Portrait Photography Tips: The World is Your Free Backdrop

The World is Your Free Backdrop

As you make your way through your daily routine, make small changes in your habits — instead of rushing through to get from point A to point B, slow down and take a look at the world as possible backdrop for your next portrait session.  Whether it’s a distressed barn with grey weathered wood or a tiled mosaic wall in the middle of a city, there’s plenty around for you to experiment with.

Although you want the focus to be on your subject, a great background (or lack of one entirely) can add emotion, depth, and feeling.  Once you have your location nailed down, it might help your subject to understand the feeling you want to capture.
Sometimes bold colors deter people. If this is you, look beyond the color and pay attention to the texture of a potential background.  An eye sore to most, like a rusty chain link fence with barbed wire for example, can create an amazing, eye catching contrast when shooting in black and white.  Learn more about contrast in The Art of Black and White Photography.

Use Angles to Your Advantage

Ditch the tripod.  Get your subject out of center of the photo.  And angle your camera!  It’s ok if portraits aren’t straight on.   In fact, you can create compelling composition by simply holding your camera diagonally in your hand.  But make it dramatic!  If you just hold your camera slightly askew, your angled-framing might look accidental.  If you make bold and deliberate angles happen, you’re bound to get interesting and fun results.  In the same vein, try shooting from above the subject while they are looking up or from down very low.  Sometimes magic can’t be planned.  The best shots often come from just simple experimentation.

Stop with the Posing Already

Some people dread having their photo taken.  As soon as the camera comes out, they paste on a fake smile and all of their muscles tense up making them look unnatural and uptight.  There’s an easy way to fix this problem – don’t have them pose.  Instead, have them take you to a favorite hangout, join them during a family outing, or just follow them around for a little while.  Eventually the fear of the lens dissipates and you’ll find the subject more comfortable which inevitably means a better shot.  If you’re shooting outdoors, consider taking a course in natural lighting like Chasing the Light: Photography and the Practice of Seeing. If shooting indoors, you should most definitely become very familiar with flashes and how to use them effectively.  There are many course on indoor lighting like Lighting Asylum or What the Flash/The Evolution of Light.

Give Them Props

What do I do with my hands?  This is a question many portrait photographers will get asked over and over again.  Make your subject feel comfortable by giving them something to do!  Not only will they find themselves distracted with a task, you might end up with some fun and unexpected results.  Whether it’s simply blowing a bubble, playing with a sparkler, or flying a paper airplane, a prop can add a lot of personality to a portrait.  Just make sure the prop is something that is visually exciting.  Having them hold a phone and asking them to text their friends might not be that compelling of a shot.  Keep it fun and interesting!

Editing is Your Friend

The light wasn’t perfect?  Makeup wore off?  Unexpected shadows?  These things happen to the best of the best.  You don’t want to throw out a perfectly good facial expression because there is a stray hair that is sitting awkwardly on your subject’s nose.  If you know how to use your tools in editing, these problems become little nuisances that can easily be fixed.  As you get to know your camera, you should be spending the same amount of time getting to know your editing tools.  Courses like Photoshop and Lightroom for Photographers are free and will save your sanity!