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07.13.2011

Portrait photography is a unique and challenging art. Not only do you have to help a person look their best, but ideally you will also create something unique that reflects your personal style. You don’t just want a headshot, but a piece of art. 

So what can you do to make your portrait images more than just an image of a face? How can you add interest or make them more visually appealing? Here are three tips that I utilize regularly to make more interesting portraits. 

  1. Utilize a very narrow depth of field
  2. Try unusual angles
  3. Incorporate the environment or location

 

I.  Utilize a very narrow depth of field

By shooting a very narrow depth of field in a portrait you help to simplify the background and to focus the viewer’s eye on the subject. On the two images below the narrow depth of field turns the background into subtle and pleasing tones and textures. In many of my portraits I shoot at an aperture between f 1.4- f 2.8 (Sigma 85mm f/1.4 is my favorite!). I love how the focus falls off, so that the background is completely soft.  Furthermore, the narrow depth of field keeps only the eyes in extremely sharp focus, and therefore makes the photograph more intimate. 

In this portrait, the narrow depth of field really helps bring focus to the subject’s eyes and makes for a more intimate portrait. Notice how by shooting at 1.4, while his eyes are in focus even his chin is out of focus. Sigma 85mm 1.4 lens, shot at f 1.4, ISO 640, 1/2000 second.

In this portrait the narrow depth of field is essential for simplifying the background. In this location the background was trees and bushes illuminated by evening light, and the narrow depth of field makes them compliment the subject instead of distract from the subject. Sigma 85mm 1.4 lens, at f 1.8, 1/60 second, ISO 100.

II.  Try unusual angles

Portraits are usually shot at eye-level to the subject. When you vary the angle you shoot from, you add interest to your image and make it different than a ‘typical portrait’.  Try standing high above the subject and shoot down. Try laying on the floor, shooting from the side, etc. 

Take these two portraits for example. In the first image, I stood on a box above my subject so that I could shoot down to create an unusual angle. This helps make the portrait interesting and also more dynamic. In the second portrait I laid down on the floor and shot through the grass to create a very unusual portrait angle. 

In this boudoir portrait, I stood on a box above my subject shooting down. This unusual angle makes the photo more dynamic and visually appealing. Sigma 85mm 1.4 lens, f 14, ISO 100, 1/100 second.

Here I laid down in the grass so that I was actually shooting through the grass to create this portrait. By shooting my 85mm 1.4 at its widest aperture, I was able to blur out the foreground and the background and therefore bring more attention to my portrait subject. Sigma 50mm 1.4, f 1.4, ISO 100, 1/800 second.

III.  Incorporate the environment or location

When we think of the term ‘portrait’ we usually think of just a shot of a face. Yet many successful portraits incorporate an interesting location. This location may add visual interest simply because it has interesting colors or unusual patterns. A location or environment may also add to the content of the image when the location takes on significance to the subject. For example, an image of an artist in an artist’s studio may be an interesting variation instead of just a headshot of the artist. 

In the senior portrait image below, this student was a singer and wanted to be shot in a location that looked like an album cover. The lines of the walls form a beautiful vanishing point and leading lines within the frame. This successful portrait utilizes the environment to add visual interest. 

Here the location of the alleyway enhances the composition and interest of this senior portrait. The walls of the alley create a beautiful vanishing point and leading lines. Sigma 50mm 1.4, f 1.4, ISO 100, 1/125 second.

In this senior portrait, the train creates very graphic shapes and lines that make the image engaging. Though the subject is small in the frame, the image is still fundamentally a portrait. 

In this image the very unusual location makes the portrait more interesting. Furthermore, the shapes of the train help to create a very graphic environment for this portrait. Sigma 50mm 1.4, f 1.4, ISO 100, 1/1250 second.

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  1. Thanks, great read.

  2. Cool tips!

  3. Love your tips and explanations Lindsay.
    I LOVE shooting wide open. Your tips will give me a new perspective and are a good reminder, to think not only of the face you’re shooting, but what’s framing them and how you can manipulate your enviroment just by aperture choice!

  4. Very nice, Lindsay! My style and shooting aesthetic is similar to what the author recommends. I’m currently shooting with a Sigma SD15 (though I wish I could afford an SD1); it is converted to Nikon mount and some of my favorite glass includes Zeiss ZF 85mm and Vivitar Series 1 (v1) 70mm-210mm Macro-Zoom.