10 Top Portrait Photography Tips

Professional photographer Brett Harkness shares his ten top portrait photography tips with you.

|  Portraits and People
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Brett Harkness is a professional photographer based near Manchester, UK. He is well known for providing comprehensive lifestyle and wedding photography courses to beginners and experts alike.

1. Push the boundaries

Physical limitations, such as space and light, can restrict your creativity within group shots. Besides, with larger numbers of people, you’ll want a more classic composition that appeals to wider tastes. By taking some of the group out to work with as lone subjects, you can experiment with perspective or placement within the frame and get something more unique. But before doing this, make sure you and your sitter are on the same page. If your client wants something safe, then it’s probably best not to push your composition in a different direction.

Photo by Brett Harkness
Photo by Brett Harkness.

2. Be a comedian

Like a stand-up comedian, it can be useful to gently tease one of the members of the group, such as the person who turns up 20 minutes late.

You can pick out such a person to use as a focal point to make everyone else laugh. This helps establish a connection with your group but, more importantly, it elicits genuine reactions for your shots.

Portrait of a young girl
Photo by Brett Harkness.

3. Break up any large groups

Sometimes, there can be so many members of a family that it can be difficult to pose all of them effectively without the composition becoming over-crowded.

In such circumstances, you could try using fences or gates as compositional devices. Sit the children in front of it and the adults behind, and the addition of the object will frame the shot well.

4. Let your subjects do the work

Whether you’re shooting large groups or individuals, a great way of coming up with more creative portraits is to leave a prop lying around and allow your subjects to decide for themselves what to do with it.

For example, at a recent shoot Brett opened up a set of French doors and cleared out the room behind them so that he’d have a clear, black background. Then he placed a small wooden chair in the doorway and focused his camera on it.

He told the two boys he was photographing that they could do whatever they wanted with the chair. At first, they tried to get on it at the same time, before alternating and then sitting in front of it.
"The shoot became all about the chair," Brett says. "Each frame was different, like in a flick book. Everything has to be the same, though, or it won’t work."

Lifestyle portrait
Photo by Brett Harkness.

5. Establish a relationship

If you’re working with one subject, think about how you can incorporate someone else into your composition. By photographing two people, you can create a second point of interest in your picture. But, more importantly, you’re establishing a relationship between them.

6. Get in close

At the end of your shoot your subjects should be more relaxed, so put on a shorter lens and get close. So close, in fact, that they can see themselves reflected in your lens. Kids, especially, love to see themselves in the glass and will get even closer. They’ll sit and stare down into the camera and this is when you can get portraits with real intensity. The eyes are sharp and thoroughly engaged with the camera. This is when your sitters will reveal more of their true personality.

Street Photography Portrait

Photo by Brett Harkness.

7. Tell a story

Rather than simply grouping all the men on one side and the women on another, think about how your arrangement of people can tell a story about them. A great way to establish somebody as the patriarch or matriarch of a family is to seat them in a chair, with the rest of the family grouped around them.

8. Stay on the same plane

One of the hardest things to do is to shoot a family in bleak weather. To get the optimum depth of field you need to use an aperture of at least f/8, but on a dull winter day with low light, your ISO will have to be high in order to shoot at that aperture. Pose everyone in the group along the same focal plane if you’re struggling for light, so that your aperture doesn’t have to be so narrow.

9. Go for the most flattering view

Like in any group, you’re going to have individuals of all different sizes and shapes within a family. Low vantage points can be a great way of giving added emphasis to your subjects, but remember that this view isn’t as flattering to older people.

Portrait of "Beth"

Photo by Brett Harkness.

Balance Skin tones

If you’re shooting someone with pale skin tones, natural light is best. Flash light will reflect off their face and you’ll lose the vital details you were hoping to capture. On the other hand, a little fill-in flash goes a long way with subjects who have darker skin tones. Used against a bright source of back lighting, such as the sky or a window, your fill-in flash can brighten up your subject’s facial features.

What’s more, hard light from a reflector can produce an interesting effect on subjects with dark skin by enhancing contrast and giving you a fuller range of tones.

Brett Harkness is a professional photographer based near Manchester, UK. He is well known for providing comprehensive lifestyle and wedding photography courses to beginners and experts alike.

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