How to Take Portraits Well

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Portraiture can be a doozy when you pick up your first camera.  Even after several years taking portraits, good photographers can still struggle to take portraits well.  These are lessons that I have learned, and tips that will help you close the gap.

Take Portraits Well:  Tried and True Tips

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1. Practice.

Portraiture is like any other kind of photography in one respect:  practice makes perfect.  Or, as one of my school teachers once told me, perfect practice makes perfect.  In this case, though, making a few mistakes along the way isn’t going to ruin you.  The photographic community doesn’t let our mistakes slide, and it will be vocal when it sees something amiss.  So practice, and practice often.  Ask your friends to sit for you.  Ask your family members.  Don’t substitute your pets, and don’t try strangers right away.  The easiest place to start is with people you know, who you are comfortable with.

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2. Work slowly.

The pros have speed.  But when you’re first starting out, it helps to tell yourself that you have all the time in the world.  Take care to pose, and take more time with your compositions.  Speak up when you want something in particular, and don’t be afraid to show your subjects what you want in a pose.  To take portraits well, you have to identify with your subject.  Put yourself in their shoes.  Slowly disarm them, and cut through the barriers.  Eventually you will reach an “ah-ha” moment.

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3. Don’t be afraid of models.

Professional models can be intimidating.  As a beginner, you can gain a lot of experience working with them.  A model who also takes photographs is a goldmine of information, creative savvy, and recommendations.  They also tend to know poses that work, and this can boost your confidence when you first start out.  It can also lead you to consider which poses you like and which poses you don’t like.

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4. The self-portrait is a great tool.

Here it is important to clarify.  Self-portraits are not selfies.  Don’t use bathroom mirrors, and don’t hold the camera at arms length.  Use a tripod, or a steady surface.  If you don’t have a camera remote, use the timed shutter function.  In either case, pose yourself, and be ruthless in your critique when you look at the image.  It can take a while until you nail it, but this kind of practice will help you take portraits well.

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5. Look for portraits.

As time goes by and you think about poses, looks, and body language, as well as facial features, you will start to see portraits everywhere.  This can help you move into other kinds of portraiture, like street photography and environmental portraiture.  It can enhance documentary-style portraits by helping you see that perfect moment as it happens.  And it will help you cultivate a discerning eye in terms of what passes for a portrait and what doesn’t.

There ya go – five tips that have proven indispensable time and time again.


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