10 Tips for Great Portrait Photographs

One of the major projects in my Photography courses is to collect pictures of people. In other words, portraits. Many students come to a photography class having taken hundreds, if not thousands of snap shots of people over their lifetime. The key term is “snap shots”. In this digital age of pocket cameras and mobile phone cameras everyone is a full time photographer. The problem is that too often there is very little effort taken to compose and create a portrait. They are taken at eye level using whatever lighting, background, or position the subject happens to be in. The results are viewed and deleted if not satisfactory. Before digital when a photographer made an image on film it had to be carefully created…it could not be instantly viewed and deleted, therefore thought and careful consideration was made before the release of the shutter.

So how does one make a good portrait photograph? Below is a list of ten tips for students to consider when photographing people using examples taken by me and from students in my classes.

Tip #1 – Give them a prop.

Introducing a prop to the image can contribute to meaning and give the subject something to do with their hands. Often subjects are uncomfortable and giving them something to hold has a calming effect. It helps also, if the prop is significant to who they are. I love the contrast in this photo between the “angry bird” and the happy girl.

The prop in the photo below is separate from the subject, but goes a long way in telling the story and provoking questions.

Tip #2 – Introduce Movement

Photograph your subject on the move using a fast shutter speed to freeze the action or slow down the shutter to obtain a slight blur to the image. The image below is effective in freezing the motion of the subject, but also the water and shadow. The photographer also choose to blur some of the background using a vignette effect.

Tip #3 – Alter Perspective

As I stated earlier, too often portraits are taken standing up at eye level. This is the we way most often see the world and therefore the image can also be mundane and plain. By altering perspective through getting down low, up high, on an angle, or up close, the photographer forces the viewer into a different point of view. The effect is impact full and un-ordinary. The image below is at eye level, but both the subject and the photographer are down low. The tilt of the subject’s head also adds to the change in perspective.

Tip #4 – Look to the Background

When taking portraits photographers must also carefully consider the background. The background can help to tell the story of the person in the shot, or it can be eliminated completely using depth of field techniques or a by simply positioning them in front of a plain monochromatic background. The image below focuses the viewer on the subjects by using a shallow depth of field which blurs out the background.

The background on the image below contributes to the story of this shot.

Tip #5 – Photograph Them Doing Something

This tip follows a similar principle to using a prop and motion in that it results in natural candid shots. Capturing portraits of people should reveal something about their character; shooting them while doing something that is significant to who they contributes to the story telling element of the photograph. In the image below the act of enjoying a cup of coffee is obviously an important part of this person’s day.

Tip #6 – Make them forget abut the camera.

The process of taking a good portrait starts for the photographer before the camera is out of the bag. Start by talking to the subject and establishing a comfortable rapport. While shooting, try to distract the subject by asking questions or discussing something other than what is happening. The portrait below works on so many levels; the subject is interesting to begin with, the gun, the hat, and his friendly demeanor.

Tip #7 -Get Up Close

Sometimes the most interesting portraits isolate a single element of the subject like the eyes or a hand. Once your subject is comfortable, move the camera in close. The image below pulls in tight to the subject and uses light to focus the attention of the viewer on the eye.
Tip #8 – Lighting
Lighting can make or brake an image. Use natural sources of light for highlights and shadows to create dramatic effect or to focus the views attention on a specific element of the image. The image below uses light to cast a angelic softness to the picture; it is almost as though the baby is drawn to the source of light outside the frame.
Tip #9 – Break Some Rules

Student photographers are taught several design principles that contribute to a successful image. Don’t be afraid to break some of those rules. The image below positions the subject in the center of the frame, violating the rule of thirds, however in this case it is effective especially as the subject is framed by the two houses.

Tip #10 – Shoot a Series

Shooting on burst mode can produce some interesting results. A series of similar images that represent a few moments in time of the same subject can tell the story of those moments in a pleasing manner. The images below use this concept and are also successful due to the use of vivid color, texture and framing.


All of the above images are courtesy of Mount Douglas Secondary School Photography Department.


15 thoughts on “10 Tips for Great Portrait Photographs

  1. Barry – great post! I love photography but I don’t like taking pictures of people. Typically I choose landscapes, animals, or architecture. This post has given me ideas for how to improve my portrait skills. Thanks!

  2. I think this post is awesome (and the pictures rock!). What I like about it is that it can be applicable to those regular snapshots, too. Thinking a little big about what people are doing, what is in the background, or what people are holding can make a big difference in what the picture captures. Thanks for the tips!

  3. Barry, my wife is actually dabbling in photography for some time now. I’m going to pass this on to her as I believe she’d enjoy reading through these tips.

  4. Barry – Your post was like a pleasant flashback to my high school days as a high school yearbook editor and college yearbook staffer sifting through looking for INTERESTING images to include. You included some fantastic suggestions in your list that can be useful both to professionals and novices. I believe I’ll be sharing it with our club photographers this year!

  5. Barry, when you are taking photographs like those, do you use the zoom feature or do you get close enough to the person to produce the type of picture you want? I have a habit of always standing at the same distance and using the zoom feature. I suspect this is probably something I should not be doing.

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