How do you take portraits that have the wow factor?
Today, I want to talk about taking portraits that are a little out of the box. You see, it’s all well and good to have a portrait that follows all the rules – but it recently hit me that often the most striking portraits are those that break the rules.
I want to look at some ways to break out of the mold and take striking portraits by breaking (or at least bending) the rules and by adding a little randomness to your portrait photography.
1. Alter your perspective
Most portraits are taken with the camera at (or around) the eye level of the subject. While this is good common sense, completely changing the angle that you shoot from can give your portraits a real wow factor.
Get up high and shoot down on your subject, or get as close to the ground as you can and shoot up. Either way, you’ll be seeing your subject from an angle that is bound to create interest.
2. Play with eye contact
It is amazing how much the direction of your subject’s eyes can impact an image. Most portraits have the subject looking down the lens – something that can create a real sense of connection between a subject and those viewing the image.
But there are a couple of other things to try:
A. Looking off-camera. Have your subject focus their attention on something outside the field of view of your camera. This can create a feeling of candidness and also create a little intrigue and interest as the viewer of the shot wonders what the subject is looking at. This intrigue is particularly strong when the subject is showing some kind of emotion (i.e., “What’s making them laugh?” or “What is making them look surprised?”). Just be aware that, when you have a subject looking out of the frame, you can also draw the eye of the viewer to the edge of the image, and this will take them away from the point of interest in your shot: the subject.
B. Looking within the frame. Alternatively, you could have your subject looking at something (or someone) within the frame. A child looking at a ball, a woman looking at her new baby, or a man looking hungrily at a big plate of pasta – it can all work. You see, when you give your subject something to look at that is inside the frame, you create a second point of interest and a relationship between it and your primary subject. It also helps create a story within the image.
3. Break the rules of composition
There are a lot of “rules” out there when it comes to composition, and I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with them. My theory is that, while composition rules are useful to know and employ, they are also useful to know so you can purposely break them – as this can lead to eye-catching results.
The rule of thirds is one rule that can be effective to break. You see, placing your subject dead-center can sometimes create a powerful image. And creative placement with your subject right on the edge of a shot can sometimes create interesting images.
Another “rule” that we often talk about in portrait photography is to give your subject room to look into. This can work really well – but again, sometimes rules are made to be broken.
4. Experiment with lighting
Another element of randomness you can introduce in your portraits is the way you light them. There are almost unlimited possibilities when it comes to using light in portrait photography.
Sidelighting can create mood, while backlighting and silhouetting your subject to hide their features can be powerful.
5. Move your subject out of their comfort zone
I was chatting with a photographer recently who told me about a corporate portrait shoot that he had done with a businessman at his home. They’d taken a lot of head and shoulder shots, shots at the desk, shots in front of framed degrees, and other “corporate” type images. The photos had all turned out fairly standard – but there was nothing that really stood out from the crowd.
The photographer and the subject agreed that there were plenty of usable shots, but they wanted to create something special and out-of-the-box. The photographer suggested they try some “jumping” shots. The subject was a little hesitant at first, but stepped out of his comfort zone – and then, dressed in his suit and tie, started jumping!
The shots were amazing, surprising, and quite funny. The shoot culminated with the subject jumping into his pool for one last image!
While this might all sound a little silly, the shots ended up being featured in a magazine spread about the subject. It was the series of out-of-the-box images that convinced the magazine the subject was someone they’d want to feature.
6. Shoot candidly
Sometimes, posed shots can look somewhat…posed. Some people don’t look good in a posed environment, and so switching to a candid-type approach can work well.
Photograph your subject at work, with family, or doing something that they love. This will put them more at ease, and you can end up getting some special shots with your subject reacting naturally to the situation they are in. You might even want to grab a longer zoom lens to give your subject space and get really “paparazzi” with them.
I find that this can work particularly well when photographing children.
7. Introduce a prop
Add a prop of some kind, and you create another point of interest that can enhance your shot.
Yes, you might run the risk of taking too much focus away from your main subject. But you can also really add a sense of story and place to the image that takes it in a new direction, and gives the person you’re photographing an extra layer of depth that they wouldn’t have had without the prop.
8. Focus on one body part (and get close up!)
Use a lens with a long focal length, or get up close so that you can just photograph a part of your subject. Photographing a person’s hands, eyes, mouth, or even just their lower body can leave a lot to the imagination of the viewer.
Sometimes, it’s what is left out of an image that says more than what is included.
9. Obscure part of your subject
A variation on the idea of zooming in on one part of the body is to obscure parts of your portrait subject’s face or body. You can do this with clothing, objects, your subject’s hands, or just by framing part of them out of the image.
Doing this means that you leave a little to the imagination of the viewer. And you also focus the viewer’s attention on the parts of your subject that you want focused on.
10. Take a series of shots
Switch your camera into burst mode (also known as continuous shooting mode) and fire off several shots.
In doing this, you create a series of images that could be presented together, instead of just one static image.
This technique can work very well when you’re photographing children – or really when you’re photographing any active subject that is changing their position or pose in quick succession, like the runners below:
10 ways to take great portraits: conclusion
Capturing stunning portraits is easy – as long as you remember a few of these simple tips!
And if you’re interested in improving your portrait photography even further, make sure you’re subscribed to the Digital Photography School newsletter, where we share lots of photography tips and techniques every single week.
And start taking some great portraits, today!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES