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21 Portrait Photography Tips to Take Your Photos to the Next Level

Photos are more than just nice snapshots, they also represents a mood, character, and attitude. Do you know that portrait photos can even bring out your subject’s unique characteristics? More than that, a portrait photograph can tell a story, says a lot about a person’s character, and a treasure to keep forever. Developing an eye for a good shot is a bit challenging, so, keep on reading for the 21 portrait photography tips to take your photos to the next level.

What is Portrait Photography?

There are different kinds of photography, but portrait photography focuses on capturing one’s emotions, identity, and expression in an artsy way. According to experts, portrait photography is designed to snap one’s character, tell a story about the subject, and preserve it forever. In fact, portrait photography is commonly used to capture family photos, couple at a wedding, graduation photo, or even a debut photo that can be kept for more years to come.

Technically, portrait photography is a kind of photography that focuses on one’s face with some visible elements like clothes, body, props, and even background. That’s the reason why the subject of the portrait photograph should pose and project in a specific way. Have you heard your photographer instructing you to look directly at the camera, or slightly tilt your head? However, portrait photography is one of the most challenging kinds of photography as capturing a natural-looking photo takes some practice.

In portrait photography, the art is in capturing the personality of your subject. It might call for some technically perfect compositions, but it’s more of a skill where you need some patience to get good photographs. Yes, it’s not that easy to bring out one’s character naturally in front of the camera, without instructing them to say “cheese” and such. Also, you must know that portrait photography is more than just a candid shot.

Different Types of Portrait Photography

  1. Traditional or Close-Up Portrait Photography

Close-up portrait photography is more than just your identification card or passport photo. In fact it represents you as a person with the help of your eye projection, genuine smile, or even facial expression. Technically, close-up portraits involve one’s shoulders and head, and the angles are framed around the face. Do you know that traditional portraits are used to capture facial expressions?

In fact, it is used on model comp cards so the casters will know the range of expressions a model can do. However, a good lighting is essential when capturing close-up portraits, so the angles and details are clear. One of the tricks photographers use is setting the lights from above or on the sides when accenting details. As a rule of thumb, your subject should be brighter than her background.

  1. Midrange Portrait Photography

A less personal type of portrait photography, upper body shots are more relaxed than close-up shots. Midrange portraits are great for shooting from one to multiple subjects. More than that, your subject can be more relaxed in a midrange portrait than in a close-up portrait simply because they are relaxed on posing, than trying to look pretty. Most of the time, your graduation photos and school yearbook use this kind of portrait photography.

  1. Environmental or Lifestyle Portrait Photography

When it comes to photojournalism, one is required to take shots that focus on the subject and his surroundings, which add some character to the overall photo. This is where environmental portrait photography comes to play. In fact, some subjects are photographed while working, doing their hobbies, and such. Do you know that this kind of photography also work in black and white setting?

The goal of this photography is to tell a story, featuring your subject and his environment, which reflects his life. Environmental portrait is also called as lifestyle portrait since the focus is on the style of living of your specific subject. For instance, a teacher can be photographed teaching at a classroom, a worker at the construction zone, a fashion designer sketching his designs, a painter in a painting studio and such.

When it comes to environmental portrait photography, the surroundings are used to complete the subject’s character and identity. Also, in lifestyle portrait photography, looking directly at a camera is not needed as candid is more preferred, though the subject may. The goal is to focus on the life experience of your subject. Remember, lifestyle portraits are about the people as your subject, and what they do with their lives.

  1. Fine Art Portrait Photography

If you’re not in the creative field, then you must know that fine art is more of a visual art designed to create something aesthetically pleasing than a practical purpose. You might already know that painting, poetry, music, sculpture, editorial fashion, and architecture belong in the fine art category, and it includes photography too in the form of fine art portraits.

Contrary to traditional portraits that capture event or a memory in a realistic way, fine art portrait photography involves artistic motivation, but still it is not similar to photojournalism. This kind of portrait photography calls for creative vision as it is not that easy to translate the digital world into fine art portrait images. Do you know that fine art portrait photographers are more of an artist than a photographer?

In fact, their works create stunning wall art or “décor photography” that usually becomes family heirlooms of the future. Also, there is specific concept the artist has, and it is represented through the fine art portrait. It is actually the opposite of documentary-style photojournalism, as fine art portrait photography has its own concept, and does not represent reality.

  1. Abstract, Surreal, or Conceptual Portrait Photography

There’s a difference between an abstract, surreal, and conceptual portraits, but they are quite similar as a deep emphasis on art is used. When it comes to abstract portrait photography, the photos are not based on the physical representation of a subject since it is designed to create and art, where digital manipulation and collage are used.

When it comes to surreal portrait photography, fantasy is involved rather than reality. Are you familiar with surreal paintings that you only see in your dreams? The surreal portraits are designed to convey unrealistic thoughts are often in the artist’s subconscious mind. You may come up with your own interpretation, but the surreal portrait photographs have their own interpretation.

On the other hand, conceptual portrait photography uses a fourth dimension for where it is up to the audience to guess for the meaning of the photo. While surreal portraits are likened to paintings, conceptual portraits are more understandable that’s why they are used for advertising campaigns, and they are open for one’s interpretation.

Portrait Photographs—and the Elements of Photography

If you want to be skilled on portrait photography, then you should know the basic elements of photography that complete the photo. In fact, the elements of design are the key to a striking photo, and by knowing these elements, you’ll also bring an order in your portrait photograph.

  1. Point

The simplest element in the composition of a photograph is a point. In fact, points have zero dimensions—and the least interesting part of a photograph. In photography, the stars in the night sky are technically “points” as well as the intersection of two mountains and such.

However, points are still essential in the photo since it add interest to the particular spot. Just imagine if the night sky is just dark without stars, what would make it interesting? Also, points make up the other important elements in photography. If there is no point, there is no line. If there is no line, there will be no shape, form, texture, pattern and such.

  1. Line

In mathematics, particularly geometry, a line is made up of points, but in photography, anything that connects two parts of your photograph is considered a line. While a point simply draws one’s attention, a line is more of a path for one to follow. Also, a line in photography isn’t always straight as it can be jagged, curved, and even imaginary. The purpose of line in photograph is to connect the two different elements while giving your photo a structure.

More than that, lines draw the eyes toward your subject since the eyes follow them whether they are visible or not. Do you know that lines can even move you forward in a photo, or sometimes even lead you away? Lines also have an emotional effect on a photograph whether giving you a threatening or relaxing feeling. While horizontal lines are calming to the eyes, vertical lines evoke more power and diagonal lines depict movement and direction.

For instance, a curved road, a vertical tree on the forest, a strand of hair, an edge of the cloud, a jagged mountain ridge, and such are considered as a line. While it’s more of a chaotic feeling when you see some frenzy jagged lines, you’ll be relaxed with soft curved lines in a photograph. Do you know that layers of multiple lines whether they are vertical, diagonal, or horizontal can create rhythm to your photograph? That’s the reason why line is the most influential element in photography.

  1. Shape

Technically speaking, a shape is a two-dimensional representation of an object that also has an emotional impact on your photograph. Most of the time, the shapes are the objects themselves, but sometimes they are abstract too. According to the experts, shapes attract attention and give your photograph a structure. For instance, a crescent moon, silhouettes photographs of birds, an outline of a house, and such are considered shapes.

That’s the reason why some photographers give a strong contrast between the subject and its surroundings, so the shape will attract attention, not the clutter around it. The shape is an important element in your photograph because it gives identification. When the subject is contrasted with the background, a defined shape is given.

  1. Form

Next to shape, form is a three-dimensional representation of an object with the use of lighting and shadow. Yes, photography is two-dimensional form and it would be challenging for you to make it three-dimension but it is still possible by the illusion of depth.

According to experts, the difference between light and shadows helps on creating the illusion of depth. Do you know that depth will add a sense of reality to your photographs? For instance, the small shadows along the rows of trees will give you an almost three-dimensional finish.

  1. Texture

Technically speaking, the texture shows the details present on the surface of an object. Do you know that the factor that makes us want to touch the photograph or painting is the texture?  For instance, the wood of tree trunks, waves of the water, smooth pebbles, roughness of the walls, and such are considered as a texture in your photograph.

Do you know that the areas with more texture in your photograph tend to draw more attention? Most of the time, good lighting brings out details in your photographs. A texture in your photograph can also be the subject of your photo, but it can also fill the spaces between subjects, making your photograph visually interesting.

However, too much texture can be distracting as it can make your photograph too chaotic. Do you know that texture can have an emotional impact to your photograph too? It can make your photographs more alive, giving you a three-dimensional shot.

  1. Color

While black and white setting is great for photojournalism and other environmental portrait shots, color brings interest, mood, and emotion to your photographs. In photography, colors are used to set the mood of the photograph, and warm and cool colors make a big difference. In fact, some photographers use their strengths to their advantage when composing photographs.

While red, yellow, and orange, are considered as warm colors, violet, blue, and green are cool colors. According to the experts, warm colors convey excitement and movement, while cool colors are gloomier, calmer and more comforting. Some photographers intentionally pair a cool color with a warm color to show contrast. If you’re using filters for your social media photos, you might be familiar with value, hue, and saturation in your photos.

  1. Tone

In photography, tone is the intensity of the brightness and darkness of your photograph, along with its hues and richness of color. While hitting the right notes in a musical piece will give you a harmonious music you’ll love to listen to, having the right tone in your photograph will make it more appealing.

Do you know that brighter areas of your photographs attract the eyes? In fact, you can darken the parts of your photographs that you find unappealing instead of blurring them. More than that, the tones of your photograph can also change its mood and emotions. Do you tend to use the vignette filter in your photo editing software that give your portrait photograph a more mysterious and gloomy vibe?

  1. Patterns

Whether in fashion or photography, pattern refers to the repetition of details organized in a rhythmic way, which creates an interesting design or photo. Flowers in the garden, feathers of a bird, reflection of a mountain in the water, waves in the sea, architectural buildings, bricks of a wall, and such are considered as patterns in your photographs.

The goal of patterns is to tie your elements together, and add interest to your photographs. Do you know that patterns can even give your photos a dynamic composition? According to experts, one can emphasize a pattern or break it to make the portrait photographs interesting. While one can fill the frame with patterns, you can also look capture an object that distract the patterns.

  1. Space (Positive and Negative)

The space gives distance to your subjects as too close subjects look unappealing. Space is the distance between the objects or perspectives—and can be classified as positive or negative. As a rule of thumb, a positive space in your photograph attracts attention—it has a visual weight—while the negative space is more of “filler” in your photograph.

The clouds and sky, ink and paper, and islands and water are some of the examples of positive and negative space. Have you noticed that photographs with high positive space—like a city images featuring lots of people walking and cars caught in traffic—feel crowded? On the other hand, photographs with high negative space feel empty.

  1. Balance

Balance refers to the arrangement of visual weight in your photograph, making it look more proportioned and appealing. When we say visual weight, it refers to the attractiveness of a certain object in your photograph. To make your photographs balanced, it must have an equal levels of visual weight on left and right or top and bottom part.

Apart from the intricate details of your portrait photo, the bright spots, sharp regions, distracting objects, and interesting textures count when it comes to balance. If you want to keep the balance in your portrait photographs, you can balance the heavier element with a lighter element and vice versa. While balanced photos feel harmonious, an imbalanced photo is often more interesting, unique, and dynamic.

The Psychology of Portrait Photography

Do you know that portrait photography is ninety percent psychology and only ten percent photography? In fact, it’s a kind of photography where people skills are needed. Think of creating rapport with your subject in a short period of time, helping them relax and act naturally, be genuinely curious about the person, be respectful and tactful, and being good in the tech side of the business.

When knowing your subject, you have to understand his personality and character behind the photograph. Most of the time, portrait photographers must catch a glimpse of the real person so they’ll be able to come up with concepts and ideas that best suit the person. As a rule of thumb, you should never judge your subject in front of the camera as if you do you’ll never have great photos of them.

As a portrait photographer, you capture images of people with story. At the end of the day, your client will look at their shots you took and pick out their favorites. Do you know that you can even explain why a certain photo looks appealing for you? Yes, you’ll need to hone your communication skills for where you’ll know what to say and not to say, along with ones that should be kept as a secret like their flaws and such.

Portrait Photography Tips to Remember

  1. Focus on your subject and capture their emotions.

When it comes to portrait photography, your subject is the most important part of your photograph. However, getting your getting your subject to look expressive is a big challenge—blank stares and fake smiles are easier. Remember, a great portrait photograph tells a story about your subject, and a good portrait photo makes you curious about the subject.

Most of the time, your subject’s eyes can make a difference in the photographs. If you want to avoid too much eye contact or your subject simply cannot project nicely, you can have him looking off the camera. For instance, try to draw their attention somewhere to create a candid-looking shot. After all, a portrait photo is about a person, not how he or she looks. It’s just okay to have good styling and makeup, but if it becomes too much, then you’ll have a fashion picture, not a portrait photograph.

Also, think on what makes them laugh, along with things that make them feel excited. To make things more realistic ask your subject to look at something within the frame of the photo whether she’s holding a flower, looking at her food, carrying her baby, staring at a good sight, or even watching the sunset.

  1. Find the right location or background.

While your subject is the focus in a portrait photograph your still background matters. A good background can add some drama to a portrait photograph making your subject stand out, building a mental image of your subject for where others can know them better by just looking on the photo. Yes, you might need to look for surroundings that complement your subject’s personality.

Depending on where the portrait photographs will be used, you may think of a studio setting with a plain background. This way, you don’t have to deal with distracting background and other unwanted elements. If you want your portrait photograph to tell a story, then make sure your subject is in the right background or even a meaningful location—know his personality, hobby, lifestyle, work, and interests.

For instance, a fashion designer is best photographed with his collection at the background, while an urban artist will look best in a graffiti-covered wall. On the other hand, a sporty and adventurous subject will look best in a portrait photograph with a nature scene on the background. The key is to seek balance between your subject and surroundings as you wouldn’t want the subject to be lost in it.

  1. Opt for a good lighting.

If you’re just a beginner, don’t think of relying to your camera’s built-in flash. According to experts, having harsh light at the front of your subject will eliminate every detail, making the overall portrait photo flat and unappealing. Most of the time, professional photographers use reflectors and professional lights to give their subject some depth.

Most of the time, you may opt for a natural light, but do not take photos in direct sunlight. If you can, shoot near a window with natural light, but skip those indoor lights that usually give a yellow cast to your image. If you want to shoot outdoors, aim for a cloudy day. If the sun is high, soften the light with diffusers or even some white fabric.

  1. Try out different angles.

Most of the time, taking shots at the eye level of the subject works in a portrait photograph—but unconventional and unexpected angles are more striking. Do you know that with right angles you can add the illusion of weight to your body, as well as making you look taller, slimmer, or shorter?

According to experts, most people show their “photo face” when a camera is around, and it is best to capture photos when they are not posing or even off guard. Some photographers even suggest doing some jumping shots to add movement and expression to their subject. When it comes to portrait photography, looking real is more important than looking good and poised.

In fact, you can move your subject out of their comfort zone to create stunning portrait photographs. This way, you’ll end up not with a fairly standard shot, but a portrait photograph that will stand out from the crowd. Do you know that the silly or out of the box portrait photographs often end up in a magazine spread? If you’ll notice some editorial and fashion shoots, they are mostly bizarre and unexpected.

Indeed, portrait photography is a representation of one’s mood, character, and attitude—and by heeding these tricks you’ll be able to take great portrait photos.

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