Portrait Photography Tips

5 Expert Tips to Perfect Portrait Photography

I have been photographing people for many years now, starting off with a film camera and becoming one of the first photographers to switch to digital in my studio. Whilst the process has become easier, cheaper and more exciting, the basic principles for portrait photography have remained the same.

To improve your portrait photography and help you create more memorable images, you must think before pressing the shutter button.

Here is an acronym that I use for creating a more pleasing natural portrait – C.L.E.P.S.

  • C – Composition
  • L – Lighting
  • E – Expression
  • P – Posing
  • S – Space

Thinking of each topic slows down the photographic process and makes you think more about the shots you are trying to create. It is all too easy to fire off a hundred digital images hoping you will end up with one good photograph, but by using the C.L.E.P.S. system it will help you get the right image within a couple of shots.

This will save so much time afterwards when it comes to editing and printing your images.

After all, you only really want one great photograph that stops you in your tracks and makes you look closer.

Creating hundreds of images cheapens your skills and doesn’t add any value to your portrait photography. Thinking before taking the shot makes you learn new skills and makes your photography more enjoyable, it also helps you build a portfolio of striking images to impress family and friends. So let’s have a look at each topic in a little more detail.

Composition

They do say if you can turn an image upside down and it still looks good then it was a well taken image.

I think this applies to landscape photography more than portraits, but it can still apply quite effectively!

Composition is about finding the right balance between all the objects within a photograph to make it look pleasing to the eye. The “Rule of thirds” is used in most photographs, including portrait photography, to provide a simple method of creating a pleasing and balanced look to your image.

Simply split your photograph up into 3 equal rows and columns, then place the important parts of the image onto the cross sections. In a simple one person portrait the eyes should be placed on the upper third cross section and to the right or left, depending on which way they are looking or the effect your are trying to achieve.

With this image the person is actually facing slightly away from the centre of the image but the lighting has emphasized the part of the face that is towards the centre and the eyes are on one of the cross sections.

demonstration of portrait photography

The “Rule of Thirds” creates a pleasing composition when applied to portrait photography

Lighting

The most important thing to remember with light is that it doesn’t bend!

Sounds obvious but when related to portrait photography, you have to move the person into the light and let it mould the face. You have to position them so the light illuminates certain parts of the face or body to make it more flattering.

Gradually light becomes diffused the further you are away from the light source and it makes for a more flattering portrait. It can help shape a face by using the graduation of the light, this is called feathering.

Feathering the light so it illuminates one side of the face full on but creates a small triangle of light on the opposite cheek, creates a more flattering image. This can be achieved with great effect using daylight through a window, turning the person into the light until you create that “magic triangle” of light on their opposite cheek.

Another trick with lighting is to create a catch light in the eyes of your subject. A small white reflection of the light source illuminates the eyes and really lifts the portrait. Again, moving the person or simply reflecting the light source into the eyes will create a more compelling image.

feathered lighting on portraits

Feathered lighting helps to shape a face and can easily be produced using window light.

Expression

This really depends on the look you are trying to create, but for most portraits you have to show a connection between the sitters and/or the camera.

I believe a great portrait is always in the eyes.

If you can capture that look that says “I am enjoying this and I don’t feel uncomfortable in front of the camera” then you will be on your way to master portrait photography.

Sometimes you have to act like a fool or do something funny just before you press the shutter button in order to get a reaction from your sitter. If you have more than one person in your image, try asking them to pull funny faces or jostle for space with each other.

When working with children or animals, a sudden rustle of a crisp packet or noisy paper will make them look up and react. The more of a connection you make with your subject, the more enjoyable the session will be and you will all be rewarded with some lovely portraits.

pleasing expressions in portraits

Capturing the right expression makes your portraits memorable

Posing

Following on from making your sitters feel comfortable in front of you and your camera, we then move on to posing.

Quite simply, the more relaxed they are with you as their photographer the more they will respond to any of your requests to “jazz it up a little” and add movement to you shots!

Some of the best images are of people naturally reacting to what’s around them, so you will not need to ask for any special movements. When in a studio environment or on a one-to-one basis though, portrait photography can become very “samey”, so movement and posing can add extra depth to your images.

I sometimes ask the person being photographed to pull faces, dance, spin around or pretend to act like a boxer!

With children, blowing bubbles or throwing little toys in the air can make them reach up for them. When framing your images in the view finder to include movement make sure you still look at the “rule of thirds”. This image cuts diagonally across the picture, which is another rule of composition for pleasing photos. Even if it was slightly tilted either way, the image probably would not work as well.

diagonal composition and dramatic posing

An example of “off the wall” posing with diagonal composition

Space

Sometimes an image can look far to cramped or too close-up especially for people shots.

It is important to frame your image within the view finder so that enough space is left all around the person to make the image work better. You can always crop the image afterwards to apply the rules of composition, but if you are too close to the subject when taking the photograph, then that option will be extremely limited to you afterwards.

Allowing space around a subject will give you more options for later.

It also slows you down and makes you think more about composition, posing and expression if you have to think about the space. Sometimes, you will crop out arms or hands by not paying attention to space. If this is the look you are after, fine, but best to give yourself options once the photo session is over.

In Summary then, all rules are there to be broken, but learning the basics can help you build your skills as a portrait photographer. For me, the most important thing to remember is always think before pressing the shutter button. Quickly go over all the elements of C.L.E.P.S. and think how you can improve the image. Correcting your portrait photography afterwards in photo editing software is always an option but wouldn’t you feel better if you could get it right first time in-camera and not have to waste your time editing images later-on?

I know I would and this leaves more time for me to enjoy a coffee and cake!

2 thoughts on “Portrait Photography Tips

  • November 11, 2014 at 2:37 pm
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    Thanks very much for this short and sharp set of tips.
    I am too impatient and unhandy in this work. I always hope that I have a few good photo’s back in the computer at the end. Stupid and impatient!!!
    Kind regards

  • November 11, 2014 at 2:52 pm
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    Thank you Nicholas, keep clicking!

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