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10 Portrait Tips to Take Your Photography to the Next Level

You have all the makings of a beautiful photograph: the perfect client, an overcast day for soft natural lighting and a gorgeous landscape as the backdrop. You’re taking photos but noticing that something’s not quite right. The photos look underwhelming. Believe me, I’ve been there. Here are 10 tips to take your portraits to the next level.

Portrait of Danielle LaPorte - author

Portrait of Danielle LaPorte – author

Tip #1 – have your subject look up at you

It’s slimming and flattering (see images above). Bring a small step stool to stand on and photograph your subjects from slightly above their eye line. Watch double chins disappear. Keep a step stool in the trunk of your car so you don’t even have to think about adding it to the list of gear to bring when you prep the night before. It’s there, ready to go.

Tip #2 – capture the moments in between poses


Personally this is a favorite of mine. If you’re noticing the images look too posed, or your subject is uncomfortable in front of the camera, shake things up. Ask them to do the most ridiculous pose or ask them to pretend to laugh really hard. Take that photo, but keep the camera up and wait. The moment after that photo happens you’ll find their guard will come down, they will laugh authentically or give you a moment that feels much more real.

Tip #3 – turn the subject’s body slightly

Have them turn their body slightly away from the camera and their face still looking straight at you. This is not only slimming, it also gives the photograph more depth.

Tip #4 – flattery

Always tell them how beautiful they look. It’s unnerving to have someone pointing a camera at you and not know what the photos look like. Tell them. It will help calm their nerves and you will notice a difference in the photos because they will feel more confident and attractive.


Tip #5 – connection

This is the key to everything really. If there’s a connection between you and the person you are photographing, there’s a magic that happens that’s unexplainable. Sure, you can have the right lens, the right camera, and the right lighting, but an authentic connection between the two of you takes it up a notch. You can see it in their eyes. They connect with you, and it shows with a different authenticity that can’t be faked. Ask questions, become curious about who they are. Get to know them on a more personal level. Keep that conversation going throughout the photo session. Laugh with them.


Tip #6 – tell your subject to flirt with the camera

Ok, that sounds weird but it can work. Ask them what celebrity crushes they have. That changes the look in their eyes and on their face. Have them pretend that the camera is that person. Seriously. It makes them laugh, which goes with tip #2, and helps them loosen up as well. If they are in a relationship, ask them when they met, how they met, or some other stories about their partner that lights them up. Watch the shift happen and take photos throughout the conversation. You’ll capture moments that are real and off guard.


Tip #7 – have them bring a playlist of their favorite music

I bring a portable wireless speaker and play their music, which creates a mood they are comfortable with. You can also play your own music. It helps give them something else to pay attention to and can lighten the mood. Get playful with it and dance around with them. Let them express themself and just pay attention with your camera ready. You can take photos of those moments as well. You can try a longer shutter speed while they dance for some variety and movement. A little blur can add more of a story to the series of images.

Tip #8 – clothing selection is important

Have them pick out clothing from their wardrobe that makes them feel like a rock star. It must be clothing that they feel comfortable in and which allows them to move easily. No crazy patterns or bright colors. The emphasis is on their eyes and their expression not the bold neon stripes on their top.


Tip #9 – lighting

If you’re outside, open shade is extremely flattering. This is best early in the morning, late afternoon and close to sunset, when shadows are being created from trees and buildings. Have your subject stand in the shade. A great place to explore this is in doorways. Try just inside an open garage door. Stairways inside parking garages can also provide a shade that’s not too dark, with the brightness outside reflecting on them perfectly. If you’re inside, you can still use natural lighting by turning off all the overhead lights and lamps and having your subject move close to the window. When it’s overcast it’s best because again, it will be even soft light on their face without any shadows or harsh light making them squint.

Tip #10 – break the rules


Allow the flare from the sun to fill the lens. Use alternative cameras like a Polaroid SX-70 or your iPhone. Try out the iPhone apps. It helps you expand as a photographer when you stretch yourself in new unchartered ways. Only bring one lens to the photo shoot. Bring the one you know is the most flattering. My favorite portrait lens is the Nikon 85mm 1.4 lens. ( yep, I’m a Nikon girl ). Think of this as more than a portrait shoot but as a fine art project. Have your subject create a Pinterest board of their favorite portraits before the photo session and play with those ideas. Try unconventional poses. They can lead you to unexpected moments of greatness with your portraits.

Next steps

Allow yourself to go on a journey of exploration during the photo session. There are so many ways to go from ordinary to extraordinary. Paying attention to the basics of composition, lighting, posing can help. Incorporating your own authentic personality into the session will help your client be more relaxed and open to try new things. This will bring you better results in the end.

So, what is one tip you’ve learned along the way that has helped you create better portraits? Share it with us in the comments below.

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Catherine Just
Catherine Just

is an award-winning photographer with work published on the cover of National Geographic Magazine, Oprah.com, Photo District News, and on the websites of many inspiring life leaders. She shows her fine art photography in galleries worldwide and offers eCourses, a mentoring program and photography retreats for photographers seeking deeper connection with the world and themselves. You can find her posting daily on Instagram. Catherine offers a FREE ebook Both Sides of the Camera.

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