Ask the Pros: Five Tips for Better Portrait Photography

Ask the Pros: Five Tips for Better Portrait Photography

Portrait photographers know how overwhelming it can feel to create work that depends on collaboration with a complete stranger. With this in mind, I asked five professional photographers in central Texas for their top portrait photography tips.

Portrait photography is a unique subgenre in that it requires more "people" skills than most other types of shooting. Making a connection with your subject should come first. So, even with superior technical skills, a professional’s portrait work will fall flat if the photographer and subject lack connection. Just one example of the importance of that human connection: A petition to not replace Disney park portrait photographers with automated ones has recently taken off.

But personal connection is only one ingredient in the recipe for a great portrait. From capturing unique perspectives to planning out your post-processing, there's a lot to consider when executing these personalized sessions.

The first response I received fell more into the "project planning" category than a shooting tip.

1. Beauty and product photographer Jay Brans tells us:

The goal of the final photo is important. If you’re looking for skin texture, it’s better to put on as little makeup as possible and use retouching to remove certain things (under-eye bags, redness) rather than caking on the makeup to make things look as perfect as possible in real life. Additionally, the philosophy behind your work is important to consider when it comes to shooting/retouching.

glamour portrait of a woman with her hand on face

Photograph by Jay Brans, used with permission from the creator.

Brans' advice on post-processing hits hard, assuming you're fluent with Photoshop. It's also important to stop yourself from over-processing or improperly using frequency separation. Whether photographing a person or a building, planning is your friend. Capture your photos with the final edited product in mind. And be aware of what you intend to do later on, as well as the limitation of your editing skills or tools.

And even Photoshop has its own limitations, so keep those in mind as well. When was the last time someone asked: "You can Photoshop that person/object out, right?" Unless it's something simple like a blemish, my answer is often: "It depends on the foreground-background interaction."

2. Portrait photographer Alec Knight writes:

Try looking for a less obvious angle. Everyone takes the photo of someone with the waterfall behind them, and there’s certainly a place for that. But try thinking outside the box. Try shooting through the waterfall or from the top down. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when you get a unique angle that most people don’t have, it really stands out! For this image, I was taking photos by a storefront, and instead of capturing her in front of the window, I took it from the side and got this great reflection.

a woman posed in a storefront window reflection

Photograph by Alec Knight, used with permission from the creator.

I appreciate Knight bringing perspective to our attention. Some of the most memorable photographs I've studied have been ones taken from an unusual angle. This advice is important for everyone who wants their work to stand out in a sea of digital chaos.

A couple years ago, a client showed me a prior photographer's work. Aside from the correct exposure, white balance, and framing, one aspect that really stood out to me was the approach to perspective. This shooter had clearly gone out of the way to snap from low, high, and everywhere in-between.

One of the shots was of an event attendee grabbing a pamphlet from a registration table. A typical photographer would stand back and zoom on the subject's hand, taking an eye-level snapshot from wherever they happened to be standing. But the one I was shown was taken from a wide angle, with the camera held at table level, looking up at the subject. Simple, yet powerful.

If you're tall, this semi-low angle might seem awkward to bend down to, but it might not be. If your camera has a moveable LCD screen, just flip it out and upward. No bending required.

3. Sabrina Dunne writes:

Double check the hand-positioning. Everyone focuses on the face, but make sure the subject's hands are relaxed and natural.

a vintage-style photo of a woman with her arms in the air, buildings behind her

Photograph by Sabrina Dunne, used with permission from the creator.

I couldn't agree with Sabrina more. Your subject's hands can make or break an otherwise great photograph. I've lost count of how many times I've taken a candid or posed photo that I was excited about, only to notice later on that the hands were awkwardly positioned, or worse, cropped into. There's nothing more aggravating than a seemingly minor detail that ruins a magical moment. So, remember to watch those hands!

4. This next nugget of advice comes from creative portrait photographer Linda Drake:

Lighting is very important. You can use lighting to flatter certain features on your subject as well as create an overall mood to your image, i.e., dark and moody versus light and airy. Hard lighting can create shadows and bring more drama to your images, while soft lighting will generally create a more flattering and even light.

portrait of a woman with roses in her hair

Photograph by Linda Drake, used with permission from the creator.

As we all know, lighting is critical to portraiture, as it is to every other genre of photography. The distance, diffusion, power, and angle of lighting all play together to create a mood. Diffusion is crucial in creating softness.

To extend Linda's advice, you can achieve extra-soft light by turning your strobe on a low power setting, then bringing the light closer to the subject. This will better wrap the light around your subject, making it appear softer and more evenly lit.

For a more harsh-looking effect, turn the power up. Bring the light farther away from the subject, or simply create reciprocity by rebalancing your camera controls.

5. From Ellie of Ellie Chavez Photography in Lago Vista, TX:

Try your best to make clients feel like you’re their friend! It’s always talked about how important it is to capture the connection and relationship between subjects, but their relationship and connection to you as the photographer is almost as important. Consults are hugely important for this reason! You not only can talk about what they want from you as a photographer, but also where you can get to know each other and connect before the session. The best photos are (almost) always when clients feel comfortable around the camera, and that also means around you.

an image of a woman tossing her son in the air

Photograph by Ellie Chavez, used with permission from the creator.

The principle of creating a meaningful connection between photographer and subject is well known. But a photographer who crams two or more shoots into one day might forget to have (at least) a short conversation with the subject before snapping away. Even a brief walk to the shoot location or around your studio’s block might be enough to break down some barriers.

an executive portrait of a man in a suit, smiling

Photograph by Scott Mason Photography

Bonus tip: While being in close proximity to your subject works in many situations, someone who feels camera-shy might be more comfortable with a bit of distance. If you catch the feeling that you're invading your subject's space, snap on a longer lens and shoot from farther back. This can give the subject a chance to loosen up more quickly.

What tips do you have to add to the list? Please share them in the comments section below.

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9 Comments

Eric Robinson's picture

I'm not so sure about most of these tips, aside from the advice on photoshop use, as I think it depends on your photographic aesthetic. Unusual angles? I think if I were giving advice that one would not even be on the list. I often think photographers who go for 'quirky' do so out of fear through not understanding the basics.

The shot by J Brans, for example, I would have culled that as I'm not so keen on the expression or the composition. I'm not saying it is a bad shot, I'm just saying it certainly does not meet my photographic criteria as to what constitutes a good portrait. I'm sure it would work on Instagram but there is much that is popular on Instagram that leaves me cold. In my opinion, her expression to me looks as though she hasn't a thought in her head and the hand over the face gives a feeling of total disinterest. On the other hand, its sharp and well lit though a tad over-processed for my taste.

So how important is the expression in modern portraiture?

If you examine all the other shots I would rate none of them as good examples of a portrait aside from the lady with the roses in her hair, though again, in my opinion, had her hands been out the shot it may have made for a stronger portrait. Hands are indeed a potential problem but having them floating around aimlessly around the face is often not the answer.

Scott Mason's picture

"So how important is the expression in modern portraiture?" is a good question to ponder. I'm seriously considering writing an article on this subject, but you portrait shooters are a tough crowd. ;)

Eric Robinson's picture

I’m not so sure it’s anything to do with being tough, I would say more about being thoughtful.

Scott Mason's picture

Portrait photography is a bit out of my wheelhouse, since it comprises less than 5% of what I shoot. I definitely have room to expand my knowledge and thoughts on the subject. Writing articles is one avenue to do so. I ask you give me a follow and share any constructive criticism, good or bad. Thanks Eric!

Eric Robinson's picture

On the ‘face of it’ taking a portrait sounds pretty simple, but in reality it is so wrapped in layers of subtleties that makes it quite a complex process. Picking these layers apart and understanding how they all affect the final outcome is a real challenge for the photographer. Why is it so subtlety complex? Because you are dealing with the dynamic emotional interaction between two people, with the face of the subject being the final outcome, which the photographer has to try and control by some means. It is the method of control adopted by the photographer where the real skill resides, assuming they have all the technical parameters covered. It’s a difficult thing to delve into and explain and write about, which is why so many articles are devoted to the easier to explain elements like gear and lighting.

Michael Comeau's picture

Don't tell people to smile. Make them laugh.

Tim Gallo's picture

That was mediocre. I think the title of the article is misleading. Portrait photography and make-up and photoshop? Lighting is very important and hands and angles? lol.
"lighting is very important" advice... is like saying to a bunch of chefs - a good taste is very important. lol.

also examples are so bad, that it makes all article unreliable.

Larry McNiff's picture

I appreciate the time these photographers spent providing the information. That said, it's not the strongest article I've encountered and the associated photos are not all that inspiring. Most of the "tips" are really basics you should be aware of. This could be a decent "beginner-level" portrait article with a title change.

Saad Khan's picture

Would love to see your portfolio.