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10 Ways to Take Stunning Portraits

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10 Ways to Take Stunning Portraits

How do you take Portraits that have the ‘Wow’ factor?

Today and tomorrow I want to talk about taking Portraits that are a little out of the box. You see it’s all very well and good to have a portrait that follows all the rules – but it hit me as I was surfing on Flickr today that often the most striking portraits are those that break all the rules.

I want to look at some ways to break out of the mold and take striking portraits by breaking (or at least bending) the rules and adding a little randomness into your portrait photography. I’ll share ten of these tips today and a further ten tomorrow (update: you can see the 2nd part here).
1. Alter Your Perspective

Most portraits are taken with the camera at (or around) the eye level of the subject. While this is good common sense – completely changing the angle that you shoot from can give your portrait a real WOW factor.

portrait-high-perspective.jpgPhoto by striatic

Get up high and shoot down on your subject or get as close to the ground as you can and shoot up. Either way you’ll be seeing your subject from an angle that is bound to create interest.

portrait-low-perspective.jpgPhoto by TeeRish
2. Play with Eye Contact

It is amazing how much the direction of your subject’s eyes can impact an image. Most portraits have the subject looking down the lens – something that can create a real sense of connection between a subject and those viewing the image. But there are a couple of other things to try:

A. Looking off camera – have your subject focus their attention on something unseen and outside the field of view of your camera. This can create a feeling of candidness and also create a little intrigue and interest as the viewer of the shot wonders what they are looking at. This intrigue is particularly drawn about when the subject is showing some kind of emotion (ie ‘what’s making them laugh?’ or ‘what is making them look surprised?’). Just be aware that when you have a subject looking out of frame that you can also draw the eye of the viewer of the shot to the edge of the image also – taking them away from the point of interest in your shot – the subject.

portrait-off-camera.jpgPhoto by monicutza80

B. Looking within the frame – alternatively you could have your subject looking at something (or someone) within the frame. A child looking at a ball, a woman looking at her new baby, a man looking hungrily at a big plate of pasta…. When you give your subject something to look at that is inside the frame you create a second point of interest and a relationship between it and your primary subject. It also helps create ’story’ within the image.

portrait-eyes.jpgPhoto by paulbence

3. Break the Rules of Composition

There are a lot of ‘rules’ out there when it comes to composition and I’ve always had a love hate relationship with them. My theory is that while they are useful to know and employ that they are also useful to know so you can purposely break them – as this can lead to eye catching results.

The Rule of Thirds is one that can be effective to break – placing your subject either dead centre can sometimes create a powerful image – or even creative placement with your subject right on the edge of a shot can sometimes create interesting images.

portrait-composition.jpgPhoto by reportergimmi™

Another ‘rule’ that we often talk about in portrait photography is to give your subject room to look into. This can work really well – but again, sometimes rules are made to be broken.

portrait-composition-rules.jpgPhoto by Bukutgirl

4. Experiment with Lighting

Another element of randomness that you can introduce to your portraits is the way that you light them. There are almost unlimited possibilities when it comes to using light in portraits.

Side-lighting can create mood, backlighting and silhouetting your subject to hide their features can be powerful.

portrait-lighting.jpgPhoto by Bukutgirl

Using techniques like slow synch flash can create an impressive wow factor.
Portrait-Slow-Sync-Flash Photo by diskomethod
5. Move Your Subject Out of their Comfort Zone

I was chatting with a photographer recently who told me about a corporate portrait shoot that he had done with a business man at his home. They’d taken a lot of head and shoulder shots, shots at his desk, shots in front of framed degrees and other ‘corporate’ type images. They had all turned out fairly standard – but there was nothing that really stood out from the crowd.

The photographer and the subject agreed that there were plenty of useable shots but they wanted to create something ’special’ and out of the box. The photographer suggested they try some ‘jumping’ shots. The subject was a little hesitant at first but stepped out into the uncomfortable zone and dressed in his suit and tie started jumping!

The shots were amazing, surprising and quite funny. The shoot culminated with the subject jumping in his pool for one last image!

While this might all sound a little ’silly’ the shots ended up being featured in a magazine spread about the subject. It was the series of out of the box images that convinced the magazine he was someone that they’d want to feature.

portrait-comfort-zone.jpgImage by TeeRish

6. Shoot Candidly

Sometimes posed shots can look somewhat…. posed. Some people don’t look good in a posed environment and so switching to a candid type approach can work.

Photograph your subject at work, with family or doing something that they love. This will put them more at ease and you can end up getting some special shots with them reacting naturally to the situation that they are in. You might even want to grab a longer zoom lens to take you out of their immediate zone and get really paparazzi with them.

I find that this can particularly work when photographing children.

portrait-candid.jpgPhoto by phitar

7. Introduce a Prop

Add a prop of some kind into your shots and you create another point of interest that can enhance your shot.

Yes you might run the risk of taking too much focus away from your main subject but you could also really add a sense of story and place to the image that takes it in a new direction and gives the person you’re photographing an extra layer of depth that they wouldn’t have had without the prop.

portrait-prop.jpgPhoto by Mrs. Maze

8. Focus Upon One Body Part – Get Close Up

Get a lens with a long focal length attached to your camera – or get right in close so that you can just photograph a part of your subject. Photographing a person’s hands, eyes, mouth or even just their lower body… can leave a lot to the imagination of the viewer of an image.

Sometimes it’s what is left out of an image that says more than what is included.

portrait-close up.jpgPhoto by Bukutgirl

9. Obscure Part of your Subject

A variation on the idea of zooming in on one part of the body is to obscure parts of your portrait subject’s face or body. You can do this with clothing, objects, their hands or just by framing part of them out of the image.

Doing this means that you leave a little to the imagination of the image’s viewer but also focus their attention on parts of your subject that you want them to be focused upon.

portrait-obscure.jpgPhoto by BigBlonde

10. Take a Series of Shots

Switch your camera into ‘burst’ or ‘continuous shooting’ mode and fire off more than one shot at a time.

In doing this you create a series of images that could be presented together instead of just one static image.

This technique can work very well when you’re photographing children – or really any active subject that is changing their position or pose in quick succession.

portrait-continuous shooting.jpgImage by diyosa

10 More ways to Take Great Portraits – Continued Tomorrow

Tomorrow I will complete this mini-series of posts on portrait photography with 10 more techniques like the ones above. Make sure you’re subscribed to Digital Photography School to ensure you get the second half!

Update: You can read the 2nd half of this series at 10 More Tips for Stunning Portrait Photography

In the mean time – what techniques do you use to get portraits with that extra something?

Also – don’t forget the portrait section of our forum – an ideal place to discuss portrait photography and show off some of your work.
Read more posts like ’10 Ways to Take Stunning Portraits’

* Portraits Post Moved
* Is Portrait Formatting always best for Portraits?
* Experiment with Different Framings with Portraits

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55 Responses to “10 Ways to Take Stunning Portraits”

* wendy Says:

After looking at those I need to work on my skills. Either that or I need a new camera.
* Pete Langlois Says:

These are all great tips. I also like to shoot low especially when I’m shooting flowers or insects to get the shot from their perspective.
* Jackie Says:

Thankyou for the inspirational tips. There are a lot of ideas here that I’d never thought of.
* Tombo Says:

Great tips!!
* Rosh Says:

Excellent exercise.

Try shooting objects from the opposite side you normally photograph. It may not work all the time. I find my first or second instinct is usually pretty close, but looking around will force a good habit.

I often tell photographers don’t be afraid of the frames edge. Everything doesn’t have to be in the shot. Cut in, get closer.

Your camera is more then a horizontal framing system

* marcus Says:

Swivel body cameras are great for getting candid portraits and interesting angles. You can put the camera on the ground or hold it over your head and still compose with the LCD. When you want to shoot candids, you can hold it in front of you and people assume you’re fiddling with settings and not composing a photo. They relax more than when you’ve got a SLR stuck to your face, so the photos come out much more natural.
* AC Says:

Some wonderful insights in this article. This is one weak area of mine and I hope to use some of these ideas to improve!
* bakari Says:

Great tips. I want to add that to get a lot of practice with creative portrait shots, you might try a self-portrait project like the one in a Flickr group called 365 Days. There’s some awesome example like the one’s above that will give you lots of ideas for portraits. And what’s even better, with self-portrait shots you don’t have to deal with impatient subjects. You can experiment as much as you want then try those ideas on other people.
* Peach Says:

All these tips are great! I love taking portraits and these new tips will certainly help me. I’m already excited to try some of them out.

The only problem I have is taking candid shots because I think people are most striking when they appear more natural. My problem is that as soon as I lift my camera to my eye everyone in the room starts posing, as if on cue, which really frustrates me.

The swivel body camera tip from Marcus is a great idea, but I can’t do that with my camera. Buying a longer zoom lens is also an option, but everyone is just too aware of me as soon as I get my camera out of the bag =(

Looking forward to tomorrow’s post!
* D. T. North Says:

That candid recommendation is a good one when you’re shooting children. Face it…it will be hard to get a child to sit still anyhow. So you might as well follow the kid about with the camera as he/she goes about her day. You’ll be amazed at how great your shots will be.
* Eric Says:

Thanks I’ll be putting some of these to good use, no doubt.
* Luis Says:

I am no pro photographer but a few months ago i was asked to be a backup photographer for a friend’s wedding. he had has his 1,400 dollar cannon DSL camera while I had my $240 casio exilim digital camera. i did take way more photos with my camera than the the guy with the pro camera but i did take pictures with my own ideas. so after a few mods with a photo editor i showed the bride and the grom the results a week later and they loved my pictures more than those of the photographers, and i was free!! i should have charged
* Matt Says:

I really like the shot from up high. It really gives you a sense of the subject’s environment.
* gaston monescu Says:

one of the things i like in portraits is the up-close and ‘ordinary’ facial expression, when it seems as if youre seeing a thought flash through their mind (Schoeller style)
* And Says:

thanks for the tips
* Alice Bevan–McGregor Says:

Playing with composition works well, and really helps give the feeling of candid photography, even if it isn’t. A la:
* Sean Says:

I have to say that I really do NOT care for the 1st one. There is a hit on the glasses from the built in flash (I looked at the original picture EXIF and it was a P&S) and the frames of the glasses intersect her eyes in an unfortunate way. The perspective is great, but what the flash and the frames have done to her otherwise beautiful eyes is tragic.
* Jim Says:

Great tips here. Every day I log on here I am learning more and more. I hope to put some of these to the test soon.
* Rick Says:

I think my favorite is “add nudity.”
* Megapixelicious Says:

Very good tips, and I am happy that they dont talk about gear! Composition and subject relationship are the two most important element of portraits.

Favorite thing about this article is how every point is well illustrated.
* EverafterImages Says:

Great article – very good examples…
* Jason Says:


The first photo was actually my favorite I think! The slight glare in the glasses doesn’t take away from the photo for me and the fact it was done with a P&S is even more amazing.

And I of course liked these tips as a reminder of how to take creative portraits. I want to try that bubble-gum bubble shot!
* Paul Villacorta Says:

Wow awesome tips and images from those users! I hope there will be a post for Street Photography Tips too!
* Dominique Says:

very informative tips.
I didn’t know that so much went into capturing a captivating shot. Am very interested in improving my photo shooting skill. glad to have found this site.
* Vera Raposo Says:

Thanks for a neat perspective on taking photos, this inspires me to think about this before scrapbooking. 🙂
* Berbel Nijsse Says:

Nice to see that I have been using most of these tips in one way or the other! And the ones I haven’t I will have to try soon!
nice pictures to illustrate the effect! looking forward for the next series
* lochinvar Says:

I find that best candid children portraits are done from below their eye level
* Andrew Drake Says:

Breaking the rule of thirds is good, so long as you stick to the rule of thirds 😉 Your example that breaks the rule (in terms of placement of the subject) still sticks to the rule in terms of light/dark tones.

Some very good tips though – will definitely try some of these ideas.
* kiran Says:

Great tip for photographers.Thanks for sharing.

* Jimmy Jones Says:

Very nice article and well written.

* akp Says:

This is the best posts (of course, almost all the posts are good in DPS!) I have come across in DPS… The 10 ways are real good points and it was a very good idea to have added a photo in each case to show what the point really intends to tell!!!

Simply superb!!!
* FZ Says:

Good article, great topic, crappy execution. Some shots are (IMO) sub-par. Technically and esthetically. Unconventional or non-traditional forms of art are very difficult to pull off. They seem to excuse certain principals that are set in stone. Like exposure. Some of these examples are truly champions though.

Remember Al Capp’s famous quote: “Abstract art is a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.”
* King Says:

One thing that will help to remedy folks busting a pose as soon as you pull the camera out of the bag is to simply pull the camera out a lot more often. As people get more used to seeing you with a camera in your hand, they’ll become more natural whenever it comes out up to the point where they simply carry on as if nothing is going on.

This is a good list, one thing I would add (branching into technique, versus style) to the bit about lighting is that the little built-in flash on your camera is crap. At the very least, look into a hotshoe flash with a diffuser, or preferably do off-camera lighting (see ), even if you’re just doing fill flash.
* Just Kelly Says:

Sounds like someone has been studying his Phillipe Halsman.

For those who don’t know, he was one of the most innovative portrait photographers…well, ever. If you can get ahold of his “Halsman on the Creation of Photographic Ideas”, it’s an excellent recipe book of sorts, detailing several of these techniques. Number 5 in particular, as he established a whole subgenre of photos of people jumping. I believe “The Jump Book” is out of print now (as is the other book) but you can find individual examples on the web.

He basically (to boil it way down) preached using ‘the unusual feature’ (7 & 8), ‘the missing feature’ (9) and ‘the unusual technique’ (nearly everything else 😉 ). I always try to keep those in mind whether I’m doing portraits or landscapes or anything. The same rules apply.

Anyway, good article. Just wanted to give props.
* Muhammad Jafar Says:

Nice pictures…Great tips…two thumbs up…!!!
* Mandy Says:

Loads of great tips here, especially for me as I don’t do much portrait photography. This post definitely makes it appealing.
* Michael Says:

These are outstanding suggestions, and the sample images used are great. I don’t do much portrait photography, but when I do I will try to use some of these techniques. I already know that I prefer taking candid shots rather than posed shots, especially when photographing children.
* Angie Says:

(Wendy-you made me laugh!)
I always feel I need a new camera!! But I can say that the first couple of suggestions I’ve actually tried without knowing I was doing something different. LOL. As anewby, it made me proud to know I’m going in the right direction…even if I do still believe I need a new camera!Great suggestions!! THANKS!
* johnny Says:

10 common sense things to think about when taking a photo. nice one.
* DC Web Designer Says:

Great advises indeed, nowadays.

With the rapid evolution of the digital cameras, photography is becoming common and mediocre. It is incredible how people love a camera that only take photos when everybody is smiling.

Creativity is the key to be differenced of the “camera shooters”
* Valerie Says:

Thanks so much for the tips! I just started getting into photography and I absolutely love it. I am definitely going to try your suggestions, cant wait!!
* Sarah Says:

These are great, thanks. I take mostly portraits so I’m always looking for something to do that’s a little different. The bubble gum & the b & w photo with the woman on the left are amazing. I’d love to try those!
* Frank Says:


I would actually tend to agree more with the poster above. Most of this tips and representative photos are truly great portraits. The first one, however, is really pretty bad save the unique perspective.
* David Says:

Thanks for the tips, I have tried some of these and the photos turned out great. It is hard for me to direct people so taking candid looking shots really work for me.
* Nilesh Says:

I really like the interesting tips. Keep it up! Herre are some of my portrait images.
* kck Says:

I thought it was really good gentle ons to the basic to pop pictures. Thanks I now more pictures to take
* Jocelyn Says:

Thanks for the tips. Always great to try new things!
* Gerry V Says:

Thanks for the tips
* Dianna A. Says:

Thanks so much for the tips.
* Yannis Says:

Great tips…beautiful pics
* Jurgen Says:

great tips and stunning portraits! Cheers
* James Says:

I saw the Annie Liebowitz retrospective exhibition in Brooklyn a few years ago (and have since bought the book). In the exhibition she had two adjacent portraits – one of Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, the other of Gen. Colin Powell – both in their full dress uniforms at the height of their military careers.

Gen. Schwartzkopf was totally 100% front+centre. Gen. Powell had his shoulders slightly swivelled. What their poses did was make their generations, personalities and command styles immediately obvious.

Two very powerful portraits.

Then on the opposite wall was a portrait of the 1st George W. Bush cabinet with Condoleeza Rice almost as the locus, right next to a group photo of Michael Moore’s film crew from “Fahrenheit 9/11″. Again, a very powerful pair of photographs exhibiting the traits of each group.
* John Says:

Rule 10 has yielded amazing results for me and has enabled my wife to use our Digital SLR to capture some amazing moments such as the first time my son tried to eat dirt (Look at dirt, put dirt in mouth, spit dirt out).

Sounds insane but framed its a precious memory.

Get a big memory card, enable rapid fire and hold the trigger. Its a blunt instrument but can do great things.
* Rob Says:

Nice Tips. I personally hate rules, who decided whats a great photo and what is not?
* Dan Says:

Love that line in number 8 “Sometimes it’s what is left out of an image that says more than what is included.”
It is so true. Some of the most powerful portraits I have seen do just that. Focus in on a personality revealing detail to tell the whole story. U close and personal.

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3 Responses to “best digital photography”

  1. Oh, Thanks! Really funny. Big ups!

  2. Your blog is interesting!

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Couldn’t have said it any better

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