes to selecting a subject because not everyone can agree on what makes a subject “interesting.”
photo by Marinshe
However, some qualities in people cut across all cultures and borders and should be in your subject, qualities like big, clean eyes, a healthy, graceful face, and some element of the unusual. Note that being unusual doesn’t necessarily mean ugly or unattractive. On the contrary, unusualness can be highly attractive since it defies convention and expectations.
On the other hand, if your subject has dull and sunken eyes, that’s not going to make a good portrait by any stretch of the imagination!
Depth of Field
Depth of field can generally be defined as the part of the photo that’s in sharp focus. Sometimes in portraits, photographers will use a more shallow depth of field to achieve some form of blur in the background.
We recommend a different approach altogether when it comes to depth of field, which still puts a spin on this tried-and-true concept. Instead of blurring the background to make the subject sharper in the frame, try using the foreground to focus attention on the subject. This means that the foreground will have to be pretty sharp (or even sharper than the subject).
photo by Michael Andrew Keerdo-Dawson
Take, for instance, a shot of a man posing by himself in a portrait. Imagine the dude in a forest or surrounded by foliage in some way, shape or form. Now, if we were to emphasize the foreground of foliage by putting that into focus…it would also frame the shot better and direct attention to the man, the real subject of the shot.
This approach can be a bit challenging, so experiment until you get the right effect that you’re after.
The Elements of Posing
How your subject poses in the image can make a world of difference and create a good or bad portrait. Correctly posing everything from the shoulders to the waist, bustline and even thighs will impact the quality of your portrait!
As far as the shoulders are concerned, angle them in your shot. It pays to make extra effort to pose the shoulders because they’re the widest part of the person in your portrait. Generally, you ought to avoid having them squared in the shot, so to prevent that front-on appearance that’s quite boring.
photo by Dustin J McClure
When it comes to the lower part of the body, certain best practices apply as well. To have your subject produce a more flattering look at the waist, just have him stand with his upper body slightly rotated, which usually creates a flatter stomach.
To narrow your subject’s thigh area just a bit, get her to pose with one leg in front of the other. If you can just stop associating this pose with having to go to the bathroom, it’s actually quite flattering!
Bustline: For women, getting them to emphasize their bustlines is as easy as having them pose with their shoulders back just a touch. This works wonders for guys, too, as they can emphasize their pectoral muscles a bit more in the shot as well!
A Careful, Thoughtful Approach
By considering all of these specific factors in your portraits, you’ll create much better-quality shots than somebody who just rushes through portrait photography. Taking good portraits involves a good deal of planning and understanding how numerous, sometimes disparate factors have to work together in the same photograph. Only then can you aspire to shooting portraits that your audience will want to look over and admire for quite a while.
Just because you’ve taken pictures of your friend, father, mom, husband, wife, dog or other, single subject doesn’t mean that you’ve taken a successful portrait. So many of us rush through the process by just snapping away as soon as our subject stands in front of our lens, yet that’s rarely the best way to approach anything photographically.
Good portrait photography means getting up close and personal with your subject; it means trying to experiment with different ways of handling depth of field. It means studying people to see who’d make a good subject and then carefully posing them in your shot. That’s only when you progress to real portrait photography!
Bio: Marc is a copywriter and content marketer who covered photography. These days, he runs The Glorious Company, a content marketing agency.