Making Photo Portraits People Will Notice – Part 1

OK, so you like to take portraits. Most photographers do, at some point. After all, the photo portrait is one of the oldest forms of human communication – cave paintings, Egyptian pharaohs, the Mona Lisa, Emperors and Kings, Marilyn Monroe.

There’s even the modern-day “selfie.” As long as humans have been alive, we have wanted to preserve our likeness, be it via painting, sculpture, drawing or photography.

So, how do you turn an ordinary humdrum portrait – your basic head-and-shoulders thing – into something people will actually notice, and maybe even comment on?

photo portrait
Here, I distracted Emily’s attention away from the camera by having her take a picture of herself. (photo: Allen Moore)

A compelling portrait is one that draws you into the story. It has relate-ability.

The Secret:

Instead of ‘taking’ a portrait,
you ‘make’ a portrait.

There are scores of photo portrait technique tutorials available in books, videos and online. There’s a lot of good advice in many of them. Unfortunately, if you blindly follow the average portrait tutorial, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a very average, ordinary portrait.

Let’s not go there! Let’s take it up a notch and go to the next level by stepping outside our comfort zone of ordinariness and introduce some uniqueness to our portraits.

We know that not everyone has access to a fully equipped studio, so most of the photos used here were created using only available light or only one flash (speedlight) – in keeping with our theme that it’s not about the equipment. It’s about you, the photographer, and how you use your existing gear.  (part 2 on photo portraits here)

The Fundamentals

There are many different styles, genres, and techniques involved in portraiture. There is the standard head-and-shoulders, living-room conventional portrait, the quirky, avant-garde theatrical style, and everything in between. But regardless of the style with which you choose to work, there are certain fundamental principles you should use to create a successful portrait.

Caroline shows how even a simple head-and-shoulders portrait can take on a classic, almost ethereal feel. (photo: Allen Moore)


Alison shows how playing around with costumes and characters can be a lot of fun! (photo: Allen Moore)

So, what makes a photo portrait successful?

When you draw in the viewers and make them think they’re part of the scene, you’ve nailed it. In order to make this happen, you – the photographer – have to create a chemistry between yourself and your subject. Sometimes, that takes a bit of work. Famed portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz, for example, will spend two days with her subjects.

On the first day, she never takes a picture. That time is reserved for getting to know the person she’s going to photograph on the second day.

How do we make this magic, this chemistry happen?

Heloíne was a bit nervous at first, but it didn’t take her long to start relaxing and enjoying her time in front of the camera. (photo: Allen Moore)


Julie reflects upon herself in the mirror.
(photo: Allen Moore)

Julie’s beautiful smile is overpowered by the strong, distracting lines of the stairs. The crop is a bit too tight, clipping her left hand.
(photo: Allen Moore)

Working with Your Subject

Believe it or not, many people are nervous in front of the camera. Take yourself, for instance. After a photo is snapped, are you curious about how you look? You might worry about your hair, clothing, and other things. One of the keys to great portraiture is being able to draw out the essence of your model and get her to relax.

This is easier said than done! Here are some things that we’ve learned along the way:

Relate-ability: If you just snap away without talking to your model, she may think to herself, “Do I look good? What is the photographer thinking? Am I posing correctly? Did I blink? Is this the right angle?”

Talk to your subject and continually reassure her that she is doing a good job and avoid using negative terms, such as, “Good! You look great. Let’s try a different pose,” is more encouraging than, “Your arm looked weird. Can you move it to the left a little?” Be sincerely interested and focused on her.

Humor: Tell jokes. Or, if not a joke-teller, maybe you can poke fun at yourself (I’m rather clumsy and have used that to break the ice.) In between all of the conversation and jokes, remember to breathe and be sure to ask your subject to do this too!

Mirror: Use mirroring techniques when interacting with your subject. Whether it’s showing her how to pose or your own vibe, you will find that she will copy you, either consciously or subconsciously.

Props: Props can be advantageous in order to relax your subject. Just be sure they help to convey a message, feeling or story about the scene or the subjects character and personality. Note: Be careful so the props don’t overpower or distract, but instead, enhance your subject.

Practice, and be yourself! Ask friends and family to pose for you for a photo portrait . Become familiar with your camera settings and technicalities until they are second nature. Have mentors but always be yourself!

Composition 101

Expensive camera equipment, lenses and photo-editing software cannot think for you. They cannot automatically compose elements in your frame. Although rules have known to be broken, there are a few things to keep in mind:

Keep it simple: Your main focus should be on your subject. For instance, if you are making a close-up image of the person’s face, crop tightly so that you highlight her eyes. Avoid busy backgrounds or dappled lighting that will draw the audience’s attention away from your model.

Watch out for distracting elements: Telephone poles “growing” out of a person’s head or a trash can on the side will certainly draw the viewer’s attention away from you subject.

Be careful not to cut off part of a hand, ear or foot and leave enough space around your subject when cropping.

Color harmony and lighting: Use complementary colors, whether in the clothing colors that you ask your subjects to wear and in the background that you use.

Shade or cloud-covered days are ideal, but if you must take a picture in the middle of a sunny day, place your model in shade. Use fill light through the use of reflectors or an off-camera flash.

Use leading lines and framing: Have your model pose so that her arms point towards her face. Look around at your environment – can you use the trees to frame your subject? A long-winding road or the quintessential railroad tracks provide diagonal lines to pull your viewer’s attention towards your subject.

You can have your subject make a frame by using parts of her body, like Heloíne is doing here with her arm and hand. (photo: Jean Lua)

TIP: Get creative and use your local resources. To give your portraits that studio look, visit your local fabric store or big box store and purchase fabric or plain curtains or sheers and use them as a backdrop (Be sure they are well-ironed). Check with your hair salon and see if someone would be willing to do the makeup on your subject if you give them and their salon the credits for doing the work (They are always interested in more business).

These are a few tried-and-true Rules of Composition which work well in most circumstances. But let’s break some rules – and break them we shall, in order to accomplish our objective – generate interest!

You’ll learn how in Part 2.

by Allen Moore and Jean Lua
All text and photos: © 2014 Allen Moore and Jean Lua. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.