Take Better Portrait Photos

Learn to Look!

There are roughly two types of portrait photography - formal and informal.

Both types will yield better results if the photographer patiently takes a little time to analyse what they can see though the lens. While speed might be essential with a candid snap shot, on all other occasions if, before pressing that shutter button, you stop and really look at what's in front of you, the end results will be more pleasing and less prone to errors - such as the photo of my father at a family wedding, which was meant to capture him in his new suit. The photo certainly did that, but it would have looked even more impressive had his head been included in the frame. (And no, neither Richard nor I were responsible for that one!!!)

When looking through the lens, check to see if feet, limbs (and heads) are out of the frame. Is something blocking or spoiling the image - such as a waste bin, a tree branch apparently growing out of someone's head, or bags and jackets on the floor.

Check your own posture. There's a right way to hold a camera if you don't have a monopod or tripod with you. Hold the camera with both hands, elbows bent and close to your ribs. Stand straight. Take a deep breath, let it out, and only when your lungs are empty - and your upper torso is therefore still - press the shutter.

And take spare batteries. (My digital camera eats batteries!)

Framing the Image

How could this photo could have been better framed?
How could this photo could have been better framed?

Posing the Model

Think of your model's surroundings as a stage set. Props can add or detract from the end result. If in doubt, keep it simple.

Consider the typical two-year old Little Princess. Dressed in a pretty party frock with gossamer wings on her shoulders, you could pose her on a golden throne, at work in ballet class, or choose an activity less obvious such as a mud-pie making. For the Little Prince, he could be sitting solemnly on a formal chair, or engaged in a favourite hobby which would convey something of the child's personality.

Always give a bit of thought to how your subject looks. If they're slumped, they'll look fatter in the photo. A large nose can be disguised by taking the image straight-on. If your model has a double chin, have them looking up slightly to hide this, or have them pretend to lean their chin on the back of their hand - but without really leaning, otherwise the flesh will squidge out sideways instead!

Most adults, men as well as women, want to look as good as possible in photos, and posture, expert makeup and hairstyling, and clever lighting can aid this illusion enormously. It might be an idea to arrange a salon appointment to co-incide with your photo shoot, even for informal photos.

Clothes - think about the image your photo is trying to convey. People parrot the stale line about not judging from appearances, but I've yet to meet someone who genuinely does not do just this. And photos are all image.  Experimentation with theatrical props, such as masks or historical outfits, can yield interesting results.

With group portraits, take a few minutes to check heights. The shy person will hide at the back, while the extrovert person grins at the front - and while this might have been the way they instinctively assembled themselves, it is unlikely to look good. Make sure the tallest people are at the back, the middle-height ones are in the middle, and the smallest ones are in the front. Have them stand closer together than they naturally would, or try separating all of them completely so they're spaced around the frame of the image. Don't be hesitant to experiment and move people around.

Beware the huge smile!  It might seem lively and friendly to the person who's smiling, but fixed forever in a photograph, this quickly becomes wearing.  A tiny smile will look so much better than a cheesy grin.

Alert to Light!

Lighting can change the atmosphere of a photo, and draw attention to surface textures.
Lighting can change the atmosphere of a photo, and draw attention to surface textures.

Light and Shadows

While studio lights might be beyond your budget, you can easily make a light reflector by covering a sheet of stiff card in tin foil.  This is portable and really cheap, but works to catch and direct available light.  Simply prop it up, or get a buddy to hold it at the most useful angle (found by experimenting on site).  Even professional film crews use these from time to time.

Think about what you want to say with your portrait.  Do you want an honest, direct image of a person (or people) against a background, as with many formal studio portraits?  Or do you want to say something about the subjects, to express some facet of their personalty? 

Lighting can be used to create mood.  Consider how Hammer Films used deep shadows to give a Gothic atmosphere on their sets.  The angle of light can sharpen or soften textures, also.  Your choice will depend on the kind of portrait you're trying to make. 

With a conventional facial portrait of a woman, a soft focus lens is often used to flatter skin tone.  Another person might prefer a 'warts-and-all' approach.  Again, it will depend on what you're trying to do - and on whether the photography is driven by the aesthetic interests of the photographer, or by commercial demands.

A small smile works so much better than a huge grin.
A small smile works so much better than a huge grin.

The Camera Never Lies! (Well, actually....)

This might look like a news-worthy tragedy from a in a war-zone, this photo was posed for by a model in a derelict building.
This might look like a news-worthy tragedy from a in a war-zone, this photo was posed for by a model in a derelict building.

The two photos directly above use the same model, wearing the same clothes, but look at how different the images are from each other. One is an attractive, informal portrait, the other seems to be photojournalism.

This demonstrates how pose, framing and location can completely alter the message conveyed by the photograph.

The camera never lies? Oh yes it does, all the time; and willfully so.

Most (if not all) glossy media images have been manipulated on computer. Necks are made longer, pudgy chins and stomachs are smoothed away, thighs are lengthened, shadows or blemishes made to disappear.

Newspapers out to make a celebrity or politician look as bad as possible will use the worst available photo of that person, usually with an unfortunate facial expression or pose. Shadows are deepened, the image made more grainy. It's easier to make someone look awful than it is to make them look good.

Also, a clever choice of location can give the impression of a story which never really existed.

But you can use this to your advantage. Experiment with all the things mentioned in this Hub to create imaginative portraits which are not cliched in approach. You can produce portraits which make a person look gorgeous, mysterious, formal or bizarre.

And most important of all - have fun with it!

© 2009 Adele Cosgrove-Bray

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