As a portrait photographer, you’ve chosen one of the most challenging and nuanced forms of photography to master. Many portrait photographers think of themselves as painters—they play with the relationship of light and shadow as it dances on their subject’s face. But most of all, they find and accentuate an individual’s most distinct features, effectively telling that person’s story through their photographs.
Not everyone has the artistry that outstanding portrait photography demands but there are some helpful principles to follow that will, at the very least, get you on the right path toward elevating your portraits.
Don’t Shy Away from Wide Angles
Our first instinct, when we think of portrait photography, is to get in close on our subject. This technique certainly works, but it carries with it a very specific style and a set of constraints that you should try and break free from.
Choosing a wider angle gives you more of your subject to play with. Depending on the lens, you can accentuate different parts of their body, giving your photos a unique look. Wide angles are a great way to break from the mold and find clever ways to shoot your portraits.
Accentuate Your Subject with Unique Framing
Portraits aren’t always just your subject and a backdrop. They can be much more dynamic than that. You can also frame your subject to force your audience to focus on a specific part of them, such as their eyes. What is framing? It’s when you take an outside element and use it to draw attention to your subject.
For instance, you could focus on your subject’s strikingly blue eyes by positioning her behind a tree limb in such a way that the branches cover portions of her face, leaving her eyes as the focal point. There are many ways to frame your subject but all of them require you to experiment and develop an eye that finds opportunities among your surroundings. Don’t focus so much on your subject that you forget to look around you. At the same time, experiment with different female poses that will make the subject and the environment blend in smoothly. Your compositions should be well-balanced and you can’t do this unless you take everything into consideration.
Experiment with Different Backgrounds
Your subject’s background has a lot to say, so don’t forget to give it a chance to speak! It’s important that you put a lot of thought and consideration into what your subject stands in front of. Not every shot necessitates a solid color, nor should it always be busy.
Are you shooting a grizzled, no-nonsense subject? Then you may want to choose a stark background that doesn’t draw attention from the story your subject’s face tells. And at times you may want to go with a colorful, bright background that allows your subject to hide in the details. Whatever the case, it’s best to experiment and find what works. Don’t be afraid to deviate from your first impulse. Remember that, once you’ve established your rules you’re more than welcome to begin breaking them.
Landscape or Portrait? Try Both.
It doesn’t help that the type of photography you’re attempting to perfect is known as “portrait photography” and, with its name, pretty much tells you in what format you should be shooting. But the truth is, portrait dimensions aren’t always the way to go. The human face is indeed tall, which is easily captured with portrait format but that doesn’t mean shooting in portrait is the only way to go.
Try shooting in landscape and portrait during every shoot. You might surprise yourself and find that shooting in landscape lends you a different dimension that you hadn’t expected. You can fit more of your subject in the frame as well as more of the background. Think of shooting in landscape as just another tool in your arsenal—it won’t work in every situation but it’s worth trying.
Incorporate Movement into Your Photos
The very nature of photography is all about capturing one exact moment in time. Photos are frozen snapshots of our lives. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be dynamic, instilling in them the flow and movement of your subject and their surroundings. Many people believe that movement in photography equates to a “blurry” photo. But you’re trying to push boundaries and find your unique portrait style, so you should be eager to throw those preconceptions away.
Don’t be afraid to incorporate your subject’s movement or the movement around your subject into the photo. The results may surprise you. But how do you give a sense of movement to your photos? Experimentation is the key to mastering your style but a slower than normal shutter speed will get you started in the right direction. As your shutter takes longer to close after opening, you’ll be allowing more light into your camera sensor and thus your camera will capture more movement. And if your subject is active, that means it will capture the flow of their actions as well as their environment. You may want to try this technique in the middle of a busy sidewalk or in a situation where your subject is engaged in an activity. There is a lot of personality you can tap into when you “unfreeze” your subject and let their dynamism show through.
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Great Portraiture is Greater Than its Parts
The tips outlined above are great ways to get your creative juices flowing. But great portraiture is greater than the sum of its parts. Above all else, make sure you understand the rules of photography so you know when you can stretch or even break them. Whatever you do, ensure your efforts culminate into something holistic and unique—soon enough, you’ll realize you’ve cultivated for yourself a personal style that defines you. If you remain positive and experiment, you may find that your style finds you rather than the other way around.
Photography, at its most basic essence, is about feeling and intuition bolstered by a fundamental foundation of basic principles. If you take into account photography basics, think outside of the standard shooting techniques while remaining true to the craft, and forge ahead using your intuition, then you’ll find success in your endeavors as a portrait photographer.
Nate Joaquin Torres is a photographer based in Orange County/Los Angeles who specializes in portrait, lifestyle, and event photography. He loves minimalist and artistic photography that has a film feel. When he isn’t photographing, you can catch him reading articles about digital marketing, spending time with family and friends, in the gym, or watching artistic music videos.