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Are you interested in taking your portrait photography from the realm of the good to the truly exceptional? Based on my own journey and experience as a photographer, I’ve identified five subtle yet impactful strategies to significantly enhance the quality and feel of your portraits.

These tips may be ‘subtle’ as they are easy to overlook. However, mastering them can bring about a marked difference in your work. As I advanced and grew more comfortable as a photographer, I picked up these strategies. Looking back, knowing them earlier would have considerably eased my learning process.

1. Watch out for objects sticking out behind your subjects

Objects protruding from behind your subjects, such as poles, trees, or power lines, can easily go unnoticed but can significantly impact the overall image. While excellent retouching skills can salvage an image in post-production, I advise getting it right in-camera as much as possible. As you’re shooting, make a mental note of your surroundings. If you notice disruptive elements behind your subject, adjust your angle or move your subject accordingly.

2. Watch for signs of tension

Many people tend to feel uneasy in front of the camera, leading to signs of tension, such as a furrowed brow, clenched hands, or lifeless eyes.

It’s natural for people not to feel 100% comfortable with how they look on camera – but you want them at least 70% comfort level. The way to do that is to make sure they are know what to expect, and most of this work happens pre-shoot. I always wanted to meet my subjects in person or over video call before their photoshoot. This way we could get acquainted and not have to do that on the day of the shoot. For bigger shoots like weddings, I always recommended an engagement/pre-wedding shoot and found that this made the wedding day less stressful for my couples.

And during the shoot, I assured them I was there to make sure that they looked good (this never failed to relax them), and I meant it.

I’m also directive, especially at the beginning of the session – instructing them what to do with their hands, lips, hands and feet. Because trust me, when you are in front of the camera you suddenly discover you do not know what to do with your body.

And for the eyes, the way you can help them relax is to encourage them to think of someone that makes them happy or their favourite colour or pet dog for example.

The best portrait photography happens when both photographer and the subject are relaxed. So no matter what, find that place of Zen for yourself, so you can call it out of your client.

3. Shoot your subjects against a darker background

This is one of my favourites because it creates a beautiful contrast between the dark background and your subject can pop off the picture.

I wish someone had taught this to me when I first started my journey, it would have saved me from all the overblown highlights, especially when shooting deeper skin tones 🙂

Of course, you can’t always shoot against a darker backdrop so when you don’t have that option (for example in hotel rooms), use what’s available like curtains or furniture. And underexpose and adjust settings in post.

Once you get comfortable with this principle, you can start playing with light and backgrounds some more.

4. Choose the right lens

The choice of lens profoundly influences the final outcome of your portraits. It affects how your subject appears relative to the background and their gaze direction.

My personal favorite for portraits is the 50mm, f 1.4 lens – affordable, compact, and effective. It works well for headshots and portraits because it allows you to do interesting framing with subjects’ faces without them appearing distorted (or not being able to fit their entire body).

The 85mm is an amazing lens for portraits too, but you need to have space to use it, and it isn’t as affordable as the 50mm.

Wide-angle lenses can be good if used well, but for portraits, they can be a no-no because of the distortion factor.

And telephoto lenses offer a nice compression/separation of the subject from the background. It’s all about understanding what works best for your style and the situation at hand.

5. Embrace a Less-is-More Approach

Contrary to what you might initially think, shooting fewer frames may lead to better results. By being more selective with your shots, you can dedicate more time to consider posing and framing, resulting in images of higher quality.

When you are new, it’s tempting to go rapid-fire, but the more you slow down, the better your shots will get. The one exception I would often make was if I was shooting active toddlers and kids. Then it’s rapid-fire! These made for great collages in albums and canvases.

If you can, go to the photoshoot location the day before (ideally at the same time you’ll be shooting), or come a few minutes earlier. This will help prepare you mentally and also to study the background and light.

Bottom Line

Drawing from my own journey, the key to taking exceptional portraits often lies in creating a relaxed and comfortable environment for your subjects. When people feel good about themselves, it’s captured beautifully in your photographs. By implementing these five essential tips, you can set yourself on the path to producing breathtaking, professional-grade portraits. Here’s to your journey in mastering portrait photography!

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Photographer, content strategist, creator, and storyteller building connected brands.

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