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10 Top Portrait Tips

Since no single pose is perfect for every model, professional or otherwise, each person before your lens should be looked at individually to decide what to highlight and what to hide. That said, there are basic positions and compositional rules that are extremely helpful to have in mind when going into a photo shoot.

When it comes to photographing a “real” person (rather than a professional model) for an environmental portrait, you may want to capture an element that highlights that person’s uniqueness—even if it isn’t necessarily the most flattering part of that person. A famous photograph of Jimmy Durante, for instance, exaggerates his large nose. Artists who draw caricatures take advantage of these elements. Alfred Hitchcock had a distinctive body type best portrayed in profile. Jay Leno’s and Kirk Douglas’ chins also come to mind. Think about the desired end result—what you want to get across—and it will help you decide on the most appropriate pose for your subject.

My top 10 list of “Dos and Don’ts” comes from years of shooting fashion, beauty and celebrities, as well as interviewing many of the great names of photography, including Helmut Newton, Yousuf Karsh, Patrick Demarchelier, Annie Leibovitz and Peter Lindbergh.

First, the Portrait “Don’ts”

1. Don’t let the model put two hands behind her head with the elbows flung out like chicken wings. Unless she is in Kate Moss’ league. This is the most amateur of all poses. Corny is never in style!

2. Don’t crop your model at the hips. Let the body resolve itself to a thinner area between the knee and the waist. For female models, this lets the hourglass contour of a woman’s body reveal itself.

3. Don’t crop a person at the joints. This will lead the viewer out of the image, wherever that appendage exits the frame.

4. Don’t let your model lock an arm in a straight vertical position. This creates a big shoulder which, besides being a distraction, makes the head appear smaller.

5. Don’t say, “No, no, no,” if you don’t like a pose your model takes. Rather, direct the model into a position that works for him or her. Sometimes, exposing a frame or two in a less-than-ideal pose keeps the session flowing and helps protect shy or inexperienced subjects from becoming overly self-conscious. If you’re not getting the pose you want, demonstrate what you want him or her to do. At the very least, you’ll get a good laugh; at best, you’ll get a great shot.

Now for the Portrait “Dos”

6. Do take advantage of the knowledge of others. When I photograph a professional model for a fashion shoot, I ask the designer, fashion editor or a stylist what elements of the clothing should be highlighted and how a particular outfit or dress should hang. When taking the photograph, it’s vital to look at the whole ensemble, not just the model’s face or body position. This applies to photographing friends and family, too. Talk to your subject about what she’s wearing, jewelry or other personal effects that you can highlight. It will make the portrait more meaningful for her.

7. Do try shooting headshots from slightly above your subject’s eye level. When the subject looks up at the camera, the eyes are more open and a double chin, if there is one, is reduced. This angle also creates a nice jawline. Focal lengths between 85mm and 105mm (on a full-frame 35mm sensor) work well because of the lens compression. An aperture around ƒ/4.5, because of its shallow depth of field, helps focus the viewer on the eyes—which, as they say, are the windows to the soul.

8. Do try shooting from a slightly lower angle, aiming up, if you want to convey a sense of power. Your subject appears to loom above the viewer in a dominant position.

9. Do make sure to separate the arms from the waist. Arms flat against the side of your subject create the illusion of a very wide waist.

10. Do study classic photographs created by photographers such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. There’s a reason why they’re legendary. When you come across portraits that make you stop and look, take note of what’s working for you and try those ideas yourself. Learn from what you like.

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