The Simple Tip for Portraiture That Many Beginners Overlook

There are many tips that have improved my portraiture, but if I had to pick one, it would be this.

The title hopefully implies that this is not an article for seasoned veterans of photography. This is instead aimed at newer photographers who are looking for advice on how to improve their portraiture. So, what is this simple tip?

Move!

Before you have a wealth of shoots under your belt, any type of photoshoot can be a little overwhelming. You might be trying to gauge settings, pose, lighting, as well as myriad other non-photographic factors. With all that in mind, you can forget to move your feet. It might sound like odd advice — to move more — but the dynamism it will add to your shooting and your results will pay dividends. 

One of the reasons I — like many others — prefer to shoot using prime lenses, is it forces you to move to get a different style of shot. I still use the classic 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses, albeit begrudgingly, for events and certain shoots where constantly moving isn't always an option or there isn't the time to do so. But if I am free to choose a lens, it'll be a prime. So, what are the benefits of moving during portrait shoots?

Interesting Results

The first and possibly most powerful is it will change your images. I will often move left and right, but then get down low to the ground, or climb on something and be high above my subject. I will hide behind objects to obscure part of the frame. I will try every angle — no matter how bizarre — just to see how it looks.

Ryan Beatty shot for FAULT Magazine. I didn't have much space for this shoot and after I took a few shots at the subject's height, I pulled over a chair and towered above him to see what it would look like. After a few shots that didn't grab me, Ryan pulled this pose which completed the composition.

Shooting face-on at eye height isn't bad by any means, but if you're looking to shoot several different images, they'll lack any diversity and become dull. By moving in all directions and shooting from every angle you can think of, you'll find some interesting shots you might not have thought of before starting. You'll likely end up with loads that don't work, but that doesn't matter. Get up high, lay down on the floor, be that photographer if need be.

A shot of drummer Adam Hayes and baker Amandine Adolphe of Jacques et Lilie. I sat on the floor for this shot as I wanted the two to fill the frame, but taking the shot in the exact same place at my head height yielded boring results.

Depth

A sense of depth in your portraiture can be achieved in a number of ways. The two most common methods are the angle and aperture. When you move, you are constantly changing the angle of the shot. Images of people taken square on — particularly against a background — can appear flat, which is often boring. By moving to be at an angle to the subject, you're allowing the scene to appear more three dimensional. Generally, this is far more interesting to view and can tell more of a story.

KALEO shot for Euphoria Magazine. By shooting from the side I add the sense of depth and realism to the scene, as well as incorporating a practical light.

When it comes to aperture, there's a common mistake that I have written about before: wide open isn't your only option. When we spend so much on fast glass, the temptation to shoot every portrait at f/2.8 or wider is always there. While this can offer great subject separation, it limits you. Moving around will throw one of the subject's eyes out of focus, or the background will become distracting. Instead, try shooting at more narrow apertures like f/5.6 or above. If you get close enough, the background will still soften out even if it doesn't become gooey bokeh, and you'll find that you can be more creative with angles, and the scene around you isn't lost.

Joe Finnigan of the band Superbird. The blue bricks are just soft enough that they aren't distracting, but the subject is in focus, front to back.

Composition

The most limiting factor of standing still too much during a shoot is with your composition. Asking your subject to move around is good practice and necessary, but your composition will seldom change. By moving around, you can develop and even discover new compositions and not end up with a shoot full of centered subjects. It is also a lot easier to guide the eye with tools like leading lines, such as the classic headshot technique of having someone lean against a wall, and the photographer shoots from against that very wall, using the lines between bricks to guide the viewer's eyes to the subject.

Actor Joe Hughes. This is an older example of mine and not great for demonstrating leading lines. The brick shot has become cliche, so I never did it again, but you get the idea.

Division of Responsibility

Ask any model: they'll tell you that a lack of direction is a big and common problem, particularly with newer photographers. The problem is if the photographer just stands there and expects the model to do all the work, it's unlikely to be a good shoot. And that's models. Most subjects you photograph won't be agency models with experience, offering a multitude of poses and ideas. By moving your own feet, you can bounce off your subject. I've photographed agency models and I've photographed people on their first shoot, and by moving, you instantly offer a division of responsibility. The onus isn't all on the subject, and people of all experience levels will have ideas and experiment with different poses as you change your angle and composition. 

It also makes your shoots more fun, which shouldn't be undervalued!

Conclusion

The enemy of a creative, enjoyable, and fruitful portrait shoot is stagnation. By moving your feet and experimenting with different angles, distances, and heights, you're likely to come away with a more varied collection of shots. Moving around during a shoot is one aspect of being a portrait photographer that many beginners overlook in preference of concentrating on the settings or the lights, which can impact the quality — not to mention the variety — of your final images.

Do you move a lot during your shoots? Do you have any tips when it comes to movement while shooting? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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8 Comments

Steven Weston's picture

Nice article, Robert. And good advice. Even in my humbled state of mobility, I still move around a lot. I tell my subjects that I want to hear their ideas and that I'll have a lot of ideas for them to try. I also tell them that if they don't like an idea, then we'll skip it and move on. I try to keep it all like a game with the camera keeping score, but we all win.

I wouldn't dismiss your article by calling it Simple. I've seen an elderly photographer go to the top of a 15 foot A-frame ladder with a Pentax 67 just to shoot from up there. I've also seen pros conduct a shoot while imitating their tripod. Heh.

Delixir Sorbano's picture

Yay.

Manny Robalino's picture

Great article. Timely too as I (a beginner) was debating whether to use a prime or a zoom on my next shoot.
I suppose there's also less chance of messing up focus?

Jiri Akir's picture

I don't understand why "Joe Finnigan.." has so much space over his head and why are his fingers cut off?

if I cut someone's fingers, will I improve the photo?

bluepanik's picture

Following certain rules is important but in that particular picture, the space over his head not only doesn't bothers me at all but also makes, in my opinion, the composition more dynamic and interesting, also helps to focus on the point of the picture which is the subject's sight and his elegance.

The fingers are not relevant to the picture so they could have stayed or not. Doesn't feel weird or unnatural. I think those things are only relevant when they bring something to the picture.

I realize that sometimes certain things on a picture are expected as a standard, and sometimes is cool a picture that doesn't need to follow the standards.

But this is just my opinion.

Leroy Miller's picture

Great article Robert!!! I appreciate the advice. Often times we amateurs are overlooked, and articles like these, help enhance our skillset.

J E's picture

So, you're only motivated to move when using a prime? Why? An experienced photographer uses every tool in his kit. Moving is key, but, unless you're shooting in a studio, your space is likely to be limited. Shooting with a prime in those situations means you give up a lot of options you would have had if you'd used a zoom. Moving is great advice -- get low (frequently the best choice), get high, move to the side, watch the light. But don't give up a tool that might change that good shot to a great shot.

Joe Finnegan: The distortion of Joe Finnegan's right hand, which is much closer to the camera and thus outsized, is the reason either to crop that picture or to change the focal length of the lens (again, possible with a zoom, but not a prime). Good depth of field is nice, but there's a lot more to a good portrait. That also brings up another key tip: Visualize a different aspect ratio when shooting. That pic was presented as a 2x3 and lots of amateurs and pros get stuck on that aspect ratio. As a fair use critique, here's a version of that Joe Finnegan shot at a 3x4 aspect ratio, slightly cropped. The point isn't to say the 3x4 is always better, it's to say: when you compose, look at your image and visualize what aspect ratio you want the final image to be. With enough experience, you learn to compose the image for how it will look when you're done with post-processing.

Simon King's picture

Good article Robert which I've taken a few good tips from, thanks! I've been doing a few amateur portrait shoots with the wedding season being so disrupted and picking up bits and bobs as I go. I'm always keen to use primes but still like to have the zooms in there just to make little adjustments on the spot, and get my composition correct there and then, rather than perhaps needing to make micro adjustments to my position on the day, or rely on cropping in post. So I can see pros and cons to each. Something I'm tempted to try in a future shoot is only take one prime lens on each camera and force myself to work with only those focal lengths - I have done that with landscape shots before and find that's a great way to help develop my knowledge of a particular focal length. The fear in that though is I may not have the reach for a particular shot I see on the day!