How To Shoot Better Portraits

by Nigel Cooper

Whether you’re taking photos with a mobile phone or more expensive DSLR or Mirrorless camera, the following tips will bring your portrait photography along in spades.


We’re all photographers these days as pretty much every mobile device has a camera built in, but when taking snaps with these devices most people just “point and squirt”, paying little to no attention to: subject matter, composition and lighting – the three key ingredients that are vital in creating any good photo and, surprisingly, it only takes an few extra seconds to consider these three key picture-taking essentials when taking a photo. Paying attention to your subject matter, composition and the lighting (this being the sun if shooting outdoors during the day) will be the difference between a bad photo and a good photo – ok, let’s get into it.


First Rule: Head Room – Where’s The Airplane?


This is a common mistake that I see time and again, where the photographer has gone and plonked the subjects face slap bang in the centre of the frame, resulting in too much “head room” (there’s no airplane up there to look at so why put this empty space above the subject’s head?) and quite often, cutting off the poor subjects feet in the process. This is where the photographer needs to employ what photographers refer to as the “Rule Of Thirds”. Artists have been using the rule of thirds for centuries, and for good reason, it’s pleasing to the eye and it just works. It’s quite simple; place an imaginary grid (some phones actually have this rule of thirds grid as an on/off option in the camera’s menu) of two vertical lines and two horizontal lines – like a noughts and crosses game grid. In the case of a portrait if you place the subjects eyes on the top horizontal line it will yield a pleasing result with just the right amount of headroom and, chances are, you won’t chop off their feet either – more on this below.


Second Rule: Don’t Cut People Off At Natural Joints – Ouch! Where’s My Hand?


This is another common mistake I see all the time and it’s due to the photographer giving no thought to the composition. It’s where the photographer cuts the subject off at a natural joint such as: wrist, elbow, knee or ankle, or worse of all, the neck. An example of this could be a ‘medium shot’ portrait of a person where their hands have been cut off at the wrist along the bottom edge of the photo. Whatever you do, avoid amputating your subjects. Cropping your subject off at a natural joint results in an image that just looks awkward. Instead, crop people off between the natural joints such as half way between the elbow and shoulder, or half way between the knee and hip, which will yield a more pleasing result that won’t look awkward.


Third Rule: Distracting Backgrounds – What’s That Growing Out Of My Head?


I see this mistake all the time, where the photographer has given no thought to clutter in the shot or distracting backgrounds. Portraits of people always look better when the background has been thrown out of focus, but this is not always possible for example, you might have chosen to shoot at F11 for artistic reasons, or on a mobile phone; they typically keep everything from about five feet to infinity in focus. In these situations the least you can do is make sure that there are no trees or a lamppost growing out of your subject’s head. Take a moment to consider this at the photo-taking stage and check the background and if a lamppost is growing out of your subjects head simply take a few steps to the left/right until said lamppost is no longer sprouting from your partner’s head. The same goes for clutter. If there is a discarded crisp packet blowing around in the foreground, get rid of it there and then, don’t faff about airbrushing it out in post-production.


Fourth Rule: It’s A Child – Get Down!


Oh my, do I see this one a lot. This tip is for the parent photographers, especially parents with children aged 4 to 10. Picture this (pun intended), proud parent taking a photo of little Emily with her hair pinned back, proudly wearing her new camisole tutu just moments after passing a ballet exam. Parent (5’ 6”) stands upright with mobile phone at her own eye level, pointing said phone down at Emily (3’ 7”). The result, a happy, but disproportionate child. Shooting down at a child like this results in little Emily having a massive head and tiny legs (and feet that are miniscule) that are akin to those funny looking little arms that stick out the front of a Tyrannosaurus Rex (what does Mr Rex use those for anyway?). The fix is for the parent to get down on one knee so the camera’s lens is at the same level s the child’s chest. This will result in a correctly proportionate child with the right size head and with legs and feet that are in correct proportion. The only exception to this rule is when taking a photo of a larger person who has a very large bottom. In this instance I’d recommend holding the camera a little higher, this will distort the proportions of the body, making the head and shoulders larger and that large bottom smaller.


Fifth Rule: The Golden Hour


This one might be a little harder to achieve but if possible try not to shoot when the sun is high in the sky mid-day during the summer as it causes harsh nasty shadows that are unflattering. It’s always best (if possible) to take outdoor photos later in the day when the sun is lower in the sky, about two hours before sunset (an hour before sunset is what photographer’s refer to as ‘The Golden Hour’). Later in the day when the sun is lower in the sky it has more of the earth’s atmosphere to pass through, which gives off warmer hues and softer light, which is more flattering for your subjects. If you have to shoot during the mid-day sun, wait until a soft fluffy cloud passes in front of the sun. Photographers call this “God’s Silk” as it acts as a lovely silk diffuser (like those on the front of studio lighting softboxes that photographers use) and softens the sun’s, otherwise, harsh light. Following this rule will yield warmer tones, more flattering, softer, romantic lighting that will make your subjects look gorgeous.