Picture This: Taking Good Portraits

One of the most annoying things I encounter as a photographer is when people (mostly friends and family) refuse to let me take their photos. They cover their faces, throw up their hands, and scream, “No!” Most often this is because one of two reasons: a. they “always look horrible in photos,” or b. someone once posted a bad photo of them all over Facebook and you might do the same. Well, that doesn’t always have to be the case and with these five tips, you might be able to convince a reluctant someone to let you take their photo.

Eye Contact

A woman gives a death stare at the bathing pool of a mosque in New Delhi.
There's nothing like the look of a mother to let you know your presence is not welcomed.

Good eye contact can turn an interesting photo into an arresting photo. People say the eyes are a window to the soul, and I tend to agree. So much emotion is carried in the eyes – sadness, anger, surprise, distrust, joy. To capture these emotions, ask your subject to think about a particular time they felt X, or start talking to them and engage them in conversation. You never know what your subject might do!

Depth Of Field or Props

A man in the distance smirks as the lights of a stuffed wolf glow in the foreground.
His expression! I just love that face! And the dog – what a random find on the street!

We recently talked about depth of field as it applies to objects, but have you considered using it for portraits? You subject doesn’t even have to be in focus to make the portrait interesting! Take this photo for example. The guy pictured surprised me as I exited a tourist attraction with his stuffed wolf, fur hat, and missing teeth, but he surprised me even more when he flipped a switch under the wolf’s tail and his eyes lit up! I paid the man $2 to take his photo with the dog and endeavored to get them both in the photo. The face he gave me was perfect and full of humorous pride. The man didn’t know I was taking his photo but rather thought I was taking a photo of the dog which was fine – I wanted both. I could have photographed the man by himself, but including the dog added something to the story, it told his story, and it brought out something special in the man’s personality. So use depth of field, use props, put the real subject out of focus, and tell a story with your photo.

Finding Individuals in Groups

Four Muslim women sit together in various states of dress from boldly uncovered to fully hidden behind a veil.
I love how each woman presents herself in her own way. When I look at this photo, I see four people not one group.

Group shots can be weird and hard to take. People usually get lost in group photos – someone is hidden behind tall people in the back, nothing more than a hand testifying to their existence. Others are crouched down in front of the group, cut off just above the collar bone, while some have faces so small that it’s hard to make out who they are. Now, if your goal is to get as many of your 50 family members in the photo as possible, go ahead, but if your goal is to really photograph people in a group, you will need to find their individuality. Catch your subjects off guard, get them talking to each other, have them hold props, tell them to sit naturally, or photograph them candidly in their natural environment. I love this photo because every lady in it is different – bold and confident, curious and hesitant, shy but interested, hidden and mysterious. I let these women all sit as they wished and show as much as they wanted. The one in red was actually obstructed and leaned back to get in the photo. When I look at this photo, I see four unique individuals and not one person multiplied by four, that’s how I know the picture is a success.

Using the Center

A girl hugs a green ball while standing behind a chain link fence.
The eye contact plus the center staging make this photo very strong.

I said it before: the center is a special place to be used for special reasons. There are many ways to compose a photo, including the rule of thirds, but when you really want to make a statement, use the middle. Placing your subject front and center, is an effective way to grab someone’s attention and focus the viewer on your subject and your subject alone. It doesn’t matter that there are two girls cut off on the sides of this photo; I hardly even notice. All I can see is the girl in the middle, framed by a chain link fence, hugging her ball. The center, when used right, can really can really add something to your photo but don’t use it for every photo or else you’ll lose the magic.

A New Perspective

A man holds a rope in his hand and smiles while looking into the distance.
A different perspective from the bottom-up could freshen up a photo.

Try taking your portrait from a different angle such as looking up, down, in a line, over the shoulder, between their feet, or with hair in their face. A unique perspective will catch people’s attention and can really add something to the photo such as this one of a sailor. Looking up, we get to see his muscular arms, his beard, his face, his smile. We can see he’s been working but he’s also taken a moment to enjoy himself. Because I used a different perspective, I was able to capture a story and the viewer can know something about the man (i.e., If you couldn’t see the rope in his hand or the mast in the background, would you know he was a sailor?).

Bonus tip: every portrait should tell a story. It should say something about the person (their personality, hobby, job, interests, history, feelings) and give you reason to look longer.

This week, your task is to take a photo of a person and use one of the four tips included here to produce a moving portrait. If you don’t wish to post a photo of a person for privacy reasons, try making the photo a silhouette instead (achieved with a light source behind your subject) or photograph a pet (yep, animals can have portraits too!). Then come back and post your photo in the comments.

If you are new to Persephone, check out our photo group, Picture This!, where you can read comments, connect with other photographers, ask questions, share tips, and brag about your favorite photos! To post photos in the comments, you can use the photo uploader or copy and paste images into the comment section. What you may not know is that when you create an account with Google, you are also creating an account with Picasa Web Albums. To access it, click “photos” on the bar at the top of your screen while in Gmail or if you’re not a Gmail user, go to Google, click on the more tab at the top, select “Photos” and create an account (or just click on the link above). Follow the instructions to upload a photo. When you are done, open the photo and right click to copy it. Then come back to the comments and paste it. Easy-peasy. Let me know if you have trouble with this and I’ll help. Send me a personal message.

Also, to find the Picture This column later in the week, use the category drop down menu on the home page (right side bar) to select “Photography” and you’ll get all the Picture This articles.

Good luck everyone and I can’t wait to see your photos!

By Thelma

Thelma is a photographer and traveler currently residing in Sydney, Australia. In her free time she can be found with her nose behind a camera or obsessing over koalas.

11 replies on “Picture This: Taking Good Portraits”

When I first started taking a lot of shots, I focused on places and totally left portraits out of it. I was scared of them to be honest, and the fight to take the picture to begin with was exhausting. I’m still working on getting my husband to relax. I told him I had to take a picture of him last week because of the assignment from last week’s article. We never did, but he didn’t make a face like he usually does. Progress!

I slowly started to realize that some of my favorite shots, (not necessarily the “best” ones, but my favorite ones), were my friends and family and random portraits. I need to get better at portraits and it’s one of my 2012 photography goals. Thanks for the timely article.

My friends and family are used to me having a camera by now, so they don’t really notice when I’m snapping away at an event. If you can get people to pretend the GIANT SCARY CAMERA isn’t there, great (my 50mm lens is great for this but it does mean I have to move around more to get the shots I want, also don’t use your flash unless you absolutely must). Also, promise upfront that you won’t post any Facebook photos without their permission – make the album private first, and they’ll learn to trust you mean what you say.

I just found this series, and am excited to join in…I hope it’s okay to use my iphone?  I am short on funds and have a tendency to get crazy spendy with new hobbies and then lose interest immediately, so it’s safer for me to stick with my phone for now!

I admit to being a “I look horrible in photos!” person. But it’s not really because of any feeling that I look terrible (though I do have a “Chandler smile”; my smiles even not on demand are really awkward). It’s because I don’t think I’ve ever been photographed while I feel like myself. If someone took my “soul’s photo”, it’d probably be a picture of me reading in my desk chair, legs on the corner of my bed with my duvet covering me. Instead I’ve got “awkward generic restaurant”, “awkward school trip place”, “awkward with friends”, “awkward with family”, “awkward like the word has lost all visual meaning to Alex while he’s been writing this post”. You get my point.

I suppose what I’m waiting for is to have a photo that really looks like me, instead of something I’m trying to be. I get very pretentious about photos.

Leave a Reply