55 Quick Tips for Better Portrait Photos

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5. Crop in

If you don’t take the advice in #4, fix the problem when you process your portrait. Get rid of unnecessary background, headroom, and other space around your subject by cropping tighter. If you’re editing a headshot, experiment with cutting off the top of the head, too. As I said above, I’m almost always cropping my portraits tighter. I want the people to be the main focus, which often means cropping out what’s around them or cropping tighter. Even if you think your image is great, experiment cropping tighter. Chances are, you’ll like the tighter image even more.

6. Make lines straight

Whether you have your subject sitting on a set of stairs or there’s a blurred-out window in the background, the horizontal and vertical lines need to be straight. Pay special attention to your horizon–a slanted horizon can really ruin an image, especially if the slant is minor. A purposeful tilt might yield interesting results, but a lazy tilt that you just didn’t notice will weaken your portrait. Unless you’re going for a sense of chaos or instability, straighten your horizontal and vertical lines. When in doubt, straighten horizontal lines as a priority over vertical lines. We see a significant horizontal line all day, everyday–the horizon–so we are more sensitive to off-kilter horizontal lines than vertical lines.

7. Use the surroundings to frame the subject

To help guide your viewer, use the elements of the environment to frame your subject. You might use something obvious like a doorway or window, or the frame might be more subtle like an opening in a set of bushes or different colored panels on a wall. Pay attention to the creative ways you can frame your subject. One way you’ll know if your surroundings might lend themselves to a frame is if you have a line, like a branch or building corner, sticking out of your subject’s head. Moving slightly to the left or right could turn that element into a frame rather than a random line.

8. Use the surroundings to lead to your subject

Keep an eye out for all manner of lines. Streets, staircases, cars, chairs, pretty much anything can become a leading line to your subject. The leading line might not be obvious at first. It might take moving around a bit to make seemingly-random objects become leading lines, but attention to line can help draw your viewer around the frame and to your subject. One interesting way to use your surroundings to lead the viewer’s eye is to consider qualities of light. The interplay of light and shadow, while not a physical line, can help lead your viewer, especially if your subject is placed where a change in light or a burst of light is occurring.

9. Steady Yourself

If you’re not using a tripod, then you need to do your best to become one. Widen your stance, bring your arms and elbows close to your body, and hold your camera with your left hand under the lens, not over it. If you do this, then you’ll actually kind of look like a tripod. Your legs will be wide for stability, and your upper body will be tight. If you’re on your stomach, spread your elbows wide (like a tripod!). If you can lean against something safely, like a tree or wall, do that to steady yourself. If you can safely prop your camera against something, like the back of a chair or a railing, then do it. All of this will steady your camera, reducing the possibility of motion blur, resulting in a sharper image.

10. Breathe in and hold your breath

Before you click your shutter, take a deep breath in, hold it, and click. That way, you click the shutter when your body is still rather than when your body is moving slightly when you breathe in or out. Breathing in and holding your breath for a short time will steady your entire body, again resulting in a sharper image.

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