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Since the birth of the camera, an overwhelming number of photographers have concentrated on portraiture. Capturing the personality, mood, or expression of a fellow human is sublimely beautiful. Because of this, many of us have thousands of portraits saved on hard drives, and eagerly await the next portrait contest. Honestly, how many of these portraits actually have visual impact? How many of our portraits are powerful enough to hold a viewer’s attention longer than a couple of seconds?
We can continue to produce countless portraits that are stale and void of visual power, or we can step back, evaluate our work, and begin to strategically create portraits that do have impact. Whether you are shooting on location or in a studio, begin adding some punch to your portraiture to captivate your audience. Here are a few ways to start creating portraits with impact immediately.
When we pick up our cameras to snap a portrait, we almost instinctively move close to our subject. Yet, constantly shooting tight portraits can put us in a close-up rut. Simply moving your camera body closer to someone’s face, or using the telephoto aspect of your lens, doesn’t always lend itself to powerful photographs (the selfie is a perfect example of how easy it is to botch a close-up portrait).
By physically taking several steps back, or by retracting your zoom, you allow context to enter the frame. Suddenly, what was just a photograph of a person’s face, can become an image rich with balance and environmental information. Additionally, a portrait with contextual information can easily appeal to a much wider audience by relating a story.
Shooting tip: When shooting wide portraits, make smart lens choices. Many wide-angle lenses (such as Canon’s 17-40mm L-Series) come with a great deal of distortion and will exaggerate a subject’s features. So that your subjects are not distorted, use a standard portrait lens (i.e. 85mm) and move your body in relation to your subject.
Stepping back and including environmental information can add impact to many portraits. However, the surrounding environment can also distract from your intended subject. At times, photographs are more powerful if the environment is minimal or void.
To draw the viewer’s eye directly to your subject, strategically add abundant negative space (area around or between a subject) in your frame. The use of negative space can be a key element in artistic composition in that it emphasizes and defines the main subject of a photograph (positive space) and adds impact.
When we think of portraits, the first thing that usually comes to mind is a frame filled with a face. We can agree that there are many positives to this approach to portraiture. In a headshot we can see facial features, skin tones (unless we wipe them away in Photoshop or Elements) and the catchlights that draw us into the windows of the soul.
Luckily though, all of our photographs do not have to follow a headshot-only, antiquated view of portraiture. It is important to remind ourselves that a portrait is simply a representation of a person. Photographers are given the artistic license to determine how their subjects are portrayed. Instead of snapping a run-of-the-mill headshot, try shooting hands, feet, necks or even the cast shadow of a person. At times, moving away from a person’s face can lead to a frame that carries a tremendous amount of visual impact.
Another way to add impact to your portraits is to experiment with cropping. This is one of the simplest ways to add impact to a portrait and to showcase your aesthetic as a photographer. If you are finding it difficult to see fresh or unique frames while you are actually shooting, experiment with the crop tools in post-production.
Focusing on smaller portions of your subject can have much more impact than if you neglect to adjust the original frame. Moreover, a cropped picture can completely alter the photograph’s intention or interpretation. The more you experiment with cropping, the more apt you will be in spotting unique and powerful frames in the field.
Shooting tip: If you are photographing with particular frame in mind, it is better to take photographs that are a bit wider than your intended crop. You can always crop tighter, but you cannot widen the original frame.
Whether you are an amateur or a seasoned professional, rethinking the way you shoot portraits will inevitable invigorate your craft. The next time your camera is pointed toward another human, try something new. Experiment with a variety of strategies that will add impact to your portraits.
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