10 Keys To Unique Portraits

No matter what type of photography you like, at one point or another, you’ll find yourself shooting a portrait. I know landscape photographers who swore they would never shoot a portrait in their career, and one week later they were shooting a portrait. Weddings, graduations, holidays or a day at the zoo all present great opportunities to photograph people.

Even professional portrait photographers sometimes struggle to create interesting portraits. We’ve all seen the cliché snapshots and boring group shots suffering from static, stiff poses. Creating compelling portraits takes a combination of relevant location, interesting light and good rapport with your subject.

I like to think outside the box for my portraits. What pose or unique location can I put my subject in to spice things up? What lighting will be interesting? No more 45º big softboxes on my subject—how about using hard-edged lights at sharp, flaring angles?

In the end, you need to accomplish your creative goals. This might be photographing a business executive at his desk, clean and simple. But shooting other portraits, you’ll have more flexibility to experiment. The next time you’re planning a shoot, try one of these ideas to add some new life to your portraits.

1. Find A Dark Alley
Almost every town has an alley. If you live in a big city, your choices will be numerous. In my town, we have three or four dramatic alleys for photography. What makes a good alley? Narrow walls, interesting brick work, street lamps and gritty textures all make alleys a great place for a portrait.

Working in a narrow space provides a lot of surfaces for flash to rake across, adding depth and drama to your shot. Try putting a flash right behind your subject aimed at his head. This flash will spill onto the alley walls beside him, creating a dramatic look.

2. Get In The Water
This is bound to make your subject think you’ve gone off the deep end (no pun intended). For subjects like kayakers, swimmers and surfers, water is an obvious location for a portrait. But try convincing a CEO or wedding couple that this is a good idea. Putting people in water, whether it’s a small pool or the ocean, often strips away all pretense and brings out a very primal reaction in your subject.

Consider that your location can help create the overall mood and style of your shot. Putting your subject in the water may or may not be a good idea, but it’s always a possibility.

I once was with a couple who renewed their wedding vows on a beach in Baja. They asked me to shoot photos for them, and I suggested we do some portraits in the water. They agreed, and we created great images of the couple neck-deep in the ocean with the sun setting in the background. Never say never to an idea!

3. Include animals
Another icebreaker for working with subjects is having them pose with an animal. Imagine a cowboy portrait; more likely than not there’s a horse in the shot. Posing a veterinarian with an animal makes sense and adds a new dimension to the image. I’ve had subjects go from quiet and reserved to open and animated simply by suggesting we photograph them with an animal.

I was recently in the Dominican Republic photographing surfers. We met a local farmer on the beach who was shy at first. But when we suggested he ride his horse along the beach, his smile never quit. He rode his horse along the crashing surf in warm evening light, creating some fantastic shots.

One of my all-time favorite portraits is Richard Avedon’s model Dovima standing between two towering elephants. The tension between high fashion and animal instinct is striking.

4. Swing at the playground
Nothing brings out the joy in kids better than playtime at the local playground. Unique portrait locations are plentiful. How about photographing your subject hanging from the bars, soaring past in the swing or buried in sand?

One of my favorite playground rides is the spinning carousel. Try sitting across from your subject, with someone gently spinning the carousel, and shoot at 1/30 sec. You should have a joyous shot of your subject against a blurred kaleidoscopic background.

5. Go back in time
Okay, this location is going to raise eyebrows, and may not be available to everybody, but you never know what’s near your home. I’ve scouted around my town for countless hours looking for new locations to shoot portraits. One day I decided to go just a few more miles down a road I had scouted in the past. Around the next corner, I discovered a perfectly reconstructed early 1900s maximum security jail cell in a field. There also were Old West buildings, stores, tractors and windmills. It turned out the owner liked collecting these items and had turned his field into a museum of old structures. He was more than happy to let me set up lights and a smoke machine to create a portrait in his jail cell.

Many towns have historical sites that offer lots of great portrait locations. You might be surprised what’s in your own town.

6. Try the rooftop
Interesting perspectives also result in portraits outside the box. Just think how many images you’ve taken standing up photographing your subject at eye level. Try getting really low or high for a fresh perspective. I frequently use a step ladder to get a high perspective for portraits.

Another great location is a building rooftop, and many cities have high open gardens, restaurants and viewing platforms as well. Since my town only has a few tall buildings and none with accessible space, I shoot on the top floor of a parking garage. This high angle allows great views over the town. I like to shoot at twilight to burn in the city lights and capture dramatic skies in the background.

7. Shoot at night
When most people think about creating a portrait, they think of well-lit studios, bright beaches, sunny streets—scenes that have lots of light. But what about shooting at night? Scenes transform into mysterious shadowy locations at night, which may be just what you need to create an interesting portrait of your subject.

Look for glowing streetlight scenes, colorful neon building fronts and reflecting water on the street—or add your own. You’ll need to add some flash to this image; a single unit is all you need. Experiment with different angles of flash and exposures to burn in the street and neon lights in the background. Adding colored gels to the flash will open up even more possibilities shooting nighttime portraits.

8. Go out in bad weather
I recently was on a shoot in Moab, Utah. We had lined up mountain biking models, scouted locations and charged up strobe packs. Then the snow started falling…and falling. Holed up in the hotel room the next day, we decided to shift gears and try shooting some lifestyle snowshoeing portraits in the snowstorm. We drove to a forested location, and the models starting stomping around in the snow.

I used my truck as a blind, shooting out an open window at the models, b
ut staying perfectly dry inside. Falling snowflakes added a new dimension to the images and made the photos pop.

The next time light rain or snow is falling, try shooting a portrait in these conditions for something different.

9. Use "edgy" light
Similar to unique locations, your choice of lighting also can result in non-cliché portraits. Soft light sources are flattering and make subjects look good. I use this type of light for many portraits. But after I have the soft light shot, I start thinking outside the box with my lighting. What other ways can I light my subject?

This is an exercise in breaking the rules, doing things that would make most portrait photographers cringe. I’ll be the first to admit that when I teach my lighting workshops and see students using bare-bulb flash from radical angles, I think, “Oh, boy, this is going to be a disaster.” But I let them shoot anyway since a lot of learning is accomplished by making mistakes. The real shocker is when I look at their images later and they look great. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

10. Lightpaint your model
If you don’t own any flashes, try lightpainting your subject. All you need is an inexpensive flashlight and a dark room, and you’re ready to go.

Lightpainting involves setting your camera on a tripod, opening up the shutter for a minute or more and illuminating your subject with a flashlight. Try adding light to select parts of your subject to create some contrast and uneven lighting. Also lightpaint the background behind your subject to add more depth and interest to the shot. Try covering your flashlights with colored gels for more effects.

Bring It All Together
I just had a client ask me to photograph a local band for their album cover. He said they were looking for something different, edgy—nothing mainstream and boring. Perfect! I’m thinking of having them float in a pool at night and shoot straight down from a high step ladder. I’ll use some hard-edged lights with blue gels underwater for the background and gridded lights to illuminate each of their faces. Maybe I should have some water snakes slithering in the pool with them. This shot is going to be way outside the box!

Tom Bol is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Colorado. You can see more of his photography at www.tombolphoto.com.

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