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How to Take Portraits Well

Portraiture can be a doozy when you pick up your first camera.  Even after several years taking portraits, good photographers can still struggle to take portraits well.  These are lessons that I have learned, and tips that will help you close the gap.

Take Portraits Well:  Tried and True Tips

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1. Practice.

Portraiture is like any other kind of photography in one respect:  practice makes perfect.  Or, as one of my school teachers once told me, perfect practice makes perfect.  In this case, though, making a few mistakes along the way isn’t going to ruin you.  The photographic community doesn’t let our mistakes slide, and it will be vocal when it sees something amiss.  So practice, and practice often.  Ask your friends to sit for you.  Ask your family members.  Don’t substitute your pets, and don’t try strangers right away.  The easiest place to start is with people you know, who you are comfortable with.

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2. Work slowly.

The pros have speed.  But when you’re first starting out, it helps to tell yourself that you have all the time in the world.  Take care to pose, and take more time with your compositions.  Speak up when you want something in particular, and don’t be afraid to show your subjects what you want in a pose.  To take portraits well, you have to identify with your subject.  Put yourself in their shoes.  Slowly disarm them, and cut through the barriers.  Eventually you will reach an “ah-ha” moment.

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3. Don’t be afraid of models.

Professional models can be intimidating.  As a beginner, you can gain a lot of experience working with them.  A model who also takes photographs is a goldmine of information, creative savvy, and recommendations.  They also tend to know poses that work, and this can boost your confidence when you first start out.  It can also lead you to consider which poses you like and which poses you don’t like.

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4. The self-portrait is a great tool.

Here it is important to clarify.  Self-portraits are not selfies.  Don’t use bathroom mirrors, and don’t hold the camera at arms length.  Use a tripod, or a steady surface.  If you don’t have a camera remote, use the timed shutter function.  In either case, pose yourself, and be ruthless in your critique when you look at the image.  It can take a while until you nail it, but this kind of practice will help you take portraits well.

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5. Look for portraits.

As time goes by and you think about poses, looks, and body language, as well as facial features, you will start to see portraits everywhere.  This can help you move into other kinds of portraiture, like street photography and environmental portraiture.  It can enhance documentary-style portraits by helping you see that perfect moment as it happens.  And it will help you cultivate a discerning eye in terms of what passes for a portrait and what doesn’t.

There ya go – five tips that have proven indispensable time and time again.

Harder is Better: Honing Your Photography Skills

With the wealth of new and improved technology out there making our photographic processes easier and quicker, it can be convenient to rely heavily (if not completely) on the technology, and less on actual photography skills.  But making things harder on yourself short-term, can make you a more adaptive photographer in the long run.

Improve Your
Photography Skills


1. Lose the Auto Focus

When I was in college, I got cold-called by a photo editor at a local newspaper.  The guy wanted me to shoot for him, so I went to his office to see what was what.  What followed was a long conversation about my work, and my techniques.  I ended up having to pass on the opportunity, but not after hearing an anecdote about how sports photographers used to practice focusing before the days of auto focus.

The photographers would go to an intersection with their cameras and no film, wait for a green light, and then try to focus on cars as they moved through the intersection.  The idea was to focus on a car as quickly as possible.  Once you had it in focus, you kept in focus as it moved through the intersection.  Then you did the same thing to the next car.  And the next.  And the next.

I know it sounds a bit boring, but life was simpler then, before the internet forums and the War of the Megapixels.

At any rate, I walked away with that story, and I count it as one of the most important things I’ve learned from another photographer.  I’ve had my share of auto focus lenses, but I still prefer manual focus, because it makes me better in the long run.  It’s also cheaper, and a little more fun that just pushing a button and letting the camera do it for me.

Some photographers might need the AF – sports photographers and wildlife photographers and gear heads.  But you can get tack sharp focus 99.9% of the time if you just practice.


2. Break Rules

The Rule of Thirds, the Rule of Odds, the Golden Rule, Ja Rule.  There are too many “rules” to photography.  They are more like guidelines, and even though there is some sense to them, you can and should break them at times.  Do a little experimentation of your own.  Try an even number of subjects.  Center subjects in the frame.  Use the “wrong lens” for certain subjects.  Don’t be afraid to crop…drastically, if need be.


3. Improvise

A skilled photographer will improvise, but forcing yourself to improvise now can drastically improve your photography skills.  Eschew Photoshop for a few minutes and think about effects you could replicate with simple household objects.  A piece of mesh screening can become a star filter, and a plastic soda bottle can soften your photos.  A friend of mine once showed me how to use a milk carton as a flash diffuser when we found ourselves in a pinch, and I have substituted any number of flat, stable surfaces for my tripod to get more creative angles.


4.  Forget the Zoom

I know some people need a zoom lens.  I get that.  If you’re one of them, keep it.  But if you aren’t photographing a ravenous lion on the African plains, or shooting a Nascar Race or a football player about to make the next touchdown, just forget it.  Invest in a fixed lens, and run with it – literally.  Of course it’s not going to be as easy as a zoom, because you’re going to have to move.  You may have to close a distance, or find a way to get some more of it between you and your subject.  But in doing that you’re inevitably going to find some angles and views in their that you might not have considered with that convenient zoom.  You might even have to engage more with your subject – not only improving your photography skills, but your people skills as well!


5. Look at and Critique Your Images

As photographers, we sometimes concentrate too heavily on cranking material out, and don’t spend enough time actually judging our own work.  And not judging in our favor, folks.  We need to be ruthless in this.  Some photos will have sentimental value, even though they suck from many standpoints.  That’s fine, but don’t lie to yourself.  Similarly, don’t be fooled by constant technical nitpicking.  Study your images long and hard.  Decide what you like and what you don’t, what works and what doesn’t.  Photography skills aside, you should take the images that you want to see in the world, not the images the world wants to see from you.  Don’t go to online forums.  They suck, they’re pointless, and usually filled with people who want clinical, sterilized, soulless photos.  Talk to friends, and photographers you know in real life.  Ask your significant other or family members what they like, which elements of the photo appeal to them, or what about the photo (if anything) captures their attention.

Don’t be satisfied with basic answers about why the photo is good.  The purpose of critiquing your work is to have it torn apart.  Be aggressive when you judge your own work, and encourage others to be honest about what they don’t like or what you could do better.

So…five tips to improve your photography skills.  Of course, following these tips would mean making the process harder on yourself.  I think you’re up to it, because I’ve been there and done it myself.  It is good for your skills, and it is good for your photography.  It may not be for everyone, but following even a few of these tips will lend something to your skills as a photographer.

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