Most people either love the camera or hate it. If you’re like me, you would just prefer to be behind the shutter rather than in front of it. For nearly two decades, portraits have been a love of mine. No matter the subject, the location, or the lighting, there are a few rules you can follow, regardless of what side of the camera you are on, which will help improve your portrait skills.
Tip #1: Posture Makes Pictures
The first thing I try to do with every subject is to get them to sit or stand up straight. We as a society are slouchers, and slouching does not make for quality portraits. Take a minute to look in the mirror and notice your posture without changing it. Now straighten your back, drop your shoulders, and pull them back. Pretend there is a string coming out of the top of your head stretching you upward. If you are concerned about your neckline for any reason, bring your chin out slightly toward the camera and down an inch. Turn your shoulders about 25-45° away from the camera. From your waist, lean toward the camera a few inches. Notice your arms: if they are resting against your body, move them out a little. Feel like a contortionist yet? These steps will make you look stiff, so relax a little without totally falling out of the posture, and you will have found a pose that is much more flattering and will be a noticeable improvement.
Tip #2: Check the Light
There are many great resources about lighting patterns, such as loop and Rembrandt lighting, which can make you look amazing if you know how to set them up. However, it takes a trained eye to achieve those effects with natural or available light. Work with what you have. First, step out of the direct sun. It is rarely flattering, and harsh shadows do not make for a pretty portrait. Move to the shade of a tree or a building. If you must be in direct sun, turn so the sun is at least behind the subject’s shoulders and not falling directly on his or her face. Most subjects want to look thinner. I start with turning my subject’s body away from the strongest light source, then I turn their chin toward the light. When you are ready to dive into lighting patterns, see what you can create just by sitting near a window.
Tip #3: Choose Your Angle
A high camera angle puts more of the focus on the subject’s face. It can also allow for a little of the whites of the subject’s eye to show under the iris, which is flattering for almost everyone. A low camera angle can make a person look taller or provide a sense of power, but be careful, it isn’t very flattering for most people. If you often don’t like your portraits or you are photographing a picky subject, use the low angle sparingly and opt for higher angles more frequently. Having the camera just above the subject’s eye level is standard for most portraits, but trying a different angle can add interest and help tell more of a story.
Tip #4: Choose Horizontal or Vertical
Having your camera turned the appropriate way will make for better composition and can easily improve a portrait. A good rule is: if you are photographing an individual, shoot vertical, also known as “portrait.” If you are shooting a group, shoot horizontal, or “landscape.” Also, if you are shooting an individual, avoid centering the subject perfectly in the middle of the frame. While you don’t need to be a master of the Golden Ratio, you might be surprised by your results if your composition is more intentional. And don’t be afraid to shoot at an angle! A tilted camera angle can add interest and convey energy in ways that a traditional angle cannot.
Tip #5: Clean Up the Frame
This tip applies to all photography. Photography is about telling stories without words. If you are worried about getting the perfect shot before you pick up your camera, you might miss the story. Just start shooting, then clean up the frame. With virtually unlimited file storage available, it’s easy to start shooting, then make changes as you go. Don’t just press and hold the shutter down and take 10 shots with everything the same; instead, move the subject, move the camera, change postures, change the background, change your camera settings, and do it again. Try “M” for manual on your camera, and you will learn so much! Or at least try “A” (also known as “aperture value” or “Av”) or “S” (“shutter priority” or “time value” sometimes denoted as “Tv”). Find a flower, a person, a bowl of fruit, anything, and photograph it in the same spot with each setting on your camera and see how they differ.
Tip #6: Rules Are Meant to Be Broken
While these are all great rules, there is no formula for getting an amazing portrait with every click of the shutter. Follow the rules, then break them. Every photographer gets better by taking more pictures (and critiquing them after), and every subject will know what they like and don’t like about their features. Knowing what works and what doesn’t takes time and practice. Experiment and communicate with your subject or photographer to let them know what you want or don’t want.
Try just one of these tips the next time a camera is pointed in your direction or the next time a friend says, “take my picture!” You won’t be disappointed with the results.