How to Take Portraits That Pop

How To  /  Photography
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All photos © Mary Campbell

We all know a great portrait when we see one – but what makes it great? What sets a portrait apart from a flattering snapshot? The answer: depth. A great portrait captures a person’s essence. It evokes personality and emotion. It tells a story. And capturing one requires both intentional thought, and artistic vision. Want to create portraits that stand out, grab your audience’s attention, and tell a story? These five tips will help.

1) Get to know your subject.

You can’t photograph people well if you don’t know them at all. So even when meeting clients for the first time, I immediately strike up a conversation. I ask questions. Like: Where are you from? What are you passionate about? Then I watch. I watch for what my subject does when they’re excited about things they love, or what topics calm them. Doing this means I know the expressions to look for as I photograph them, and can guide them through the shoot. Knowing your subject and their story will help you keep an eye out for moments that seem especially true to who that person is. These won’t always happen on cue, so don’t be afraid of taking candid photos!

Getting to know your subject portrait photo. Photo © Mary Campbell Getting to know your subject. Photo © Mary Campbell

2) Choose location wisely.

Location can make or break a shoot. Although anybody can take great photos anywhere, the mood of your portraits will depend on where they’re taken. Notice how different these two portraits are, even though they are of the same person:

Choose your location wisely when taking portrait photography. Photo © Mary Campbell Choose your location wisely when taking portrait photography. Photo © Mary Campbell

3) Communicate with your subject.

Portraiture is about trust. If your subject doesn’t feel comfortable around you, it will show up in your images. Because of this, communication throughout the shoot is important. Keep checking in: ask your subject if they feel good about the photos, or if there’s anything that you as the photographer can be doing differently to help them relax. And let your subject know when you’re excited about the pictures! More often than not, people are self-conscious about what their photographers are thinking, so if you can let your subject know you’re hyped about the images, they will be too.

Communicating with your subject. Photo © Mary Campbell Communicating with your subject. Photo © Mary Campbell

4) Light your subject.

Lighting is arguably the most important part of photographing people. Light will determine whether your subject’s features are complimented, or emphasized – or even distorted. Light will convey mood, emotion, and story. It might help to remember here that the word Photography literally translates as ‘painting with light’, so let light be your paintbrush when taking a picture, and when capturing portraits, use your paintbrush particularly wisely. Ask yourself questions like: Do I want this to be backlit, or do I want to experiment with direct sunlight on my subject’s face? Do I want to shoot in cloudy, dispersed light, or should I wait another day for it to be sunny?

Lighting your subject portrait photo. Photo © Mary Campbell Lighting your subject black & white photo. Photo © Mary Campbell

5) Pose when necessary.

It’s your job to direct your subject if necessary – you don’t want them to think too hard about where to put their hands, or how to tilt their head. I always tell my subjects that I’ll pose them if they want to be posed, but otherwise, I do my best to capture them naturally and organically. To help figure out what this looks like for your subject, watch how they stand when chatting between shots. This will often be their most natural, comfortable pose, and gets you that much closer to capturing their essence.

Posing when necessary in portrait photography. Photo © Mary Campbell Having your subject pose when necessary. Photo © Mary Campbell