A lot of people think that they can’t take good portraits because they haven’t got the right lens or lighting but that’s simply not true at all.
Learning how to take great photos takes time but these 10 tips should make a big difference if you start to follow them all.
Experiment with Focal Lengths
You’ve probably heard the term ‘portrait lens’ before; portraits typically look best at slightly longer focal lengths of around 70-115mm but that doesn’t mean that these are the only lenses that you should use.
I like to shoot with a wide angle quite often as this can make for some really interesting portrait photos; you can include more in the frame than you would have been able to at a longer focal length.
In the photo below, I was able to provide context to the shot along the dark shadows and details in the large rocks that would have been cropped out, leaving just a simple blue sky had I used a longer length.
Experiment with the Background
It always amazes me that someone would shoot with a white background when, with just a little more effort, they could have found a much more interesting location.
The background is a huge part of a photo that can provide the viewer with more information about the photo.
I like to take models out to interesting locations that I scout out beforehand because the results are much more natural and, if I find somewhere outside, the lighting can produce a wider range of results.
Even when you have to have a fairly plain background like in the photo below, it’s easy enough to find a location that’s just slightly more interesting. Just a little extra effors will produce a much better photo.
When you compare the paleness of the wall to the texture of the wooden door, there’s no question about which is better.
Break the ‘Rules’ of Composition
I like to go on about how important composition is in taking good photos and that’s because it is. Equally important, however, is knowing how to use this new knowledge properly and knowing when to forget it.
The ‘rules’ of photography are made to be broken and, often, you can produce the best results when you ‘forget’ about what you’re ‘supposed’ to be doing and simply shoot whatever feels right.
I find this often comes about when I’m experimenting or taking test shots and frequently happens when I’m not even looking through the viewfinder.
The most common rule for taking photos of people is the rule of thirds which works tremendously well but, when it comes to portraits, forgetting about this rule can be much more dramatic.
Have a look at the photo below as an example.
Play with Eye Contact
If you’ve read my tutorial on visual weight or eye-lines, you’ll know all about the power that eyes have in a photo.
Eyes contain some of the strongest visual weight in any photo as we’re naturally used to looking at them; use this knowledge to your advantage.
When the eyes are looking straight down the lens, we look at them first, then the rest of the photo in order of interest. Eyes looking away from the camera can be much more powerful at times as we become interested in where the subject is looking.
Have a look at the comparison I’ve set up below and see which one strikes you as being the most interesting.
Portraits typically involve the subject looking down the lens but that doesn’t mean you have to.
Try Candid Photography
I love candid photography so much that I actually wrote a whole post on the topic; it’s not often that you capture people in their natural state by any other means.
As soon as you point a camera at someone, especially if you shout ‘say cheese!’, people become self conscious, tense up and you lose any natural feeling to the photo. There is a way around this which I cover in my final point but, overall, these photos tend to lose their spark.
When people aren’t aware that you’re looking at them, you can wait patiently for the right moment to capture an image and end up getting much better results.
You can also provide much more interesting foreground and background details as where you’re shooting from will also be captured in the shot.
Play with Light
An exposure is really just a capture of light for a certain amount of time so, to make an exposure more interesting, it makes sense for you to want to play with this light.
You can mess around with flashes, longer exposures, light painting, slow sync flash, rear curtain flash… the possibilities are endless.
I personally enjoy slow sync flash because you capture more than just the subject and the light: you capture the movement too.
Lighting is a really easy and fun way to blow a load of money but it doesn’t have to be expensive if you don’t want to be – you can get some really cool results with just a $3 flashlight.
The key is to experiment.
Frame within a Frame
As you can probably tell from this post alone, I’m a big fan of including context in a photo. It gives the viewer an idea of the mood of the image as well as the location.
Frames are great photographic elements that can be used to lead the viewers eyes into the frame to focus them on a particular point. The sense of repetition that they can provide produces depth and a path for the eyes to explore.
A photo of a scene with a foreground feature makes for a much more interesting build up to the main part of a photo which, in this case, is the subject.
Frames are often underused in photography, mainly because they can be hard to find but, when you successfully use them, you’ll produce some really good results.
It’s natural to want to take a photo of someone head on but that can make for a boring photo; it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
Why not try making it more interesting by changing your angle of view and tackling the subject from a new perspective?
When you stop thinking about taking the photo on the same plane as the subject, you can start to get much more creative, as you suddenly have way more options to toy with.
You can take a photo from above, below, to the side or slightly down; you have 360 degrees of possibilites.
Often these photos come as a result of the location that you’re shooting in, such as my photo below.
We were on some rocks on the beach that were constantly varying in height. I climbed on top of one and shot down. I was very happy with the result.
Shoot in Black and White
Although I love black and white photography, I don’t shoot in it nearly as much as I probably ought to but one of the places that it works really well is in portraits.
I always recommend shooting in colour and RAW when trying to take black and white photos as it leaves you with more possibilities in post.
Black and white photography is more about shape, form and contrast, which comes in very useful for portraits.
For black and white post production, you can afford to get a little bit more creative as it’s easier to hide your techniques, such as boosting the contrast, like I’ve done below.
I also boosted the green channel when I converted the photo to black and white but, other then that, I’ve not really done anything to the original image.
This sounds so soppy but it really is one of the keys to taking good photos.
When someone is naturally smiling or laughing, it makes a really big difference. You can always tell when someone is forcing a smile, whether it’s in a photo or in real life, and it’s such a shame to force a smile when the subject is happy anyway.
I talk a lot to people when I’m taking photos of them and, although this often results in a lot of dud photos where their mouths are moving, I usually get a lot of people laughing at the same time.
A natural laugh produces the best type of smile as it is present in the face, head and body, rather than just the mouth and cheeks. You can clearly tell that the model in the photo below is enjoying herself and laughing away as I was taking this photo.