Five Tips for Taking Stunning Portrait Photos

by Gillian May 9 months ago in how to

My top tips for making portrait​ photos that have an impact

Five Tips for Taking Stunning Portrait Photos
Author's own photo

Do you want to make stunning portrait photos that really stand out from the rest? Have you seen portraits that really have an impact and wonder how you can do the same?

In this article, I give you my top five favorite tips for stunning portrait shots. There are many great tips out there, and you should consider all of them, but these are my top five.

Given that portrait photography is a fairly common genre, it can be challenging to create photos that make a unique statement. Portraits aim to capture the personality, spirit, and environment of the subject or subjects. There are many ways to do this.

1. Know Your Subject

This is the most important one. It includes some basic respect, asking permission, and learning about the environment or space that the subject resides in. I wrote more about this in another article if you want a more in-depth explanation.

Most photographers will agree that getting to know your subject has a significant affect on the impact and memorability of your portrait photos. The connection you establish with your subject will inevitably come through in your portrait. This will also facilitate a relationship for those viewing the picture as well.

If you see an interesting subject, but you don’t know the person, try introducing yourself and ask if you can take a photo. It can take time to develop the confidence for this skill, but it’s worth it.

Once your subject has agreed to the photo, try asking some key open-ended questions while you shoot. Some example questions are: What have you been up to today? Can you tell me something about yourself? While the subject is talking, you can take photos of different expressions.

Creating a relationship with your subjects really brings magic to your portraits. For example, in this first photo, I didn’t know or speak with this woman before taking the picture.

Author's own photo

But in this second photo, I approached the same woman, introduced myself and asked if I could take the photo. She agreed and we exchanged names and some conversation. I was able to get closer and shoot several photos while she was talking and sewing.

Author's own photo

Both photos have exciting qualities, but the second one has more story and impact. So if you want your portraits to stand out, try getting to know your subjects. I also argue that this is the most ethical and enjoyable way to get portrait shots, especially when you don’t already know your subject.

2. Take Candid Shots

Candid photos are those taken without the person’s knowledge. Candid shots capture an honest expression because the person is not posing or aware of the photographer. This tip may sound like the opposite of the first tip, but in fact, you can still do candid shots after you ask for permission to take a photo.

The more your subjects relax and feel comfortable with you, the less likely they are to look straight into your camera. This gives you time to capture unique expressions or personality without them feeling shy or insecure.

The photo below shows a great example of a candid shot that was taken after I asked this man if I could take his photo. He agreed and then when he was unaware I was able to grab a quick shot of him as he was telling me something.

Author's own photo.

Then there are candid shots of subjects that you don’t know at all. Some argue that this is the best way to do candid shots because the subject is completely unaware, which adds mystery and surprise.

Below is a shot of a woman making tortillas. She had no idea I was taking the photo, so I was able to capture a natural expression on her face. I also caught her interacting with her environment, which adds a nice layer to the story.

I argue that environmental shots, where you want to capture the whole scene, are the only time where not asking permission may be fine.

Author's own photo

Candid portraits have great potential to be original and unforgettable. Whether your subjects are strangers or people you know, the main thing is to watch for and capture those honest moments.

3. Try Different Distances From Your Subject

There are different styles of portrait photography but what separates them from each other is the distance between the camera and the subject. For traditional portraits, the photographer gets close to the subject to capture facial details. These portraits are naturally more intimate.

For environmental portraits, the subject is captured along with the background. These details help to reveal a story about the subject and their environment. This requires more distance between the photographer and the subject.

Whether you’re close or far away, the photo’s story will change according to these distances. Once you know this, you can experiment with different distances. Don’t be afraid to break the rules. Try new ideas like getting close to a subject but move to the side so you can capture the background as well. Or try getting so close that you fill the frame with your subjects face.

Here are some examples. In the first photo, the woman’s face almost fills the left side of the frame, but the background shows a market-like setting. This gives a mystery and story to the photo.

In the second photo, the woman’s face almost fills the frame. This gives a dramatic close up and you can see the details of her eyes and skin. The story in this photo is more direct and it’s hard to look away from her eyes.

By shooting at different distances, you can create a variety of stories and effects. Try experimenting with shooting close up, then move farther away or even off to the side. You never know if you will capture something memorable.

4. Play With Different Light Sources

One of the most significant factors in creating a good photo is the lighting. For portrait photography, light can mean the difference between a good and a bad photo. Many traditional portraits are done in a studio using fancy lighting equipment. Thankfully, you don’t have to use lighting equipment to create a great portrait. All you need is a little creativity.

You can try a light source such as a lamp, a flashlight, or even a different colored light. You can also play with natural light too. Sunlight coming through blinds or a hole in the wall can create some interesting effects on your subject. You can try reflectors that cast a soft light onto your subject; these can be adjusted to achieve different results.

Here’s some examples of self-portraits I did using different natural lighting. In the first photo, I sat by a window. The room was very dark and the light coming through the window cast a nice glow. The effect is interesting and mysterious, almost like I’m coming out of the dark.

Author's own photo

For this second photo, I used light beams coming through the holes in the drapes to create something spooky yet fun. You can try positioning your subject in these types of light beams to create something really special.

Author's own photo

Capture portraits that stand out by playing with different light sources. You can use lighting equipment or find creative ways to channel natural light. Lighting is an essential part of photography technique, so practice and have fun with it.

5. Experiment With Eye Contact

In traditional portraits, the subjects usually look directly into the camera. This is effective for a good reason. Photos that have direct eye contact create more connection to those viewing the picture. However, portraits that have the subject looking somewhere else creates a different story by adding mystery.

Try experimenting with eye contact with both subjects you know and those you don’t. If you know your subject, you can ask them to look directly into the camera and then ask them to look at something in the distance. When you know your subject, you can take your time and try different things.

Here’s an example of a subject looking outside of the frame. It makes you wonder what she’s looking at. The mystery pulls you in, which makes the photo interesting.

Author's own photo

You can create memorable portraits by experimenting with eye contact. Whether you have your subject looking directly at the camera or away from it, the effect can be the difference between an average portrait and one that really stands out.

In conclusion, my top five tips for getting stunning portrait photos are:

  • Get to know your subject
  • Take candid shots
  • Try different distances
  • Play with different light sources
  • Experiment with eye contact.

Within each of these tips, are even more ideas for how to play and experiment. The more shots you take, the more you learn. So have fun and I look forward to seeing what you create!

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Gillian May
Gillian May
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Gillian May
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