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Photography: Important Tips for Taking Great Portraits

Updated on November 15, 2013
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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.


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