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10 Ways to Take Stunning Portraits

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.

stunning portrait

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.

stunning portrait high perspective

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.

stunning portrait shooting from low down

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.

subject looking off-camera

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.

woman looking at child stunning portrait

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.

stunning portrait centered

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.

portrait with no room to look into

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.

sidelit portrait

Also, using techniques like slow sync flash (as well as long exposures combined with light painting) can create impressive images.

long exposure image with single flash

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.

man jumping

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.

candid child image

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.

portrait with gum and candy as a 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.

woman's arm in field

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.

eyes stunning portrait

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:

people running in a race

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.

Also, make sure you check out the second half of this series here: 10 More Tips for Stunning Portrait Photography, as well as our Portraits: Making the Shot eBook!

And start taking some great portraits, today!

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Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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