A Basic Guide to Portrait Photography

by Beth Taylor February. 06, 2019 535 views

Hello, and welcome to our blog post on portrait photography.

Firstly, we would like to put forward some tips on portrait photography, and try to demonstrate how you can achieve successful portraits without expensive equipment or complicated techniques.

1. Angles

Camera angles are key in creating an interesting shot. The traditional portrait format is a head shot, from straight on, the subject in the centre, and sometimes this can be very effective for a simpler shot. However, I believe that to fully capture a subject, sometimes you need more than just their face, or to see their face from multiple angles. There are endless ways to compose a photograph, so I can’t list them all here, however some of my favourites remain as follows: ‘The half face’: A photo taken from straight on but only one half of the face, with its edge being at the centre. This may seem pointless, but it draws more attention to the details on the face, especially the eyes as they would ideally be looking straight at the camera. I would advise a serious expression, and a high aperture so the setting is visible in the other half of the shot to make it interesting. Another method is to shoot from behind. This works particularly well with a group, since I think that you can tell a lot about a group from how their body language is towards each other, even without seeing any of their faces. This can also work as a silhouette against a light background. A more unusual way to take a head shot is to have your subject looking over their shoulder, often laughing or smiling since this is quite a playful position. Even just having them positioned side on, but facing the front can add some interest to the shot. Finally, a random idea (not mine: inspired by a photo I saw once), and one I’ve always wanted to try: to have the subject standing still in the middle of a busy street, lower the shutter speed, and take the photo. This way, the subject appears completely in focus, surrounded by moving, blurred bodies.

Play around with the angles, experiment: the ones I have mentioned are by no means the best and it depends on the setting and subject, along with the intention you have for the photo. Sometimes getting up high or on the floor can help you gain a new perspective, and I’m a particular fan of when a photographer produces a set of photos of the same subject from different angles.

2. Setting

Something to consider when choosing a background, is that a setting could reflect the subject in some way. Perhaps this is their favourite place: a child’s bedroom; an artist’s workshop, a particular area of coast, even a city centre. By placing the subject in somewhere that makes them happy, they will not only naturally look more relaxed and comfortable, but it will remind them of that place whenever they see the picture. To a viewer who doesn’t know the subject, it immediately gives them a deeper view of who they are just from the background.

Another thing to consider is to make sure it doesn’t look too chaotic. Although I think using setting as a method to enhance the image can be effective, that doesn’t mean that every portrait must have an interesting background; it’s all about balance. If the subject is wearing a striking outfit or has hair and make-up which are a focus, a background could distract from this, meaning most modelling shots are done in a studio with a plain background. However, if the subject is perhaps pictured in basic clothing without attention drawn to their body, this could be a good point at which to think about a prominent background so as to add intrigue. If you want the background to be minor and unnoticeable, I would recommend something relatively blank. Obviously a studio with a proper place to take these shots is ideal, but lacking this I find it’s often unsatisfactory to try and replicate it. There is very little spare wall space in my house, and if you do find some there may well be something slipping in to the edge of your photo, a small blemish on the wall, which becomes all the more obvious. Therefore, I would suggest shooting outside, since nature often provides the most pleasing backdrop whilst remaining unobtrusive. It also provides natural light which is most find easier to shoot with than artificial light (although avoid taking a photo in direct sunlight as it causes glare). You may want to think about co-ordinating the setting with the theme for the photo, as clashing colours divert the eye from the subject.

3. Self Portrait

This is something I’ve always struggled with. Finding a way to take a good photo of yourself is often difficult and time consuming, especially if, like me, you don’t have a tripod to work with. One method is mirror selfies, something I have attempted many a time. This can work well, and I have definitely seen some successful photos of that kind, but it comes with a few challenges. Firstly, the background; a mirror is normally found inside, which is a less easy setting to work with, plus backgrounds tend to be cluttered and generally less photogenic. Being limited to staying within the frame of a mirror restricts your options in terms of composition. These photos have a tendency to look unprofessional, since it seems like a teenager trying to get an Instagram-worthy photo. To avoid this, I would recommend trying with reflective surfaces that aren’t mirrors, such as windows. This gives your photo a more interesting quality, especially if you can capture some of what is through the window. Otherwise, just try and either clear a background or limit its clutter as much as possible. Ideally, you can take a portable mirror outside and get a more natural background. An alternative method is to set up a camera in your preferred spot, and pose in front of it, making use of the self-timer setting you find in most cameras/phones. I would say this is generally better, but it can take a few attempts as focusing on a subject is tricky when that subject is you. It is usually necessary to take a photo then adjust, take photo, then adjust again, etc. Sometimes it’s helpful to have a friend to help pose you as this can speed things up. Having yourself as the model gives you a lot of freedom which is lacking when posing someone else. Enjoy this! Taking photos of yourself can also be a good way to experiment an idea which you want to try on someone else.

4. Eye contact

This is a key part of an image and something which is fun to play with. Probably the most conventional shot would be to have a subject looking straight down the lens. I like this method because it gives you a more intimate look and is arguably a more insightful way to capture a subject. However, changing this up alters the mood of the image and adds another dimension. Though this can distract the eye from the focus, it can be a deliberate technique to add intrigue. For example, having a subject look off to the side of the frame it brings attention to the fact that things are going on outside of the shot, and in this way, the camera becomes an observer of a moment, and the subject is portrayed in a different way. One technique when taking photos of multiple people, is to have them looking into each other’s eyes. This captures the relationship between two people well, and, in my opinion, is especially effective when the camera is looking on from the side so as to shoot the profiles of both people, hence having them in the frame in equal proportions. Having a subject look beyond the frame can give a more contemplative look, which can be very effective, but does create a sense of distance between the subject and the viewer. By playing around with eye contact, it is possible to create a series of photos which are the same bar the subject’s eyes. It’s astonishing to see how formative eye contact is in the making of a photograph.

5. Framing

It’s crucial when framing a shot to consider the context in which a photo will appear. Does the viewer need to be able to tell where the photo is being taken? What objects in the scene is it important to get in shot. For example, instead of taking a photo out of a train window, take a picture of the train window through which you can see the scenery. It gives the viewer a story behind the photo and adds interest to the shot. One way framing can enhance your image is by creating depth and layers in the background, which adds another dimension to the photo. However, remember that making the background too detailed can distract from the subject. Instead, use it to direct the eye towards the focal point not away from it. You don’t have to frame all four edges, just a tree which stretches along one side and across the top of the image can create a similar effect. If you want to go more extreme, you can even shoot through a tunnel with your subject at the end, but be careful as this can make the shot feel cramped or take up too much of the photo. Personally, I love photos where the subject is framed by the people around him or her; it seems to capture a moment in time well, particularly when the subject looks straight down the lens and is the only thing in focus. Before I take a photo, I always try and check for items which could frame a shot: classic examples are archways, trees, gateways, and windows, but you can generally use anything. When shooting though a near object at a more distant subject, it creates a nice contrast between light and dark, as the foreground tends to become silhouetted against a lighter background. Something else to consider is where to focus: whether to use a wider depth of field and focus on the frame (therefore most of the shot is visible, if not completely sharp), or a narrower depth of field and focus on the subject (hence blurring the frame). When shooting landscapes, I tend to go for the former, as the background doesn’t need to be as focused and the frame is often a point of more interest. However, since this is on portraits, I’d have to recommend the latter as the point is to draw the eye towards the subject. However, you can always take two versions and decide a favourite at a later date.

6. Candid v posed

In general, my preferred portraits are normally candid, however, this certainly doesn’t always apply. When taking candid shots, the technical elements such as lighting and shutter speed are often misjudged affecting the overall quality of the final photo. There is often such a rush to capture a moment that the picture turns out blurred, else you have to ask the subject to hold still, destroying the point of it being ‘in the moment’. It’s very much based on luck: does the lighting happen to be at the right angle, is someone else going to interrupt the shot in the background, etc. Having said that, when luck goes your way, it often creates a more natural shot than even the most carefully posed. On the other hand, if you are aiming to create a specific effect or send a particular message a posed image is probably the preferred choice since the subject can be manipulated to produce the desired impact. Also, when in this kind of situation, you can perfectly set up lighting and camera angles, taking many pictures so you can later decide on your favourite.

The next section is from a photo shoot our team did for this project, where we took portraits of each other, keeping in mind some of the elements mentioned above. These are all photos we took of each other, on varying degrees of camera equipment. We have commented on each photo in the caption, pointing out positive and negative aspects of each photo and our thought process when taking them. Enjoy!

We took this in an effort to capture the group together. Although this is still obviously posed, it’s certainly less formal than a classic group shot and definitely shows us the friendship dynamic and closeness between the subjects. I love the vibrant colours emphasised in this photo, and the variation in outfit choice demonstrating the different personalities of everyone. The light is relatively good, and the setting plain enough to balance the colourful foreground. My main critique of this photo comes in the composition and posing. The posing isn’t consistent, with the first half of the line posing hands on the next person’s hips and the second half on their shoulders. Furthermore, the space at the front compared to the last person who is cut off creates an unbalanced photo. Lastly, the person on the end isn’t looking at the camera. This looks odd because everyone else is, again creating inconsistencies which add to the amateurishness of the photo.

This was a far more candid shot, which creates a lovely mood and the photographer seems to have captured an intimate moment between the friends. The different placing of their hands (one by their side, the other placed on their stomach), as well as the magazine in the corner distract the eye slightly and take the focus away from the subject. Otherwise, however, the colours in this photo work well and I like the slightly off centre composition which adds to the casual attitude of the photo. The lack of eye contact works well, as the subjects appear to be cloud gazing, or day dreaming, something which corresponds with the birds-eye-view angle the photo is taken from.

I really like this photo because of the detail it captures from being so close up. My favourite aspect is the intentional blurring of the flowers in the foreground, as it helps to add depth to the photo and creates a sort of speckled look which is mimicked in the background. Some criticisms are the straps, which somewhat spoil the colour scheme of muted greens, and also the positioning of the flowers (I would prefer them to be used as a method to frame her face rather than obstruct it). I think it would also have been improved had the subject been looking into the camera, as I think the way it’s composed would suit this technique, whilst as it is, her vision is downward which adds to the sense of distance between her and the viewer.

This photo uses angles effectively to create a very deliberate view of the subject. Shooting from below with the sun behind her makes her look majestic and almost regal. I love how the sun makes all the individual strands of hair visible, and is the brightest at the top of her head similarly to a halo. I would have preferred for the canopy of trees to have stretched fully across the top of the photo, simply to reduce the depth of the shot and simplify it. Although it doesn’t show a realistic view of the subject as such, it shows a view of her which may be seen by others. Something that would have enhanced the photo is for the sunglasses to be made into more of a feature (more obvious reflection, for example), but they are a good choice as they exaggerate her imposing persona.

Although it doesn’t look very natural, the use of the grasses is very useful for framing the subject and as a neutral backdrop. The laughing facial expression is very nice, and doesn’t look too forced. I really liked the blurred grasses in the foreground, but I would have tried to make them all point towards the subject so focus the eye on her, which is not achieved entirely successfully. The major issue in this photo is light, the direct sun makes shadows on her face which is a shame, as it could easily be fixed by taking the photo in the shade. Having said that, I love the reflection off her sunglasses in a spot of brightness, adding an edge to the otherwise muted photo.

I used Photoshop to edit these images, without aiming to do anything too dramatic or drastically alter the atmosphere of the photo I wanted them all to fit together nicely and to be balanced in terms of light and colour. I was aiming for a quite muted look in terms of the tone of the photos, and so what I did first was turn down the contrast, and often the saturation too. Since it was a sunny day, I also reduced the exposure on most of them, and went for a cooler temperature since I didn’t want the skin tones to look overly orange under the sun. In instances where small objects were distracting from the focus I tried to blur them out into the background although this wasn’t always possible. Some of the photos were taken on phone cameras with quite poor quality making them a particular challenge to edit, but this process was aided by sharpening the images somewhat and taking extra time on adjusting the light. In cases where I wanted to pick out specific colours, I would increase the saturation on these and slightly decrease it on the others creating the desired effect. In retrospect, I think I could have been more adventurous and used some more exciting techniques, however my top priority was for them to look cohesive when in series, so my choices were based around that.

Thank you so much for reading. We worked really hard to form each element of this guide, so we really hope you enjoyed it and found it useful. If you have any feedback about the post, positive or negative, we would love to know what you thought and how it helped you specifically (or not).

We created this post as part of my (Bethany’s) silver arts award in which I have to head a team in producing an arts publication. Our team included: Bethany (leader and photographer), Natalia (photographer), Emily (writer), Lily (editor), and Hannah (research).

As a disclaimer, please note that we aren’t qualified photographers and our knowledge on the topic is limited to what we have found online and our own experience taking photos in a non-professional environment. However, we hope we can help anyone who (like us before doing this project!) doesn’t know much about the topic and would like to improve their portrait photography skills!

Bibliography: ‘How to create stunning digital photography’ by Tony Northrup; https://digital-photography-school.com/ , https://byregina.com/tips-for-professional-selfies/ , https://iphonephotographyschool.com/framing-composition/

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There is 1 comment, add yours!
Lily Z 2 years, 2 months ago

Wow. This is really in depth and detailed: you clearly worked very hard. The photos are great (though I wish they linked a bit more to the information you gave), and you have some helpful tips in there, as well as some ideas which i will be sure to check out I'd have liked something about lighting, as its a key aspect of portrait photography which you barely touched upon. But other than that, very comprehensive, thank you!!

2 years, 2 months ago Edited
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