5 Portrait Photography Tips

How do you make an image tell a story? Be willing to break a few rules. See more pictures of cool camera stuff.
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If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a good portrait should read like an intimate biography. But how do you make a flat, static image tell a story? How do you infuse life into a frozen moment in time? What are the professional techniques that separate the drab awkwardness of a grade-school headshot from the power and beauty of a "National Geographic" cover?

The good news is that you don't need a lot expensive equipment to take great portrait photos. Many of the following photography tips that we've culled from experts and professionals are more about attitude than technique. How do you get your subject to relax and smile naturally? How do you choose a setting that adds depth and meaning to the image? The best tip of all is to be creative and experiment. The most memorable portraits are more than straight documentation, but expressive works of art.

Let's start with a classic portrait photography conundrum: To pose or not to pose?

Strike the Pose

Posed portraits are rarely the most memorable. Ironically, they can be too stiff and come off as "trying too hard" at the same time. Candid shots, on the other hand, retain some vitality -- the risk of real life. With some practice, though, you can inject some of the natural energy of candid photography into portraits.

First of all, forget about the yearbook poses. Sure, people have more and less flattering angles, but too much "chin down, head left, eyes right," will result in unnatural, awkward facial expressions. A better technique, particularly in the age of digital cameras, is to make your subject comfortable and take as many pictures as possible. You're bound to end up with a few real gems -- no contortions necessary.

If your subject is nervous (and subjects almost always are), break the ice and get them talking. It's even better to try to get them laughing. Laughter radiates warmth and will make your subject both more photogenic and more relaxed [source: Norton]. Most people are more comfortable sitting down, so consider bringing a stool along to the location. Hands can be particularly problematic, so give your subject something to hold or frame your shots in such a way that the hands are left out.

Now we'll find out why your camera lens might be the biggest obstacle between you and great portrait photos.

Fill the Frame
Renowned photographer Richard Avedon poses with a couple of his self-portraits during a 2002 exhibition of his work at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Renowned photographer Richard Avedon poses with a couple of his self-portraits during a 2002 exhibition of his work at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Kathy Willens/Getty Images

Some of the most dramatic and engaging examples of portrait photography are tight close-ups of the subject's face or medium shots of their face and torso in front of a white backdrop. Take a look at Richard Avedon's celebrity photos for some wonderful examples, particularly his later work for "The New Yorker." To really make your portraits "pop," you'll want to mimic Avedon's technique by filling the frame with your subject and minimizing all background noise.

The simplest way to get a tight shot of your subject is to physically get close [source: Caputo]. Be careful, though, because this can cause problems if you're using a conventional short lens. Short lenses, also called wide-angle lenses, are designed to capture the largest image possible. This leads to distortion; objects in the foreground -- like your subject's nose or hands -- will look too big.

One solution is to use a long lens, such as a 70-200mm lens [source: Wallace]. A long lens has a powerful zoom, allowing you to stand farther away while still filling the frame with your subject. A longer lens has the added bonus of calming your subject's nerves. It's harder to relax and be natural when there's a camera snapping mere inches from your face.

If you want your portrait to tell a larger story, it's time to step back. In the next tip, we'll talk about environmental portraits.

Capture the Context

The opposite approach to Richard Avedon's spare, close-up technique is something called environmental portraiture. In this type of portrait, your subject only tells half the story; the rest of the details are supplied by a vivid sense of place [source: Caputo].

The setting should be someplace intimately familiar to the subject. It could be as simple as his or her home, kitchen or bedroom. Think of a portrait of a teenager sitting on his bed, framed by the relics of childhood (action figures, trophies) and the signs of emerging adulthood (computer, music posters). Or it can be a workplace. Imagine a shot of a football coach on the playing field, the bright green turf below and empty stands rising behind him.

If you don't know the subject very well, ask them to take you to one of their favorite places. It doesn't have to be a bucolic outdoor setting. It could be a favorite taco stand or a retro arcade. This is a great way to make your subject comfortable and capture them in an atmosphere that matches their personality.

Next we'll reveal a simple lighting technique that separates the amateurs from the pros.

The Eyes Have It
Photographer Steve McCurry poses with his famous portrait of an Afghan girl in Sept. 2008.
Photographer Steve McCurry poses with his famous portrait of an Afghan girl in Sept. 2008.
Mary Altaffer/Getty Images

What is it about a professional portrait that grabs you first? If you survey the work of Richard Avedon or other great portrait photographers, much of the spark and life of the images comes from the subject's eyes. Think of the famous close-up portrait of the Afghan girl with sparkling green eyes captured by National Geographic photojournalist Steve McCurry. The eyes lock you in, but it's more than just their vivid color. Much of their depth and shine is due to lighting technique called a catchlight.

A catchlight is any source of natural or artificial light that is purposefully bounced off of the subject's eyes to make them sparkle. The classic positioning of the catchlight sparkle is at 10 o'clock in relation to the iris of the eye. Studio photographers will use an umbrella reflector to aim diffused light into the subject's eyes, but you don't need fancy equipment to achieve the same effect. One photographer recommends using the reflective back of a compact disc to bounce light toward the subject. Another even suggests wearing a white T-shirt to act as a soft reflective surface [source: Rowse].

Mix Things Up

It's easy to get bogged down by rules. People talk about the "rule of thirds" and other composition conventions, but some of the best and most arresting portraits are anything but conventional.

The standard rule about backgrounds is that they shouldn't be too noisy or busy, or they'll run the risk of overpowering the subject. But sometimes a loud background -- like a wildly colorful wall mural or geometric tile pattern -- can set off a delightful contrast with the subject [source: Rowse].

Mess around with framing. Try your subject right in the middle of the frame, then way off to either side. The same is true for the angle of your shot [source: Caputo]. Conventional wisdom says to take the shot at eye level or slightly above. Why not have your subject lay on the ground and take the picture from directly above? Why not tilt the frame dramatically and play with equilibrium?

If you're really feeling creative, suggests Darren Rowse of the Digital Photography School, try adding some blurred movement into the portrait [source: Rowse]. Tell your subject to stand still in the rush of a crowd and capture the swarming movements with a slow shutter speed. Focus on a single body part. Or don't focus at all! You never know which unusual idea will turn out to be an unforgettable picture.

For lots more photography tips, click on the links on the next page.


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  • Caputo, Robert. "People and Portrait Photography Quick Tips." National Geographic. August 2007.http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photo-tips/people-quick-tips/
  • Caputo, Robert. "People and Portrait Photography Tips." National Geographic. August 2007http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photo-tips/portrait-photography-tips/
  • Norton, Natalie. "The Human Side of Photography -- 4 Tips for Natural Looking Portraits." The Digital Photography School. (Accessed Dec. 10, 2010)http://www.digital-photography-school.com/the-human-side-of-photography-4-tips-for-natural-looking-portraits
  • Rowse, Darren. "10 More Tips for Stunning Portrait Photography." The Digital Photography School.http://www.digital-photography-school.com/tips-portrait-photography
  • Rowse, Darren. "DIY Reflector --Wear a White T-Shirt." The Digital Photography School.http://www.digital-photography-school.com/diy-reflector-wear-a-white-t-shirt
  • Wallace, Mark. "Digital Photography One on One: Episode 7" Snap Factory. (Accessed Dec. 10, 2010)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MNvYqUymQc