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5 Tips for Improving Your Portrait Photography

Here are some techniques that you may not be aware of if you’re new to portrait photography. It takes practice, but being aware of these ideas can get you experimenting, and inspire you to try shots you might not have otherwise tried.

1. Frame Tight

Next time you’re watching a movie, pay attention to the close-up shots. See the top of anyone’s head? Probably not very often.

Tightly framed natural light portrait

Tightly framed natural light portrait

Leaving too much space above the head is a common mistake in portrait photography. For a close-up portrait, just cut off the top of the head. You don’t need it. I know it feels weird at first, and to be honest, I would never have tried this if someone hadn’t told me to. But it works because we connect to faces, not the tops of people’s heads. Also cropping out the top of the head (either in camera or in post) brings the eyes higher in the frame and helps you achieve rule of thirds or golden section placement of the face in the frame.

Tight portrait with golden-section crop overlay to show composition.

Tight portrait with golden-section crop overlay to show composition.

2. The eyes have it

The eyes often look best when the iris is centered in the eye. Direct the subject’s gaze to position her eyes such that the iris is about centered. By centered, I mean centered from the camera’s point of view, not the subject’s point of view.

Natural light portrait

Natural light portrait with good eye position and catchlights

I do this one of two ways, depending on the situation. If possible, I raise my left hand and have the subject follow my hand with her eyes until her eyes are positioned favorably. If this isn’t possible, I give directions like “keep your head still and just move your eyes a tiny bit to the left.”

In addition to directing your subject’s gaze to position the eyes, also take note of the catchlights in the eyes. A large, soft light source will create the most attractive catchlight. Windows without direct sunlight shining through them work great, as well as clear open sky.

3. Let the kids run wild!

You’ve heard this before but I’ll mention it again. When photographing children, one of the best ways to get natural smiles and fun photos is to shoot them in their natural habitat, which probably isn’t a photo studio.

Boy on a swing

And he only kicked me once.

Aside from a great portrait tip, this is also good all around practice to improve your photography skills. Kids at play are fast and unpredictable. Learning to frame, focus, and shoot before the moment has passed takes practice and patience.

4. Watch the hands

When it comes to portrait photography, hands are rarely neutral. Usually they are either adding to your photo, or taking from it. Make it a point to pay attention to your subject’s hands.

When photographing women, showing the hand in profile with the fingers curled works well. Often this looks more feminine and alluring than showing the back of the hand. Consider this example:

Natural light portrait

For portraits of women, showing the hand in profile with the fingers curled often works well.

Have you ever heard a subject complain “I don’t know what to do with my hands?” If you’ve ever stood in front of a large group of people to give a speech, then you know this feeling. When we’re put on the spot, it’s hard to do know what to do with our hands.

If idle hands are messing with your portrait, then put them to work. Sometimes solving the hand problem is as simple as handing the hands something to handle. Think creatively about using a prop to give your subject something to do with her hands.

Woman trying on an earring

Woman trying on an earring

Woman playing with a classic Konica

Woman playing with a classic Konica

5. Shoot into the sun

Morning and evening are great times for backlit portraits. When the sun is low in the sky, you can use it as a rim light to highlight the subject’s hair. This works best if you can position your subject against a darker background, like a shaded area, without loosing the light on the subject’s head.

Backlit portrait using the sun as a rim light

Backlit portrait using the sun as a rim light

I hope I’ve given you a few new ideas to try next time you set out to shoot a portrait. Let me know your thoughts on this article by commenting below or reaching out to me on my Facebook page. I do my best to respond to questions and comments.

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Jason Weddington

Jason Weddington is passionate photographer and the creator of PhotoQueue.com, a service that helps photographers maintain their online presence by scheduling uploads to Flickr and 500px. PhotoQueue will soon add support for Facebook, and Tumblr. Jason is also an Associate member of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP).

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