Helpful Portrait Photography Tips

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One of the easiest things to do with your camera is take a portrait, and the majority of photos we take are images of ourselves, our loved ones, or complete strangers who have an uniqueness about them that we want to capture, save and show other people.  The spontaneous or posed portrait is a mainstay of the photographic canon.  However, that means 90% of them of boring stilted and uninspired. So how do you increase the punch of your portraits?  That’s what we’re going to talk about today, and hopefully you’ll improve your simple snap shots after reading this.

Portrait Photography Tips
Photo by rolands.lakis

Change Perspective

One of the first things to think about when taking photographs is the consider your perspective — most people just take out their camera, hold it up at eye level of the subject(s) and snap away.  But this is SOOOO boring… why not drop to one knee, place the camera and subject on the floor or get a higher vantage point.  One time we did a group photo of “the fellas” and we gathered in a circle, and positioned the camera to be looking straight up and we crowded around.  It took a few attempts to get it just right, but it’s one of my favorite group portraits.

Portrait Photography Tips
Photo by Laenulfean

Create a Candid Look

Another great trick for more interesting portraits is to have the subject look away from the camera.  When your subject’s eyes don’t bore directly down the lens barrel, it creates a more mysterious  nature and quality to the subject (you ask yourself as the viewer, “what is he or she looking at?”).  The portrait could look more like it was a “candid” photo, if you manipulate your subject this way.  Or if you have more than one person in the photo, have them look at each other… this connection jumps off the page.

Try Different Lens

Also, don’t rely on the “standard” lens; in that people expect you to take portrait with a 50mm to 85mm, by why not try a 24mm?  Sure there’s gonna a bit of distortion of your subject’s features, but that might make the photo (image if your lover held her hand out — it would appear much larger, and the overall image and composition will have a different feel… and that’s what you want).  The non-standard lens issue leads me to another tip, junk all the so-called “composition rules”; so the Rules of Thirds is the first one to go.  Why?  Because sometimes a face dead-center, full-frame is more powerful than anything else or if the face is at the edge of the frame (most of it being truncated) can also be just as powerful in its own way.

A few other suggestions are: use a prop – people love to play with things and it brings out their personality, focus on a body part that’s not the subject’s face (and therefore exclude the face), use the “burst” mode on your digital camera (something that I learned when I first got a point-n-shoot) and you can emulate the photo booth effect.  Experiment, experiment, experiment… otherwise, you’re not pushing yourself or the art.

These just are few tips and techniques and things to think about when designing your next portrait.  Portraits should have a personality to themselves that reveals the photographer and the subject.  That’s how people will remember your work as your work… 

Top image by Eddy Van 3000

Chris Derrick Chris Derrick is a writer, photographer, screenwriter and director living and working in Los Angeles. He studied film production and screenwriting at the University of Southern California, and continued to expand his photographic knowledge through classes at the Art Center College of Design.


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12 Responses

  1. Brad Magnus says:

    I have to disagree.

    “The non-standard lens issue leads me to another tip, junk all the so-called “composition rules”; so the Rules of Thirds is the first one to go.”

    That is the worst advice I’ve ever read. The rule of thirds or any other rule of composition is a guide. One that will help you achieve great images if you learn to use it. It’s after you understand how to use it that you know how to break it, not the other way around. Use the rules of composition that the masters of photography came up with, then see what you can bend or break.

  2. Bill Jones says:

    I do agree with you Brad (except for the part where you say “That is the worst advice I’ve ever read.”) :)

    I don’t think the article is saying don’t learn or know the Rule of Thirds. What it is trying to get across is just don’t always feel like you have to follow or be bound by “the rules” to produce a decent shot.

  3. sriganesh says:

    thanks for the tips. but can you suggest for users who use normal digital camera ! with no most changing settings, like fps or ameature cannot be increased. i use that type of camera , but i love to do photography. and done some good shoots.
    for us how we take portrait images,
    my doubt is :
    when i take the shot with the portrait sometimes the bg gets blurred or the portrait. i need both objects to be see clearly. i hope you understand my doubt !

  4. Bill Jones says:


    What camera are you shooting with? Most point and shoots have a large depth of field.

  5. sriganesh says:

    mine is normal digital camera with 8megapixel sony. with no settings change in ameatur or fps . the default one 200$ worth .

  6. Bill Jones says:

    To have some control over your depth of field and make most things in focus try to shooting in landscape mode. Hope that helps.

  7. Brad Magnus says:

    I’ll concede that I may have used too strong of language in my first comment. I guess I get a little uptight when people say “forget the rules”.

    Great work on the site Bill. Keep up the good content.

  8. Joey Cosi says:

    I love doing portrait photographs. As much as possible, I use my 50mm lens specially for low light shots or even studio shots.

    Any suggestions aside from the 50mm?

  9. Carlita says:

    I’ve been told recently a zoom lens and keeping it on 105mm. yet to try.

  10. Julian says:

    To Joey,
    i take also with my 105mm sigma portrais, but (in my case) I´ve to go very far away, because with the f/t sensor it is like a 210mm at a 35mm film.
    or another, funny, solution is the old fisheye. if you use it right, there will be some very nice portrais.

    to carlita: I prefere fix lenses, without zoom. it´s a little bit oldfashion, bit i think, that the quality is better at a fix lens. It can be, that some highquality zoom lenses achiev the same quality, but i dont know.

    PS: thanks for the tipps…

  11. vijendra rathore says:

    i am just on my initial stage to learn and i am having nikon d90 please help me to learn

  12. Doug says:

    I wanted to comment also on this: “junk all the so-called “composition rules”; so the Rules of Thirds is the first one to go. Why? Because sometimes a face dead-center, full-frame is more powerful than anything else or if the face is at the edge of the frame (most of it being truncated) can also be just as powerful in its own way.”

    “Sometimes” it is, and most of the time it is not. Breaking the rules is an advanced method best left to after you understand well whey the rules work. Amateurs are already ready to “break the rules” because they think they have something the rest of us don’t–the eye, a unique “unschooled” approach, or a disdain for intellectual achievement. This mostly spells crappy images with the picture taker believing he or she has created something worthy of display in the The Museum of Modern Art, if it weren’t for those idiot touchy-feely types denying their talent.

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