How to Step Up Your Portrait Photography

Portraiture is one of the most unique and diverse methods of photography. Often, a portrait is a reflection of a mood, tone or feeling the photographer hopes to capture and display to their audience. Whether you’re a seasoned professional or starting off in the world of portraiture, there is always room for innovation, change of perspective and improvement to your personal work. A truly good portrait has the marks of composition, use of light and intended vision — let’s talk about how to use these methods to step up your portrait photography game.

Step Up Your Portrait Photography: Focus on Composition

When creating a portrait, you want to think about the way you frame and compose the shot. Upon placing your subject in front of the lens, you may ask – Which emotions and feelings do I want to evoke from the viewer?

Close up portraits can feel intimate and highly personal. Depending on the mood of the subject – serious, emotional or excited – we are instantly drawn to what they feel and represent. The trick is to consider your proximity, the closer you are, the more engaged and enticed your audience will feel. Up close and personal portraiture opens up vulnerability and raw expression because the viewer wants to look away, but feels so compelled by the subject in front of them that they yearn for more.


Photo by Rhys Simmons

Another technique used in portrait photography is the decision to use high or low vantage points. Placing yourself above the subject will result in an image composed in a manner that reflects a downward perspective and can evoke emotions of fear, sadness or discomfort. While on the other hand, a low vantage point allows the viewer to look upward at the subject and triggers feelings of prominence, assertion, and confidence. Just by changing the level at which you capture your subject can truly affect the viewer’s perception.

Photo by Maggie Keating


Photo by Dawn Johnsen

The last and most commonly used method of composition is the placement of your subject in regard to the background. Let’s say you are shooting in an empty field, there are a few options of placement that will each tell a different story to the viewer.

  • Placing the subject in the center of the frame establishes them as the focal point. With equal distance between you and your subject and the subject and the background — this gives the impression of familiarity and closeness without intrusion.
  • If you place your subject within the setting and establish a large amount of distance between the two of you, there is the impression of detachment. Whether that evokes loneliness, loss, distance — we are able to feel the lack of connection encompassed by the space.

Step Up Your Portrait Photography: Play With Light

Natural Light

The use of natural light is often best employed during specific times of the day. Early morning and the hour before sunset are often referred to as the “golden hours” due to the beautiful golden hues that are created with this light. Using these specific times of natural light allows your portrait to feel delicate and artistic. If you’re aiming for a portrait that appears a bit more striking to the viewer, consider shooting in direct sunlight during the middle of the day. Direct sunlight creates a harsher feel but can be very effective if you want your subject to stand out in the frame.


Photo by Ricardo Mantilla                                              


Photo by Elle Schmit

Flash

Flash can be used in both studio and outdoor settings. Often overlooked, the inclusion of flash outdoors for your portraiture can be a great way to fill the spaces that natural light may not be able to reach. You’d be surprised what the inclusion of flash can do when paired with natural light. The use of flash when shooting portraits allows for fewer shadows and a more prominent display of your highlights – overall offering a clean, crisp and sharp depiction of your subject’s features. Whether you use the flash on or off camera, you may want to try employing this method the next time you’re shooting portraits outdoors.

Moods Created With Light

It is also important to recognize that light has the ability to create a specific mood. To break it down:

  • Bright, soft light — displays feelings of happiness, softness, innocence
  • Dim, shaded light — can be used to display feelings of angst, loneliness, sadness, passion, secrets, and reservations.
  • Shooting in the dark, with external lights/flash — ignites feelings of rebellion, edginess, and adventure.


Photo by David Valladolid                                  


 Photo by Haley Jacobson

Step Up Your Portrait Photography: Understand Your Intended Vision

The last and most vital part of portraiture is the vision. When creating portraits, you should always consider the story you intend to tell with your work.

For example, if you’re shooting a project for commercial use, a portrait may be used to push the feeling of reliability to the consumer. Where on the other spectrum, if you’re photographing for a fashion magazine, you may be creating portraits with abstract poses, movement and distance between you and the subject in order to highlight the clothing. Or if you’re photographing a figure of prominence or celebrity, you will want to create a portrait that conveys their personality and perspective.

Considering different projects call for varying types of portraits, it is important to determine your intention before you begin shooting. A pro tip for creating a vision that aligns with your clients’ needs is to create a mood or idea board before the project begins. Evoking inspiration and creating an overall theme can aid in what you capture and conceptualize in your future imagery.

When creating portraits, composition, light, and vision are all factors to be considered. These are essential starting points to understand your personal method of portraiture. It is important to find what works best for you as a creator and to never stop striving to create your best work. Have you shot some portraits with any members you #MetOntheHub? Share your creations with us in the comments below!

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