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5 quick tips for portrait photography

Pro Photography Tips & Tricks

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  • Ever since I got into photography I've been fascinated with portraiture. For me, there is something magical about photographing an intimate documentation of a person which I think is only achievable through portrait photography. Over the years I delved deeper into the art of photography and portraiture, in its many forms, and it still plays a central role in my portfolio, so I thought it would be interesting to share with you some insights from my experience in the form of 5 quick tips that will help you produce interesting, intimate and overall better portraits.

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    Portraiture is more than close ups

    During my first few years of experimenting with photography, I remember being somewhat fixated on doing close up portraits of people. While this framing style did generate some nice looking portraits from time to time, when I look back and recall the scenarios in which these portraits were made, I can clearly see how forcing these close-ups prevented me from getting better images. When you set out for your own photoshoots try not to stick to only one style of portraiture, try to experiment with a wider range of portrait styles and endeavor beyond the simple vertical picture of a person's face and shoulders.

    The way I look at it, when it comes to the art of photography, a portrait can be a variety of framings as long as the image's main focus is a single character. Your job as the photographer is to chose which elements you deem worthy to include in the final frame, providing important pieces of information as you share insights into the character's life. Remember, while a simple close up of a person's face can speak volumes, you should also consider trying out more elaborate framings as you search for the best way to present a story through your portraits.

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    Action is Key

    Allowing your viewer the experience of staring back into a unique character's eyes can be a powerful thing photography can offer, this is most evident in the famous ‘Afghan Girl’ portrait by Steve McCurry.But as I mentioned in the first tip, there are many other possibilities worth exploring when it comes to portraits. Especially when it comes to documentary photography, candid portraits of people carrying out their day to day chores often tend to stand out.

    This is best shown through an example; Try to compare the two photos you see below, both are portraits of 60 year old Dinh-Du from central Vietnam. While the right-hand side presents a clear view of his face, allowing your viewer a look into his eyes, from a documentary point of view it's a quite dull image as it presents very little information about him as a character. However, the left-hand side image presents a broader description of his lifestyle as it integrates an action from his day to day life - weaving bamboo baskets. 

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    Never underestimate the power of action in your portraits as it presents a whole demotion of the character to your viewers. In our case, both images serve as portraits of the same person but the image with an action in it clearly convoy a broader story about 60 years old Dinh-Du.

    Don't Chimp too often

    The term "Chimping" in photography refers to when a photographer is constantly checking his images on the screen at the back of his digital camera. While making sure your exposure settings are correct is important from a technical perspective, more often than not this action will cause you to miss out on beautiful moments which you would have probably loved to capture as a photographer. When it comes to portrait photography, chimping can be worse than just causing you to miss out on a few moments - it can simply cost you the entire shoot.

    Let's say that you gathered the courage and asked a unique character you met along your way to have their portrait taken. As things develop and you are setting up for the shoot, if you are constantly chimping and scrolling through your camera, the character on the other side of the camera has absolutely no idea what you are doing and would inevitably lose interest and tire from the whole situation - needless to say, this is not an ideal vibe for great portraits. 

    While some characters are best left alone, you won't believe how powerful can simple actions such as smiling towards the character you are photographing or just telling them that the portraits look great can have on your images. While photographing you should direct the majority of your attention to what is happening in front of you and the person you are documenting, keeping them involved and f
     their lead is usually the best path to making great portraits.


    Build a relationship

    Based on my experience, getting to know the person you are photographing is the 'heart and soul' of amazing portraits - but this will require you to invest some of your time to it. Building a relationship with the person you are documenting will let them know that you are truly interested in their story and you will be surprised to know it doesn't take much, it's incredible just how often a short friendly conversation with a stranger can lead you to be invited into his/her home or workshop, which present amazing opportunities for photographers, as you enter unique environments which are a direct refelection of the character's lifestyle and personality. It’s also a  great location for interesting portraits. 

    One of my very first blogs on this website t
    ackleswith a question many aspiring documentary photographers have as they document different cultures; Should we approach and ask permission to photograph someone or simply steal our desired images without them noticing? Over the years my approach to portrait photography expanded further than simply asking the people I photograph for permission, in many ways I found it extremely productive to count on the relationship I formed with the characters and bring them into my creative process as partners. Letting go of my own initial instinct for capturing what I saw in the first place and exploring deep possibilities together with them, as we cooperate on the search for the best portrait for their story. 

    Here is a good example of how this looks like in real-life:

    Keep your editing candid

    Regardless of the audience that you will eventually share your portraits with, editing is a crucial stage that every portrait has to go through. Editing is important both in terms of sorting out the best portraits from your photoshoots and in terms of enhancing your images through the various editing software available to us today. While certain adjustments done to your portraits can improve your viewer's experience immensely, you should always practice great care to how evident your editing becomes - If the editing is too dominant it can easily become the main focus of your image and distract the viewer from the actual portrait you worked so hard to create.

    When I edit my portraits I usually follow a rule of thumb that has proven to be quite helpful, both for noticing when I over-edit my portraits and making sure that the images are good in their own right; As I edit the portrait, I constantly go back and forth, comparing the before and after edited versions of the image and ask myself “does the edited version feel candid to the original image?". I pay special attention to the way colors change, the abundance or lack of contrast and most importantly over-sharpening. Basically, I try to avoid making changes that will give my image a strong feeling of being heavily manipulated.

    Before you leave this blog - I would love to ask you for a favor... I started wrting these Tips & Tricks blog series under the belief that 'knowledge should be shared' therefore my request from you is simple - pass it forward and share this blog with someone who you think would appreciate it.

    You can also just click on one of the share buttons below in order to allow all of your friends to see this blog and learn more about portrait photography.

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    • Joshua Ardoin

      Joshua Ardoin

      Comment Link Tuesday, 18 June 2019 18:58

      Short and Crisp article on portrait photography. BTW, good choice of images used in the content.

    • Naomi


      Comment Link Sunday, 24 June 2018 16:13

      I usually always stick with the same type of style when I take portraits. I need to experiment more! Thanks for the great tips!

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