A lot of people think that they can’t take good portraits because they’ve not got the right lens, or the right 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, and that’s because portraits typically look best at slightly longer focal lengths of around 70-115mm, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the only lenses that you should use. I like to shoot with a wide angle quite often, and they can make for some really interesting portrait photos, as 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 to the large rocks, that would have been cropped out to a simple blue sky if I’d 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 bit more effort, they could have found a much more interesting location. The background is part of the photo too, and it can help to 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 just slightly more interesting, which 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 to taking good photos, and that’s because it is, but equally important 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 go ahead and shoot whatever feels right. I find this often comes about when I’m experimenting, or taking test shot, and more often than not, when I’m not even looking through the viewfinder.
The most common rule for taking photos of people is the rule of thirds, and it 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, then you’ll know all about the power that eyes have in a photo. They contain some of the strongest visual weight in any photo as we’re naturally used to looking at them, so you should use this knowledge to your advantage. When the eyes are looking straight down the lens, we look at them first, and then look at the rest of the photo in order of interest. When the eyes are looking away from the camera, then they can be much more powerful at times, as we become naturally 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 have 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, because it’s not often that you capture people in their natural state in any other way. 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 that you would want to play with this light. You can mess around with flashes, longer exposures, light painting, slow sync flash, rear curtain flash; the posibilites go on. 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’s doesn’t have to be if you don’t want to, 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, to give the viewers an idea of the mood of the image, as well as the location. Frames are a great way of using a photographic elements to lead the viewers eyes into the frame to focus them on a particular point, and the sense of repetition that they can provide produce depth and a path for the eyes to explore.
A photo of a scene with a foreground feature makes for much more interesting build up to the main part of a photo, which in this case is a subject. They’re often underused in photography, as they can be hard to find at times, but when you successfully pull it off, it can 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 because 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.
You can take the photo from above, below, to the side and slightly down; you have 360 degrees of posibilites. Often these photos come about a result of the location that you’re shooting in, such as my photo below. We were on some rocks on the beach, and they were constantly varying in height, so 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 black and white photography works really well is in portraits. I always recommend that you shoot in colour and RAW when you’re trying to take black andwhite photos as it leaves you with more possibilites 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 photo.
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 can be in the whole face, head and body, rather than in 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.