3 rules for better portrait photography (and when to break them)

Portrait photography tips

Last weekend I headed north with a group of friends to explore the Scottish Borders. We might not have experienced weather as relentless as that which has been battering Bethan down in Somerset, but we had our fair share of extreme precipitation! I was hoping I might be able to share some dramatic landscape photos with you, but as the snow closed in we were struggling to see more than a couple of meters in front of us it became quickly apparent that it wouldn’t be a weekend of magnificent vistas!

Portrait photography tips

Photography is all about capturing light, and sometimes to get the best out of a session you need to adapt to the conditions you are presented with. Often it’s bright sunshine which makes for a dramatic picture with shadows creating texture and definition, but when you’re taking pictures of people it can create shadows on the face which can be unflattering. So when you’re faced with overcast weather, it’s a great opportunity to look for people to use as your subjects as the clouds will effectively act as an oversized light diffuser. On Saturday we battled through eye-stinging blizzards to return back to base and I thought it worthy of taking my camera out to grab a few snaps.

Portrait photography tips

Rules to follow:

  • Get closer: the mantra of “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” is certainly one which is overused in photography, but it does have its merit when capturing photos of people. Getting closer to the subject will also increase background blur which pulls the focus of the image to the subject.
  • Use the right lens: The difficulty with getting close is that you will need a lens with a longer focal length. If you are buying a lens for an SLR camera then this is one with a larger mm number. Compact cameras will normally boast a wide angle lens which is great for taking expansive panoramas, but will give close up photos a “fish-eye” effect which you want to avoid when taking portraits. This doesn’t mean shelling a lot of money. I bought a manual focusing 50mm lens for my Nikon for under £85.
  • Spot Focus: if you set your camera to portrait mode it will probably do this for you, if not change your camera from area auto focus to spot focus. This will allow you to focus on the eyes of your subject using a single point (usually the centre) of you camera. Left on auto mode, your camera will usually focus on the nearest point: the nose!

Portrait photography tips

Rules to break!

Sometimes if you want your photos to stand out, you need to do something a little differently. A perfect, smiling portrait shot might be perfect for a school photo or holiday album, but in my opinion a great portrait is one that captures the essence of the subject or situation.

  • Portraits don’t have to be portrait: this might seem a controversial tip, but there’s no reason to take a portrait photograph in portrait orientation. The pictures here were taken in portrait before I cropped them into a square, or experiment with landscape images with the subject off-centre.
  • Get even closer: To take this a step further, get so close that you crop the top and/or bottom of the face. This will really focus in on the eyes and can make for an intriguing composition.
  • Stop smiling: It’s almost an in-built instinct to smile when a camera is pointed at you, and there’s nothing wrong with this. However, you can add some intrigue to a photo if your subject relaxes their face and mouth to a neutral position.

scotland photography

{all photographs by Joe John for Decorator’s Notebook}



Joe - Decorator's Notebook
Joe - Decorator's Notebook

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