5 steps to taking better portraits

The other day we had a guest speaker come in and talk to us about portraiture, which made me think I’d share some of my knowledge and his knowledge about the topic with you. Now, I don’t just want to repeat what he told us, but tell you what I think makes a good portrait.

1) First of all, what is a portrait?
It’s defined as an impression, or representation of someone. That already means it’s more than simply showing someone’s face. It’s about representing them. And that can include all aspects of their personality.
So for me a good portrait tells the person’s story.

2) How do you get to see & capture someone’s personality?
People skills - that’s the most important key word here. You have to be sociable, get along with people, be a bit of a psychologist, read their body language, appear interested, and be interesting and open yourself. In order to get the chance to take a good portrait you have to collaborate. It all depends on the atmosphere that’s between you two.

3) So, what does that mean in practice?
Before you go and take pictures of someone do your research. Learn as much as you can about them beforehand, so you get a good idea of who they are, what they stand for, what makes them tick, etc.

It also matters where you’re taking their pictures. Is the environment related to them? E.g. if it’s the person’s home it will say so much about them! You want to capture that. It all adds to their personality.

In order to ‘break the ice’ you might want to tell a joke (if you’re good at that), or think of some other story that fits the situation. I believe that if you are relaxed and open-minded about the situation it will reflect back, and automatically put the other person at ease (unless you’re just two completely different characters).
There’s so much psychology involved.

4) How do you technically take a good portrait?
The eyes are the most important factor in a portrait. Make sure they’re sharp. Fine if their mouth or cheeks end up a bit soft, but really focus on the eyes. They are the part of the face that communicates most, and therefore makes the picture interesting and strong.

Also be aware of the fact, that people can only look into the camera for so long (if you want them to look into the camera). After a few seconds their eyes will get tired and start to look teary. Make them look out of the window or just away from the camera, and be ready to take that picture as soon as they look back at you, as their gaze will still be ‘fresh’ then.

Light is important. Another super important point to consider! I love natural light, not too harsh, maybe some interesting shapes and patterns created by shade. It all depends where you are, what environment you’re in, what time of the day it is, etc.

Make sure the background isn’t too distracting. You want the viewer to look at the person, and totally engage with them.
What’s most distracting in the background for me are strong bright neon lights and colours, and things ‘sticking’ out of the person’s head (e.g. a lamp in the background that’s right behind their face - it will seem to come out of their head in the final photo ;) )
After all make sure the background adds to the picture and the personality of the person you’re photographing. Which relates to the next point...

5) Create a feel.
What are you trying to say? What is the point of showing the person’s character in the picture? And how can you capture that?

You’ll get to see some more examples of portraits I took as part of a photo essay in a different post in a few days.

For more technical help with your photos have a look at the posts in the ‘advice’ category.


  1. I LOVE that definition of a portrait... Seriously puts the mood right. =]

    Kate from Clear the Way