How to Improve Your Portrait Photography in Five Minutes

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People often ask me for tips on taking better photos of their friends and family.

After much thought on photography tips that can apply to various experience levels and equipment — from DSLRs to smart phones — I present to you a short article with tips you can learn in five minutes to help you improve your portrait photography. If you have more time and would like more specifics, I’ve noted additional articles on each tip that may interest you.

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Tips that will instantly improve your portraits:

1. Don’t put everyone in the center

That person may be the center of your life, but they don’t always need to be in the center of all the photos.

Aside from corporate headshots, positioning your subjects directly in the center of your frame for every image can be… yawn. And don’t just substitute it with the “rule of thirds” either. Think how boring everything would be if they were always in the same place, whether that is the center of every frame or at a third mark.

Be adventurous once in awhile – mix it up!

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If you can’t break the rules because you have never heard of the Rule of Thirds, you can read this article.

2. Keep one eye on the background

If your subject is right in front of a lamppost or a tree, reposition yourself or your subject, so it doesn’t look like he is growing a lamppost out of his head.

Another example:  if your subject is wearing a green dress and sitting on the grass, have her move where the background is a different color, so she doesn’t look like a floating face in a sea of green.

Also, be mindful of distracting elements behind your subjects, like a garbage can. The background can turn a good photo into a bad one, so keep one eye on the background.

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If you want to read more about the impact of backgrounds, check out Improve Your Background, Improve Your Photography.

3. Capture the story, not just a smiling face

Of course we all prefer a photo of someone smiling, but we aren’t always in a constant state of joy. Consider taking shots when someone looks pensive or serious, for example, or engrossed in an activity.

Try to resist the “look at me and smile” routine. I guarantee that photo will tell more of a story than one where people stop what they are doing to flash a fake smile.

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For more tips on this, read: Don’t Wait For A Smile.

4. Change your perspective

Did you know you can create the tone or mood of an image by the angle of your camera and your closeness to your subject?

Your perspective when you take the photo influences the viewer’s perception of the image. Taking a shot from the top, looking down can paint a picture that someone is small. A tight shot of a teardrop can provide a sadder tone than a shot that was taken from a distance.

So next time, before you click the shutter button, think about what tone you want to give and what story you want to tell.

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To see examples of different perspectives and when you would use them, you must read The Power of Perspective.

There are many things you can do to improve your portrait photography. I narrowed my list to four because these were the ones that came to mind first.

Do you have a good tip to share? Please comment below. We’d love to hear it.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Annie Tao is a Professional Lifestyle Photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area who is best known for capturing genuine smiles, emotions and stories of her subjects. You can visit Annie Tao Photography for more tips or inspiration. Stay connected with her on her Facebook page

  • Michael Owens

    Great article, and I am glad I am not alone in the thinking of ‘always break the rule of thirds’, be different, be unique! Try new things! ie. DO NOT BE A SHEEP! Grow! Create! Adventure is what you see! Capture it!

  • Renae

    Great article! I shared it on my FocalPointers Facebook and Twitter pages, where I share photography tips.

  • Harjot Singh

    Very nice article (y). Thanks for sharing these useful tips with us.

  • Really helpful 🙂

  • Elisabeth Daniels

    I’m always taking pictures of me and my husband on our travels, and they end up looking the same. Thanks for giving me great alternatives to capture our next adventure!

    Elisabeth @ CofficeGirl.com

  • I think the photos were the best part of the instruction.

    http://bit.ly/oufr4c

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Thanks for sharing my article, Renae!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    You are very welcome, Harjot!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Glad you found it helpful!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    You are welcome. Glad this helped!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Aww, Brian! You are too kind! 🙂

  • Annie Tao Photography

    I love how you put it, Michael! That’s exactly how I feel. 🙂

  • rayfilwong

    great + simple!!

  • Rob Nielsen

    It wasn’t mentioned, but i would also like to add that using a ‘natural’ lens is a good idea too. Many of us tend to leave our zoom on and that flattens images. A lens in the 50mm (more or less) non zoom has a better ‘non flat’ depth to the pictures.

  • Donna Allgaier-Lamberti

    Enjoyed this! Another favorite trick of mine is to stand on a short kitchen stool and shoot down with a wide angle lens. This is my absolute favorite way to photography people doing things! I use to use this when I took pictures for the newspaper. It helped my work to stand out in the crowd.

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Hi Rob. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

    The lens you choose really depends on what artistic vision you have. For me, I loooooooove using a longer lens for portraits because I like the compression. If you don’t like the compression, then a normal lens, like a 50mm, is best. Other than the first photo with the dad giving a shoulder-ride to his son, I used an 85mm 1.4 and one was a 70-200mm 2.8.

    Photography is like cooking. There isn’t one way of doing it, as long as the creator likes it!

    Annie

  • ColininOz

    Unsuspecting is best ! After a hard morning in the kitchen my daughter in law flaked

  • corbu

    gr8 pics Annie…………LOVED ALL OF THEM……………learned a lot……..tnx

  • GOUTAM DUTTA

    Very good pictures & tips are very helpful for me ,I want to know in a vast about portrait photography.

  • Michael Owens

    Donna, would you mind sharing an image using this technique? I am intrigued to see what you mean! Thanks!

  • Michael Owens

    Ha! I bet she doesn’t agree with you about this being ‘in the moment’ shot for sharing hehe! 🙂

  • ColininOz

    Recommended for any portrait photography newbie – “Tete a Tete” Portraits by the renowned Henri Cartier Bresson. Publisher Themes and Hudson 1998 ISBN 0-500-54218-X . May be available in a good library filed at 770.92 CART . Contains over a hundred monochrome plates and an excellent introduction by E.H.Gombrich. Most interesting and instructive – but not cheap !

  • leng

    I hope my visually impaired son who is an aspiring photographer can

    apply your tips….

  • Michael Owens

    They always are spectacular!

  • Michael Owens

    Leng, would love to see some of their resulting shots! Please share! 🙂

  • It’s always nice to be reminded of the skills that brought us the love of photograpy. A fresh, progressive perspective is like a booster shot that reinvents your game. Thanks for the lesson.

  • Gracia Cardeal

    I loved th article. I always practice some of your tips.

  • Piyush Sapkal

    Very beautiful Photo

  • Kevin Kinnett

    I agree, I am so looking for something out of the unusual, angle, lighting, or interest. Great post. Always enjoy your insight….Thanks for sharing

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Thanks!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Like my father used to always say: Simple is best! 🙂

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Great minds think alike. 😉 Thanks so much for your comment, Kevin!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Love her little face!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    What a cool way to put it! Thanks for your comment, Michael!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Thanks for the book rec.

  • waiting for her turn

  • Annie Tao Photography

    I think the composition is interesting with your subject so far to the side, so you get a glimpse of the woman in red tights in the mirror! It makes me wonder what she is thinking. Cool!

  • Thanks Annie.

  • Samir

    He’s kind and right!!! Fantastic pictures!!

  • Pasqal Lopez
  • Michael James Nelson

    Thank you for the article. I’ve been trying to absorb as much as I can over the last few months since I got my Sony a6000 and started taking “real” photos of my boys. Let me know what you think of this one? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/3ff5fd1c9dd65087600dbad8591c784edfd7af77b379ab2c38bbbc18dd344789.jpg

  • Daniel Gwalter

    In a sea of same ol same ol articles about photography this one stood out with not only some great tips but also some workable examples. I could of happily read on further too.

    Excellent work

  • Annie Tao Photography

    I like the shadows here and how her light has that bright catchlight.

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Very pretty processing of a pretty subject!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    Daniel, all I can say is: WAHOOOO!!! So glad to hear that! I know what you mean about “the same ol, same ol”. We don’t need any more of those! 🙂

  • Annie Tao Photography

    It’s a beautiful shot. I love the natural window light on the right side. His smile is cute and shows off how young he is bec I don’t see any teeth! 🙂 Overall, a great pic and one that I’d frame as a parent! My only tip, if you want to find ways to make this shot even more dazzling, is to watch the background. The shallow depth of field blurred out the background for the most part, which is nice, but that one big white thing on his right shoulder bugs me. If you shifted your body just a few inches to the left or right, you would avoid the big white shape sitting on his shoulder. Good work!

  • lhonskie

    Shot with Canon 550d with 18-200mm. I don’t know if the framing is good. I just captured that guy’s emotion. What do you think ms Annie?

  • Annie Tao Photography

    I think you captured this tennis player’s intensity and focus. If you could have moved back or zoomed out, it’d be nice to capture more of his racket and not cut him off at the knee. But I think sometimes capturing the emotion is more important than getting the perfect framing, which is especially hard when photographing a moving subject. Thanks for sharing!

  • Nice Tips I would like to share something here Avoid using the integrated Flash: Flash light is quite powerful and usually goes straight in the eyes, causing red eyes, and mostly affect our picture, creating an effect of flattening, the details are lost to the light intensity.
    http://www.yabeshphotography.com

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