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15 Tips for More Powerful Portraits

15 tips every portrait photographer must know for making more powerful portraits!

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Here are 15 tips on getting powerful portraits

1. Have respect

This is my number one rule. It doesn’t matter if I am photographing a poor boy in Laos or the CEO of a large company in New York-I always respect the people I photograph. I live by the motto: “you should never get close to people in order to take their photo; you should take their photo in order to get closer to them”. Act as if your camera is a bridge and not a weapon. I have friends who are amazing street photographers, who manage to work with such discretion that they can get the portrait without the person realizing he was photographed. Certainly, there are some exceptions, but I believe that people are not zebras and we are not hunters. To summarize the point, I photograph old people in same manner I would like someone to take pictures of my grandmother.

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2. Ask yourself – Do I understand what a portrait is?

“A Portrait is painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person […] the intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person” (from Wikipedia)

While this is a very basic definition of the concept, it can help us to understand the true nature of good portrait photography. A portrait must tell a story. What kind of story? A story about the person in the image. How can you tell a story of a person in one image? You can’t! You can never capture the whole story, because human beings are too complex. You can either choose to focus on a specific emotion expressed by the subject or by yourself. I call the first method “highlighting”, in which you zero in on a specific story, at a specific time.

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For example: when I took the photo of the Japanese girl (above) I was trying to highlight this specific moment, when she held her mother’s hand, when she has not yet decided – whether to leave or hold on tight. Sometimes the best stories don’t reveal the whole story at once. Like in this image from China (below). Do you think this girl is waiting for someone who should be coming soon, or is she watching someone leave?

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The second method, in which you imprint your on feeling onto the story, can start with answering the following question: How did you feel when you met this person? Because a good image is told by two people – the one in the image, and the one behind the camera.

3. Look for emotion

Someone’s exotic face from some remote tribe is nice to look at, but for it to be a true visual storytelling portrait, this face must evoke emotion. Steve McCurry called this the “unguarded moment”, the essential soul peeking out. It can be happiness, fear or excitement. Emotion is the best way to create a bond between the image and your viewers.

The best way to “catch” emotion on your camera’s sensor is by choosing the right moment to click the shutter. Be on the lookout for a specific powerful moment that can evoke the story on the person’s face.

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4. Start with your comfort zone

Going out to the streets to shoot portraits of strangers is not an easy task to start with. The best way to hone your craft is by starting with a person you already know. By skipping the need to “break the ice”, it will be easier for you to think about other important elements in your portrait, such as: the light, composition, posing and color. You don’t have to travel far for an interesting face; you can start with friends and family.

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5. Get out from your comfort zone

A day without learning something new is a wasted one. One of the most important things to note when dealing with portrait photography is that usually, the problem is with ourselves. “I do not want to hurt or offend”, and “I do not want to invade someone’s privacy” are all excuses which we tell ourselves on why we photograph people with a telephoto lens from a distance. So, if you truly want to take your portrait photography to the next level and be able to evoke emotion in your work, you must, as my mother says: “fake it till you makes it”. It is not as complicated as it seems in your head. Get out to the streets, find an interesting person and just go for it by saying: “Hello, I am a photography enthusiastic and I would like to take your photo…I would love to send you a copy as well”. You might be surprised with the results. By using this technique, the worst thing that can happen is that you will get a refusal and then just move on to the next person.

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6. Choose the right focal length

“What is the best lens for portraits?” is a very common question among my students, and the answer is simple – there is no one best lens for portrait photography. You should adjust the focal length to your working style. When considering your next lens, you should take into account the following elements:

  • The distance from which you usually like to photograph people
  • The weight you are willing to carry around
  • What is the maximum aperture for low light photography and for shallow depth of field?
  • And of course, price

For me, most of my portraits are done with an 85mm or 24-70mm lens.

7. Choose the wrong focal length

Try this creative exercise. Go outside and take a portrait with a lens you are not used to working with. If you always work with a telephoto lens, try using a wide angle one. If you prefer to get close to your subject, take a step back and wait for the decisive moment. A good photographer is a flexible one.

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8. Study the great masters of portrait photography

Whenever I need inspiration, I turn to the portfolios of this great photography masters:

  • Dorothea Lange – one of the first photographers of Social realism
  • Steve McCurry – probably the best color portrait maker in history
  • Richard Avedon – unique fashion and portrait photography
  • Sebastião Salgado- outstanding B&W documentary portraits
  • Annie Leibovitz- Editorial portraits

(Please add your own in the comments section)

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9. Experience variable depth of field

We all love portraits with that sweet low depth of field, which makes everything blurry in the background. In portraits, shallow depth of field is usually good because it leads the viewer’s eyes directly to the subject by making it sharper than the rest of the image. YET, please note that there is such a thing as a too shallow depth of field. In this case, the sharpness by the AutoFocus may be on the eyebrows or eyelashes instead of the eyes. Practice in order to understand the elements that affect the depth of field: the distance to the subject, focal length and aperture.

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10. Leave the flash behind

The more gear you have with you, the less available you are to give attention to the person you are photographing. If we are dealing with studio photography, then the person knows what to expect. There is no need take your flash to India or China when there is so much beautiful available light. Craft your skill while working with natural light only BEFORE jumping to the next step of using reflectors, flashes or any other extra gear.

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11. Don’t follow the crowd

Try this little exercise: type “woman with cigar in Cuba” into Google and see what happens. The same woman appears in almost all the images right? Those are images of many different photographers. I do not mean to hurt anyone, but how come with 3 million people visiting the country each year and with a population of 5,612,165 women, the same woman comes up in almost every image? Here’s a tip for you, before heading somewhere, anywhere, near or far, you should understand the place, culture and the “story” of the person in front of you. By doing your homework you will not fall into the trap of the “fake authenticity”

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12. Think about the background

Many elements are required to create an interesting portrait: light, composition, angle, etc.., but one element is so important that I sometimes give it my pure attention: the background. You can think of the background in two levels. First, as an aesthetic element. Make sure there are no distracting elements, such as bright colors or moving objects in the background. Secondly, another level of using the background, is as an element to bring your story to life.

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13. Keep it fun

If you are dealing with subjects who are not paid models, you should give something back as well as taking the photo. I do not want to discuss paying the person (maybe in another post) but you should make it easy and fun for your subject: telling a joke, showing the image on the back of the camera and making sure they are not in the sun are good points to start with.

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14. Always ask for the person’s name

It doesn’t matter if you do travel portraits of strangers or work as a wedding photographer; always ask for the person’s name and if promised, send the photo. Don’t make excuses about the language barrier. If I don’t work with a fixer (a local man or woman, who can help with the translation) I will always have a phrasebook or try to use drawings and images that can help me to communicate.

15. Add depth to your images by the a 45 degrees light

Think carefully about the direction of light. By placing the subject at an angle of 45 degrees from the light source, you can create a wonderful effect of volume. As I made this picture (below), which was taken at a grocery store Georgia, using only natural light by a window on the right.

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And one more…


It does not matter if you’re photographing people as a hobby or to pay your rent. Teach yourself to enjoy to process and not just the outcome (the finale image). Enjoy getting closer, getting to know each other and overcoming cultural barriers. If you do what you do with passion, your viewers will see it right away.

I would like to thank Linda Burnette for her help in writing this article.

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Oded Wagenstein
Oded Wagenstein

is a cultures photojournalist and author. His work has been published in numerous international publications, such as the National Geographic.com, BBC.com, and Time Out. He is the author of three photography books. Visit his Facebook page and continue to discuss travel and people photography and get more fantastic tips!

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