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Photography: Important Tips for Taking Great Portraits

Updated on November 15, 2013
DzyMsLizzy profile image

Liz's dad was a professional level hobby photographer, and she grew up learning at his side, in his home-built darkroom.

Meeting and Setting Up the Subject

First, find out the reason for the portrait. Is it a business-related head-shot? Do they want an anniversary or birthday gift photo? Are they trying to break into modeling? This information will set the tone as to whether you want to set up a formal or informal portrait.

Next, get them relaxed. You can begin with small talk about the weather, sports results, or what-have-you, then move on to ask them about their interests, hobbies, etc.

Keep in mind that some people are very stiff and business-like even when supposedly relaxed, and you're not going to get much different out of them. Others have a hard time being serious, and getting a business-like shot of them may prove challenging. You must be patient.

And remember, the very word, "portrait," means it is a special photo, taken by request either to remember a special event or occasion, or for business purposes. That is what sets it apart from the casual snapshots taken on vacation or at a party.

Poor Backgrounds Are Distracting

You see, even though this is an extreme close-up head shot, there is still all that "stuff" in the background, and it is distracting.  The viewer will be wondering, "What is all that?  Where was this taken?"  This is not a portrait; it is a snapshot.
You see, even though this is an extreme close-up head shot, there is still all that "stuff" in the background, and it is distracting. The viewer will be wondering, "What is all that? Where was this taken?" This is not a portrait; it is a snapshot. | Source

Informal Portraits Can Use Homey Backdrops

Even though this shot is not against a perfectly smooth background, it is all one color, and is neutral, not clashing with the subject.
Even though this shot is not against a perfectly smooth background, it is all one color, and is neutral, not clashing with the subject. | Source

Watch the Background Outdoors!

Watch out for poor positioning in outdoor shots.
Watch out for poor positioning in outdoor shots. | Source

Backgrounds Can Make or Break a Photo Shoot


If you are shooting a formal portrait for business purposes, there is really no substitute for an indoor setting with a plain backdrop. Go and buy a plain (solid color--no patterns!) medium-blue or dark blue bedsheet, if you must, but please, never use bath towels or carpet remnants. The texture of both will show up for what they are, and it will look very unprofessional.

Be sure your backdrop is hung without wrinkles as well. this will spoil the effect and defeat the purpose of having a plain backdrop, and again, looks unprofessional. I often use a sheet as a backdrop for shooting product photos, and the space I have available does cause a large wrinkle. You don't know it in the catalog, because I spend hours working in Photo Shop to 'erase' those wrinkles. That task is ever so much more difficult, if not impossible when a person is the subject. So please, have your backdrop smooth.

If you are shooting at home (whether yours or the client's), draperies or curtains can work, but only if they are solid color, and not patterned. (See the shot of my granddaughter at top right.)


Shooting outdoors has its own pitfalls of potentially disastrous backgrounds. Many would-be photographers tend to get so focused on their subject that they develop tunnel vision, and forget to check for what is lurking behind the subject. Be very aware of traps such as trees that might look as if they are sprouting from someone's head, a graffitti-strewn fence or a jumble of utility lines cluttering the shot.

Move around your subject, sizing up the background from several angles before shooting, and you'll end up with a much more pleasing portrait. Sometimes, the chosen area is just wrong, and there are no good angles. It is better to move the shoot than to settle for mediocre. Better yet, scout out several locations before the day of the shoot, and save yourself any such hassles.

If You Must Ask For a Spoken Word...

Here are some suggestions of words that will have a much better effect when spoken than the ugly 'cheese' pseudo-smiles.

  • Hi!
  • Coffee (or Tea)
  • Funny (or Comedy)
  • Wealthy
  • Vacation

It is only sometimes the position of the mouth caused by pronouncing the word, but just as often, simply a pleasant word association that will bring out a smile. The word need not have that strong "double-'e' " sound to it.

If you are dealing with an adults-only group whom you know well, just a simple command to say "sex" will usually work quite well.

Take the Vow

Pay attention--this is serious business!

Think back to your grade-school class photos. What did the photographer most likely ask everyone to say in order to insure "smiles?" Right--"Say 'Cheese'!" Smiles--debatable--more likely a lot of strained grimaces.

I recently saw a photo someone shared on Face Book of a darling child holding her pet bunny. The entire photo was spoiled by her artificial, lip-stretching, cheek-squishing, squinty-eyed "cheese" forced smile.

It was terrible--it ruined the photo--it actually made the child look homely instead of cute. It took attention away from the intended combined focus of the photo, which should have been simply the cuteness of the little girl with her bunny.

Now, quickly! Grab some family object that is dear, important or sacred to you, place your right hand upon it and solemnly swear this oath:

"I, (state your name here), do solemnly swear, as a responsible and caring photographer, that I will never, ever, under pain of losing my photography privileges, ask any subject to utter the word 'cheese' in attempting to get them to smile."

It is that important. There are so many other ways to produce smiles in both older kids and in older people.

How Do You Get a Natural Smile?

With youngsters, do something they would not expect an adult to do, such as stick out your tongue, or make some funny faces yourself. This will usually get them if not just smiling, actually giggling, which is a great look on a young child.

For very young children and infants, a little game of peek-a-boo can do wonders, whether it is yourself, the parent, an assistant or anyone else available. Just be sure that the person is positioned next to the camera so the child is looking in the right direction.

Be sure and speak with the parent about the child's personality. Whatever you do, never ban the parent from the studio or chosen photo area, especially if working with a very young child who may have separation anxiety issues. Keep that parent next to you, next to the camera, so they are never out of the child's sight, (and the kid will be looking in the right direction to boot). This will calm the child, and the parent may know tricks to make their child smile that you might not.

On the other hand, when dealing with somewhat older children, reverse psychology can work, especially if you are dealing with a less-than-happy kid. "Don't laugh--no giggling! Whatever you do, don't laugh!" Often, this results in a fit of the giggles, which in turn produces exactly the natural, relaxed, happy face you're after.

For adults--(you have to gauge your subject)--you might tell them to think of a joke they recently heard--perhaps even a dirty joke, or refer to the list, above, of preferred words to have them say.

Old-Fashioned Portrait Without Smile

You can readily see what the little girl looked like, but there is no indication of her personality.
You can readily see what the little girl looked like, but there is no indication of her personality. | Source

Handling Non-Smilers

There are some people who just don't like to smile for whatever reason. Perhaps their teeth are crooked, stained, in poor shape, maybe even missing a front tooth. Or, it could be a teen who is fitted with orthodontics, and feeling very self-conscious. They are better posed with maybe only a hint of a closed-mouth smile--think of the Mona Lisa.

There are still other people who are just very serious by nature, and are better posed with a straight face and solemn expression--much like the old-time sepia-toned photos we see from the days of floor-length dresses.

The object of a portrait, after all, is to capture that person's essence; to show a glimpse of who they are. If they are not a person who smiles easily, then their portrait should reflect who they really are.

If they just won't smile, you just have to work with it: it is what it is.

Go Forth and Practice!

Photography is fun, and should help us preserve our memories; we should remember the event, not the horrible expression someone had on their face! That happens quite enough in candid shots at parties--and that's okay--we can look back and laugh about it. But those unfortunate expressions don't belong in a portrait.

I hope you've found these tips useful, and will try them out at your earliest opportunity.


Submit a Comment
  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    7 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, SarahMinerella,

    Well, thank you very much. It's always good to get validation from a fellow photographer. Much appreciated; I'm glad you approve. ;-)

  • SarahMinerella profile image

    Sarah Minerella 

    7 years ago from Greater Boston

    As a photographer myself, I can definitely say these are great tips for problems that people often struggle with!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    7 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, sallybea,

    I'm glad you found this article useful. Photography is such a fun hobby. You are lucky to have access to a studio set-up. Thanks very much for your comment. Best wishes!

  • sallybea profile image

    Sally Gulbrandsen 

    7 years ago from Norfolk

    Some useful tips here. I love photographing people, mostly candid stuff but am fortunate to occasionally get an opportunity to do a studio evening with our local photo club. Thanks for sharing.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hi there, vocalcoach;

    Well, thank you, thannkyoouverrrymuch...LOL (The "Dzy" part is from my days with an improv comedy troupe; I can be/act VERY "dizzy" in that venue. ;-) DzyMsLizzy was my stage name and I've just kept it.)

    I am delighted that you found my article so useful. Photography is such a fun hobby; I've been lucky to enjoy it since my dad bought me my very first Kodak "Brownie" box camera for my 8th Christmas.

    Thanks so much for the votes and shares! Much obliged!

  • vocalcoach profile image

    Audrey Hunt 

    8 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

    Oh, MsLizzy! ( You are not Dzy as far as I'm concerned.) I have learned so much about photography with this excellent hub. I have a whole new respect for you :) I know so little about photography, yet have a fascination for it. Thanks for adding the words for good smiles.

    Voted up, useful, awesome, interesting and sharing.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Vinaya Ghimire,

    I'm delighted you enjoyed my article. Thank you so very much for stopping by and for your nice compliment.

  • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

    Vinaya Ghimire 

    8 years ago from Nepal

    Photography is my hobby. I do all sorts of photography. Once I even wanted to become a fashion photographer. You have presented your tips in a nice manner.

    PS: Thanks for reading and commenting on my hub. Otherwise I would have never found your great photography hub.

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Louise Lately,

    Thanks very much--I'm glad you found the article useful. Taking lots of photos and learning to edit are key. Today's editing software is more or less equivalent to the old darkrooms of the film camera days. Ansel Adams always maintained that, "The picture is made in the darkroom."

    As far as the idea behind "vacation," it is not necessarily the "normal" end-position of the mouth that is behind these tricks, but more of a mental image concept. After all, how do you FEEL when you think of vacation? Happy, right? If you feel happy about something, you're likely to smile. The same principle is at work in having adults say, "Sex!" "Friday" would also work for the same reason as "vacation."

    Thanks for your question--perhaps I should edit the article to explain that concept more fully.

  • Louise Lately profile image

    Louise Lately 

    8 years ago from London, UK

    Hi Ms Lizzy! Very useful tips! I take loads of photos myself and I've just bought an editing programme (let's see how that goes..). I enjoyed reading about the alternative words to 'cheese' - could I just ask what your thoughts were behind the word 'vacation'? Would this not cause the sitter to have a closed mouth/not smile? or maybe that was the intention? Just curious :)

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hi there, Dolores!

    You know, you are right--quantity is a good buffer! Most pros do take many shots of the same thing, from different angles, and also by bracketing the camera settings; something you needn't worry about with a point-and-shoot, but certainly it cannot hurt to take multiples, so you can pick the best of the bunch!

    Thanks so much for adding that valuable bit of insight.

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 

    8 years ago from East Coast, United States

    I find that with my digital camera, I use the preferred method of great photographers everywhere. Take a ton of pictures - one of them is apt to turn out right! Haha. It can be hard, when living in the moment, trying to catch a child for a picture, to avoid those background distractions, like the tree that looks like its growing out of someone's head. I promise to pay attention!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, vespawoolf,

    You are absolutely correct about cultural differences. "Whiskey" would certainly work--it's one of those "be happy" words. ;-)

    I'm glad you enjoyed the section on backdrops, and thanks much for your input.

  • vespawoolf profile image

    Vespa Woolf 

    8 years ago from Peru, South America

    I think photography of people is the most difficult! These are great points on backdrops. In Peru, people don't smile for photos! It's cultural and hard to get used to. Instead of "cheese" photographers ask people to say "whiskey." Cultural differences also play into good photography! : )

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello there, BeatsMe,

    Thanks very much for the compliment. I'm delighted you found the article of use. Have fun practicing. I appreciate your stopping by and leaving a comment.

  • BeatsMe profile image


    8 years ago

    Nice advice. I've been thinking of practicing and this hub is one of the best advice I've read so far. :)

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Specialk3749,

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I'm so glad you liked the article--have fun practicing!

  • Specialk3749 profile image

    Karen Metz 

    8 years ago from Michigan

    Thanks for some great tips! I can't wait to go forth and practice them!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, tlpoague,

    I'm delighted that you found something useful to take from this hub.

    And all of the above tips notwithstanding, I will be the first to say that it all goes out the window when trying to photograph cats! They will NOT "sit/stay" like a dog; they WILL move, turn their tails to the camera, or dash off, leaving you with a motion blur instead of a cat photo. They are most easily photographed while asleep! ;-)

    To some extent, small kittens can be posed, but it does take an assistant to hold them in place until the photographer calls "okay," then the assistant rapidly moves her hands from the field.

    Thanks for your comment and sharing the article.

  • tlpoague profile image


    8 years ago from USA

    I love to take photos of my kids or dog and often found that at the last second they may have ruined the shot with a sudden movement from a joke or something else catching their attention. Other times I may have forgotten about the background. This was helpful advice! Some of my best pictures were when the kids didn't expect me to be the one to crack a joke. Awesome job! (I will be sure to pass this to my brother who is wanting to do some professional photography.)

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Fossillady,

    LOL...yes, teens can be trying at their best times... with them, having them say their boy/girlfriend's name, or just thinking about them, might work....or...tell them to think of the best "epic fail" video they saw on YouTube... ;-)

    I'm pleased you liked the article, and thanks for the validation from your professional experience perspective. ;-)

  • Fossillady profile image

    Kathi Mirto 

    8 years ago from Fennville

    All great advise MsLizzy! I worked for the renowned photographers in my community and when they shot little kids they sometimes sounded like bozo the clown and acted that way too. It seemed to work, but sometimes when they had teenagers, they forgot it wasn't a little kid. They got mixed results with expressions as if to say "Is he for real?" lol

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hi, there, drbj,

    LOL "shit" indeed! That would be sure to crack up some folks; for others, it might be exactly how they feel about sitting for a portrait! Thanks for reading and taking the vow! ;-)

  • drbj profile image

    drbj and sherry 

    8 years ago from south Florida

    I solemnly promise, Lizzy, never to ask, 'Say cheese' again when asking someone to smile for a photo. 'Sex' maybe or even 'Sh!t,' but never 'Cheese.' Promise!

  • DzyMsLizzy profile imageAUTHOR

    Liz Elias 

    8 years ago from Oakley, CA

    Hello, Mhatter99,

    I'm glad you found the tips useful..thanks for commenting.

  • Mhatter99 profile image

    Martin Kloess 

    8 years ago from San Francisco

    Thank you for the tips.


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