How to Take Better Portraits in Just 4 Steps

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If you look at the portraits you take and think, “Gee, these could be better” but aren’t sure what to do to make them better, this tutorial is for you!

We all make mistakes when creating portraits, but there are some mistakes that are more common than others that are actually pretty easy to resolve.

And rather than offer up every possible scenario for what might go wrong and cause your portraits to go awry, let’s just focus on these common issues and see what we can do to help you take your portraits to the next level.

Without further ado, let’s get to it!

Make It Interesting

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Everyone has seen the “typical” portrait of the subject posed and looking right down the barrel of the lens.

Don’t get me wrong – those types of portraits are necessary and can be quite fetching.

But if you want to elevate your portrait skills to another level, it’s a good idea to challenge yourself to think outside the box.

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There’s tons of things you can do to create a more unique portrait, too.

Work from an interesting angle to give viewers an unexpected point of view, as seen above.

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You can also place your portrait subject in an environment that has interesting features.

This might be a graffiti-filled alleyway as seen above, a lush garden, or a landscape that’s got great lighting.

Heck, even taking a documentary style portrait of your subject in their own home can be a beautiful version of a portrait.

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You can even incorporate props into the shot.

Props are an interesting proposition because, on the one hand, they give your subject something to do with their hands, which helps them relax in front of the camera.

On the other hand, if the props aren’t right for the situation, they can stick out like a sore thumb and look pretty terrible. Just be careful in what props you choose, and if they don’t feel right for the shot, get rid of them!

Learn More:

  • Portrait Photography Tips You Need to Start Using Today
  • Unique Ideas for Creating Faceless Portraits

Watch Your Corners

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Obviously, when you create a portrait, your attention is on your subject.

Not only that, your camera’s focus is on your subject, you’re talking to your subject, and (hopefully) you’re directing your subject regarding what to do as well.

That means that it can be easy for portrait photographers to miss distracting elements along the edges of the frame, like the tree trunks and park bench in the image above.

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Whether you’re shooting a portrait in a city, a park, or out in the middle of nowhere, there’s always something that can creep into the edge of the shot and cause a distraction.

Trash, a tree branch, and an odd shadow from an off-camera object are all things you need to look for when composing your portrait.

If the situation doesn’t allow you to crop the distraction out of the shot, you should at the very least work on the depth of field such that it’s blurry and blends in with the rest of the background, as seen in the image above.

Learn More:

  • How to Blur the Background in Portraits in Four Simple Steps
  • Got a Bad Background? Save Your Portraits With These 3 Easy Tips

Watch Your Lines, Too

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One of the most fundamental rules of landscape photography is to ensure that the horizon is absolutely level.

If it isn’t, it throws the entire image off-kilter, and no matter how beautiful the subject, no matter how awesome the lighting, the image won’t be as successful.

The same is true of portraits…

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Whether you’re taking a portrait outside or in, if there’s lines in the shot, be sure they are absolutely straight in the frame.

This goes for horizons, vertical elements like trees or buildings, doorways, windows, and so forth.

And remember – you can’t always fix crooked lines in post-processing, either, so it’s even more necessary to focus on your framing so you get those lines stick-straight in-camera.

Learn More:

  • Enroll in the PhotographyTalk Portrait Photography Mastery Course

Use the Light You’ve Got

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I think some photographers believe that to get a great portrait that you have to invest in a lot of expensive lighting equipment.

That’s just not the case…

That doesn’t mean you have to be a natural light portrait photographer, either (though natural light is awesome!).

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Obviously, light is perhaps the single most important element in any photograph, so seeking out great lighting is paramount to the success of your portraits.

It’s just a matter of utilizing the lighting that you have in a way that maximizes its impact on the shot.

For example, if you have a single light source like natural light coming through a window, have your subject look towards that light.

Not only will that help the light fall evenly on their face, but it will also create a nice contrast between them and the background.

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If you’re out shooting portraits during the daytime, the key is to find a way to diffuse the light so it’s less harsh.

This might involve finding shade under a tree or using a diffuser to block the sun from hitting your subject.

If you’re out at night, find a light source light a street lamp that gives off enough illumination to highlight your subject. Just remember to have them face the light!

Learn More:

  • Easy Portrait Lighting Tips for Beginner Photographers
  • 6 Classic Portrait Photography Lighting Setups

Putting It All Together

As I noted in the introduction, there’s a lot that can go wrong in portrait photography, and it’s just about impossible to account for each and every mistake.

However, if you practice the tips outlined above, you’ll be in a better position to get portraits that are eye-catching for a good reason!

For more great portrait photography tips, check out the links in the Learn More sections throughout this article. Also give the video above from Photos in Color a look.

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