7 Quick Tips for Beginners To Create More Interesting Portraits

Sometimes, you need just need a glimmer of inspiration — a seed that sprouts into an idea — and you're back creating great images. Here are seven simple tips that might just be the poke in the right direction you need.

1. Ditch Eye Contact

There are soft rules in portraiture that many abide by, whether knowingly or not. One of the most common — and often accidental — is eye contact. The eyes are usually crucial to any portrait, with much of a person's emotion being conveyed through them. It is also undoubtedly more engaging — in most cases at least — to have the subject making eye contact with the viewer of the image. However, portraits are one of the most engaging types of images you can take simply by virtue of having a human element. 

Choosing to have your subject's eyes covered, closed, or having them look off-camera is a great way to add interest and some story to the image. While it won't work on every portrait, when implemented in the right context, you can set your image apart from the ocean of nice portraits out there.

Singer, Ryan Beatty for FAULT Magazine.

2. Change Location

The old adages suggest that if your images aren't interesting, you need to find something more interesting to shoot, and it's not wrong. While shooting in your garden or setting up a home studio can work perfectly well, scouting unique and charismatic locations can really pay dividends. The next portrait shoot you want to do — even if it's just with your children — find somewhere new to do it. In the U.K., one of my go-to types of location for shoots is National Trust parks, but really, it can be anywhere a little different. Woodlands have tricky light but can make for wonderful and diverse settings.

3. Experiment With Angles

A common mistake beginners make with portraiture is to stick to eye-level, face-on portraits. I made this mistake too, and while it's fitting for some shoots, it can become tiresome unless you're shooting a specific type of uniform headshot or series. We've all seen those videos and pictures of photographers slithering around on the ground for the right shot, but there's some value in that sort of freedom! Get up high, get down low, and experiment with your angle until you find something new and interesting.

The angle I often gravitate towards is low to the ground. I'll place the subjects somewhere either in the middle or towards the top of the frame and then make sure that the foreground leading up to them is interesting in some way. Typically, I look for either reflection in water or texture and color.

Leaves make for great foreground interest in low-angle shots as they add both texture and color.

4. Add Color

Without thinking, portraits can become limited in their color palette. People aren't brightly colored naturally and wardrobes tend to err towards monochromatic for the most part, or at the least muted. Adding in some vibrant colors can quickly spice up an image. There are several ways I tend to go about doing this: location, wardrobe, and lighting. I will look to see what role color is likely to play, and then, if I can control the location or wardrobe, I'll play to that. However, in the sort of editorial shoots I do, I often don't have too much of a say in those two, so I will use lighting instead. This can be done with colored gels over your flashguns or RGB LEDs.

While reds and cyans are great for dramatic portraits, don't forget that you can use oranges and light blues to convey different times of the day, revolutionizing the feel of your image instantly.

5. Create a Story

In my early portraiture, I was simply happy to be taking pictures of people. I was content to just photograph somebody — really anybody — outside using only natural light. Gradually, however, I yearned to push past that and create more interesting images. One commonality of images I gravitated towards, especially portraits, was that they told a story in one way or another. That is, they weren't simply images of people, but they appeared to have a backstory attached. This can be done with themes, combinations of location and wardrobe, subject matter, and many others. One of the easiest ways is with the use of props.

6. Use Props

Props in photographs needn't be jarring or cliche; they can be anything from a point of interest to the concept around which the whole image revolves. Several series I have created, including my most successful, have stemmed from a single prop that led me down a road. However, they needn't be as central as that. In some of my commercial work, I have drafted a prop that fits nicely with the subject's brand image. For example, in the below image, I was shooting JJ Julius Son, lead singer of the band KALEO. He told me he is also a classically trained pianist and there was a piano fairly nearby, so I asked him to play. While he did, I moved the lighting around him and captured some of my favorite images from the shoot.

KALEO lead singer, JJ Julius Son for Euphoria Magazine.

7. Shoot With the Longest Focal Length You Have

There is an allure of the ever-present 50mm when beginners start taking portraits, and for good reason. However, I would suggest ditching the f/1.8, and where possible, shoot with the longest focal length you have. 200mm at f/4 or even 300mm at f/5.6 are usually combinations that can be created with low-price lenses, and they can make for beautiful portraits. Not only do longer focal lengths tend to be more flattering in portraits, but due to the longer focal length, the subject separation from the background will be improved. Don't get hung up on the fact that your bokeh won't be as magical as with an f/1.8 lens!

How Do You Make Your Portraits More Interesting?

We have a number of excellent portrait photographers in our community, and if you're here, why not share some of your suggestions for making portraits more interesting? Do you gravitate towards a particular method or change?

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1 Comment

MIchael DiGregori's picture

I'm curious why almost no one seems to be saying the 80mm (equivalent) lens renders the most pleasing modeling of facial features, anymore. This is what I always heard back in the SLR film days. Can you explain the thinking behind using these more telephoto lenses for portraits?