The Essentials To Bad Ass Portrait Photography

One of the best bits of advice I ever received regarding portrait photography came from my photography teacher in Journalism school. He told me when you take a portrait everything better be perfect because can control the background, light, pose, and composition so there is no excuse.

Every time I’m setting up a portrait his words enter my head “Thank you Jim Merithew” by the way. He was also the editor for Wired so the man knows what he’s talking about.

Recently back from mentoring at the Canon Photo Clinic in Japan where I worked quite a bit teaching portrait photography to the participants I figured now was as a good a time as ever to write this.

Here is my quick and easy guide to better portrait photography. After you read this, you should be able to make even someone like me look good.

Subject

Find someone with intriguing features or just an overall interesting look to them, someone that after you first glance you want to know more about them.

Background

Find a background that you like and make that your canvas. Pay attention to what the subject is wearing and then look for a background that relates to their look and their clothing. I love textured backgrounds, steal, wood, fences etc and then I try to relate that the subject I’m photographing.

Light

Search, hunt rather for beautiful light. I love high contrasting light and shadows and that typically comes in the first and last hour of the day. During those hours is when I get all my best shots. I’m looking for light that fits the human shape.

What do I mean by that? When I’m searching for patterns within the light and shadows I’m looking for space to place my subject within those patterns.

Another crucial step is making sure the light hits your subjects face. It might be uncomfortable for your subject so you should be prepared to execute your shot quickly.

Composition

Go beyond the face, meaning if a person has an amazingly textured and interesting face then yes get up close and personal but you don’t always have to frame that way. I like to use a 35mm for my street portraits because I like to incorporate a sense of place within my portraits. I’m always looking for the right balance of my subjects and their surroundings. Also, experiment with framing only a portion of the face or someone eyes or lips, frame in a way to draw attention to where you want your viewers eye to go. Sometime I like to leave the eyes a mystery, play around with different compositions but frame with purpose.

Layers

I like to build layers within my frame. I’m looking for a background to start with as my canvas but in the foreground I love shooting through things to in order to add more depth or character to my image. The world is filled with things to shoot through, you just have to find them.

Expression and posture

Okay so you’ve got your subject, background, composition and you’ve found beautiful light, now what. Pay attention to your subjects expression and posture.

Start with posture, do you want them standing stern, sitting more relaxed, or something high fashion. Remember the look you are going for with your background and composition and make sure your posture matches that look.

For expression, start with what comes natural to that person. See what their go to face is and then experiment but don’t be afraid to direct. Try having them looking at the camera, off camera, but lose the fake smile(you know the one I’m taling about) and lose the look up into the sky(unless your subject is astronaut).

It’s a lot to consider but without all these elements working in harmony your image could be ruined. Beautiful light on a boring subject or a busy background is still a bad image. Slow down and make a mental check list and don’t give up until you have it perfect.

Homework

Take some time with a friend and hit the streets of your neighborhood to practice and remember no excuse for every element not being perfect as you are controlling all the variables.

Share your portraits with me on my Facebook page or anywhere on social media and add the hashtag #AskMOTT