Sometimes it can feel like we take the same images time and time again! That’s why I always try to mix it up by including different approaches when taking images of a person.
Although that sounds like a small number of options, within these basic types, you will have a considerable amount of variation available on each one, depending on where you place your subject and where you shoot from, how you have them pose etc.
If you keep these simple approaches of portrait shots in mind when shooting, you will help make sure you get a good range of photos from one session.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Is a Portrait?
- 2 Do I Need Lots of Expensive Portrait Photography Lighting?
- 3 Types of Portrait Shots
- 4 Ways to Take Stunning Portraits
- 4.1 Alter Your Perspective
- 4.2 Play With Eye Contact
- 4.3 Break the Rules of Composition
- 4.4 Experiment With Lighting
- 4.5 Move Your Subject Out of Their Comfort Zone
- 4.6 Shoot Candidly
- 4.7 Introduce a Prop
- 4.8 Focus on One Body Part (and Get Close Up!)
- 4.9 Obscure Part of Your Subject
- 4.10 Take a Series of Shots
- 5 What Are the Best Lenses for Portraits?
- 6 How Do You Photograph Someone’s True Self?
- 7 Conclusion
What Is a Portrait?
A portrait is a representation of a person that focuses on the face and expressions. However, photographs aren’t limited to a headshot; but they can also be full-body images. Portraits aren’t only seen in photography; they’re also paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other forms of art. The general purpose of a picture is to show the personality or mood of your subject through a photo.
Before we dig into the different approaches to portrait shots, let’s try to touch on the camera equipment for a moment since they are crucial for getting a good portrait image.
Do I Need Lots of Expensive Portrait Photography Lighting?
Not at all. A basic lighting kit with two flash heads and two stands is all you need to start with, and for some portrait photography techniques, you’ll be able to use natural light if you like.
Flash heads are a must-have piece of portrait photography equipment if you want to shoot indoors or in a studio. You don’t need loads of lights, just one will start with, but two is better and will give you far more versatility in portrait photography lighting styles.
These are essential for supporting your flash heads safely and adjusted to different heights and angles. They also fold down for easy storage.
To start with, a softbox like the Aputure Light Dome II is probably the best option until you get used to using your lights. Softboxes are like tents that go around your flash head and diffuse and bounce the morning so that it’s far softer than it would be with a bare flash head. This makes them great for portrait work, as well as product, food and fashion photography.
The Aputure Light Dome II has two types of diffusion material, and that allows you to choose between the 1.5 stop diffuser and the two stop diffuser, which lets less light through. It also comes with a 40-degree grid, which will give you a harder-edged, more defined lighting style.
Although a tripod isn’t a strict necessity for using flash heads, it’s still helpful to have one, especially if you plan to do outdoor shooting or work in low light. Tripods like the Beike Q99C Carbon Fiber Tripod/Monopod with Ball Head support your camera safely and securely at different angles. This model is sturdy yet lightweight, making it an ideal tripod for travelling around.
These are the most inexpensive pieces of portrait photography equipment, yet one of the most useful. Reflectors are used to bounce extra light back into the shadow parts of your image, and they do make a massive difference to the look of the portrait. They are made up of a flexible inner part covered with white, silver or gold material. They are often circular and fold down into a bag for carrying.
Types of Portrait Shots
The Head Shot
The first up is the Head Shot.
Headshot photography is a great way to have a steady flow of clients. In almost any profession, headshots are needed. Not only are headshots used for professional purposes, but they can also be used for personal social media profile photos.
Although headshots are often used for professional purposes, you can get creative by emphasizing expressions. By doing so, you’ll be able to capture your subject’s unique personality while having professional photos.
In this composition, you will have the head and usually the shoulders in the frame. Generally speaking, you are looking to get the eyes as the main focal point. (just a quick moment – although eye contact is not necessary, the eyes do help to draw you into the image, so get it if you can!)
Another example of a head shot is with no eye contact. If you go down the no eye contact route (either deliberately or because the little blighters won’t look at you), you preferably need to have a strong emotion or feature to draw you in the photo instead.
The Half Body Shot
The next type is the partial or half body shot.
When cropping at the body, you always try to trim at a fleshy part of the body, not at a joint, such as the elbow or the knees. Also, if there is a hand in the frame, try to include the whole hand and not accidentally chop the tops of fingers off – this goes for anybody part! You could shoot your subject on the ground to have the top half of her body only.
Again, eye contact is unnecessary, but still, try to have more going on in the frame to make up for that lack of eye contact.
The Full Body Shot
Last up is the entire body shot which is also fairly self-explanatory!
When going for a full-body shot, make sure you get all the appendages in – feet not clipped off at the toes, elbows in print etc. The subject doesn’t need to be standing; they can be sitting or lying down too!
Again, eye contact is not always necessary to make a statement and draw you into the picture–when we don’t have eye contact, we alter the mood of the photo, changing the viewer into being more of an observer; it’s up to you as the photographer to decide the mood or feeling you want the portrait to project.
You can also choose to show more of the environment in a full body shot, give a sense of place and context, or show more about “who” your child is, rather than simply what they look like.
Ways to Take Stunning Portraits
It’s all well and good to have a portrait that follows all the rules – but often, the most striking images are those that break the rules.
Alter Your Perspective
Most portraits are taken with the camera at (or around) the eye level of the subject. While this is good common sense, completely changing the angle you shoot from can give your portraits a real wow factor.
Get up high and shoot down on your subject, or get as close to the ground as you can and shoot up. Either way, you’ll be seeing your subject from an angle that is bound to create interest.
Play With Eye Contact
It is incredible how much the direction of your subject’s eyes can impact an image. Most portraits have the issue of looking down the lens – something that can create a real sense of connection between a subject and those viewing the image.
But there are a couple of other things to try:
- Looking off-camera. Have your subject focus their attention on something outside the field of view of your camera. This can create a feeling of candidness and create a little intrigue and interest as the viewer of the shot wonders what the subject is looking at. This intrigue is powerful when the issue is showing some emotion (i.e., “What’s making them laugh?” or “What is making them look surprised?”). Just be aware that when you have a subject looking out of the frame, you can also draw the viewer’s eye to the edge of the image, and this will take them away from the point of interest in your shot: the subject.
- Looking within the frame. Alternatively, you could have your issue looking at something (or someone) within the frame. A child looking at a ball, a woman looking at her new baby, or a man looking hungrily at a big plate of pasta – it can all work. When you give your subject something to look at inside the frame, you create a second point of interest and a relationship between it and your primary issue. It also helps create a story within the image.
Break the Rules of Composition
There are many “rules” out there when it comes to composition, and I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with them. My theory is that, while composition rules are helpful to know and employ, they are also beneficial to know, so you can purposely break them – as this can lead to eye-catching results.
The rule of thirds is one rule that can be effective to break. You see, placing your subject dead-centre can sometimes create a powerful image. And creative placement with your subject right on the edge of a shot can sometimes make compelling images.
Another “rule” that we often talk about in portrait photography is to give your subject room to look into. This can work well – but again, sometimes rules are made to be broken.
Experiment With Lighting
Another element of randomness you can introduce in your portraits is the way you light them. There are almost unlimited possibilities when it comes to using light in portrait photography.
Side Lighting can create mood, while backlighting and silhouetting your subject to hide their features can be powerful. Also, using techniques like slow sync flash (and long exposures combined with light painting) can create impressive images.
Move Your Subject Out of Their Comfort Zone
I was chatting with a photographer recently who told me about a corporate portrait shoot that he had done with a businessman at his home. They’d taken many heads and shoulder shots, shots at the desk, pictures in front of framed degrees, and other “corporate” type images. The photos had all turned out reasonably standard, but nothing stood out from the crowd.
The photographer and the subject agreed that there were plenty of usable shots, but they wanted to create something unique and out-of-the-box. The photographer suggested they try some “jumping” shots. The subject was a little hesitant at first but stepped out of his comfort zone – and then, dressed in his suit and tie, started jumping!
The shots were unique, surprising, and quite funny. The shoot culminated with the subject jumping into his pool for one last image!
While this might all sound a little silly, the shots ended up being featured in a magazine spread about the subject. It was the series of out-of-the-box images that convinced the magazine the issue was someone they’d want to feature.
A candid portrait is focused on capturing the subject, not acknowledging the photographer. Although you don’t have to photograph strangers on the street, you want to achieve the same feel.
These portraits are famous among street photographers because that’s where it’s easiest to capture candid images of people without them noticing. The goal of an honest picture is to capture people in genuine moments.
Moments pass quickly, but candid portrait photography captures genuine moments that will be remembered.
Sometimes, posed shots can look somewhat…posed. Some people don’t look good in a posed environment, and so switching to a candid-type approach can work well.
Photograph your subject at work, with family, or doing something that they love. This will put them more at ease, and you can end up getting some unique shots with your subject reacting naturally to the situation they are in. You might even want to grab a longer zoom lens to give your subject space and get really “paparazzi” with them. I find that this can work exceptionally well when photographing children.
Introduce a Prop
Add a prop of some kind, and you create another point of interest that can enhance your shot.
Yes, you might run the risk of taking too much focus away from your main subject. But you can also really add a sense of story and place to the image that takes it in a new direction and gives the person you’re photographing an extra layer of depth that they wouldn’t have had without the prop.
Focus on One Body Part (and Get Close Up!)
Use a lens with a long focal length, or get up close so that you can photograph a part of your subject. Photographing a person’s hands, eyes, mouth, or even just their lower body can leave a lot to the viewer’s imagination. Sometimes, it’s what is left out of an image that says more than what is included.
Obscure Part of Your Subject
A variation on the idea of zooming in on one part of the body is to obscure parts of your portrait subject’s face or body. You can do this with clothing, objects, your subject’s hands, or just by framing part of them out of the image.
Doing this means that you leave a little to the imagination of the viewer. And you also focus the viewer’s attention on the parts of your subject that you want focused on.
Take a Series of Shots
Switch your camera into burst mode (also known as continuous shooting mode) and fire off several shots. In doing this, you create a series of images presented together instead of just one static image.
This technique can work very well when you’re photographing children – or really when you’re photographing an active subject that is changing their position or pose in quick succession,
What Are the Best Lenses for Portraits?
Portrait photography can be done with many different lenses because it depends on what you’re trying to portray. In general, longer focal length lenses are great for portraits. The 50mm and 85mm are two great lenses to start with.
How Do You Photograph Someone’s True Self?
Engage with your client by asking them questions and give them positive feedback. By doing these two things, you’ll build trust, and they’ll feel comfortable expressing their true self.
Portrait photography is a versatile genre of photography, and it comes down to capturing your subject’s personality. Understanding the different types of portrait photography will help you diversify your portfolio and expand your creativity as a photographer.
There is no one “correct” style or approach to portrait photography, just as there is no “right” way to take a photograph. Portrait photography is subjective, just like any other type of photography, and each viewer will see a photo differently. That is part of the beauty of photography!
Above all, don’t be afraid to experiment or to make a mistake – we all make them, and even the great photographers have made plenty of mistakes along the way!