There is an almost endless source of portrait photography tips out there on the internet and in books, however the best ones are those that take into account not only technical aspects like composition and lighting, but also the more abstract elements that give a photographer the skills to develop their power of storytelling in the context of the portrait.
The following portrait photography tips to help you create captivating and striking images come from the acclaimed Masters’ own personal insights.
1. Make your Subject Feel Comfortable
As one of the world’s most sought after and successful portrait photographers, Albert Watson has had many years to develop his rapport building skills, and ensuring that your subject is comfortable and confident is one of his top portrait photography tips. Of course how you go about this will, by its nature, be different in every situation, but whether it’s in a studio or on location it’s important not to rush the process.
Albert suggests when tackling an action portrait, for example a dancer, to start with a static shot in order to get to know the subject and allow them time to feel confident, not only in front of the camera, but with you as the photographer. For a standard portrait, it could mean taking a number of candid images while you’re chatting with your subject before starting the session proper. However Albert also cautions not to allow too much time for your subject to get bored or restless. Use the impetus and spontaneity of the comfortable ambience that you set in place.
Sergei Polunin, by Albert Watson
2. Be Alert to the Unguarded Moment
Master photographer Steve McCurry’s iconic Afghan Girl image is the quintessential portrait of an unguarded moment. Watching for those magical moments when a subject’s ‘mask’ is down, and allowing your camera to capture something truly special from within is one of Steve’s enduring portrait photography tips. Learning how to do this has the power to change the way you work and will allow you to take your images to a new level.
Sharbat Gula, Afghan Girl, at Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, 1984, by Steve McCurry
Capturing a subject in an unguarded moment can reveal what Steve calls their ‘essential soul’, and it makes for an extremely powerful and relatable visual capture of a moment in time. It takes talent, experience and immediacy to be able to innately recognise those moments of rawness and vulnerability in your subject and act on them. But when a moment like this is captured it truly affords the viewer a glimpse into that essence of their soul.
3. Create Depth and Mystery in Shadows
While one of the most critical portrait photography tips is to learn how to use available lighting to its best advantage (both artificial and natural), Albert Watson is a virtuoso in the use of shadows to bring depth and mystery to his images. Of course, there are no shadows without a light source, so the two are intricately entwined, but the skill to be learned is in knowing how both detail and lack of detail can be used to create drama.
Rather than go to great lengths to light every square inch of the frame, Albert suggests learning how to critically analyse your composition and decide where the play of shadow could enhance the mood and effect of the overall scene. Leaving parts of the face and body of a subject in darkness, for example, can add to the enigma and sense of mystery in your image.
Clint Eastwood, by Albert Watson
4. Look for, or Create Contrast in Colour
While impeccable composition plays a huge part in Steve McCurry’s images, he also employs the contrast of colours to magnificent effect. There are multiple elements of colour to be found and used to your advantage, whether it’s in the studio or out on location. Steve focuses on aspects like skin tone, clothing colour and the background to create maximum contrast and drama. Through his skilful consideration of tones and colours, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the subject’s eyes, which – inevitably in Steve’s work – are the arresting focus of a portrait.
Nomad Child. Amdo, Tibet, 2001, by Steve McCurry
For both location and studio shooting, take the time to consider the subject’s skin tone in relation to their clothing and proposed background. While you can’t always control every aspect of colour, simply developing your awareness of the contrast, and planning ahead where possible, will allow you to capture more striking images.
5. Experiment with Angles
If you study the most striking of the Masters’ works, you’ll often see that they’re shot from an unconventional angle. While there’s definitely a place for straight down the lens, eye level portraiture, developing a habit of moving around the scene and experimenting with different angles is one of the easiest portrait photography tips to put into practice.
Shooting up or down to your subject can create completely different effects and add huge impact. Get up on a ladder, lie down on the ground, or shoot from side on – the key is to experiment and learn what kind of effects you can create from specific vantages and camera angles.
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