July 15


8 Tips for Shooting More Compelling Portraits

By Dan

July 15, 2013

_DSC0753 Of all the photos taken each year in the entire world, most of them are pictures of people. Why? Simple. We are people. There’s an inherent bond between us and our subjects that allows us to connect with them in a much deeper way that even the most beautiful landscapes.

Don’t believe me? Then tell me this: What kind of pictures do you have stuck to your fridge?

The same is true for me. Even though I make a large part of my living shooting pictures of people in action as they move through the landscape, there’s something really meaningful to me when I capture a portrait of a friend that I really like that’s not about the background or the activity that they’re currently engaged in.

Of course, anyone who has ever worked at a photo lab or seeing someone else’s bad vacation pictures knows that a high percentage of people pictures that get taken are stiff, posed and rather boring. Most of them don’t communicate any sense of personality or life, or tell of any vision on the part of the photographer; they usually just show the same person with the same expression in front of a different background. That’s not a portrait, that’s a snapshot.

Here are a few simple tips that can help you shoot better, more compelling portraits. Follow these exercises and you’ll be on the way towards creating people photos that will have meaning, style and strength. Hopefully these ideas will spark some creativity and give you some ideas for next time.

 1. It’s All About Expression.

Portrait of cyclcross racer, Tim Berntsen. Anchorage, AlaskaIt’s expression and emotion that we connect with so much when we look at pictures of people, so go for that moment. Keep shooting. Keep your camera shutter working until you get that one great shot where all the raw emotion and feeling comes through. Not everything is easily translated from real life into an image, but powerful expressions are. Shot with a Nikon D700 and a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens.

2. Capture the Grit and the Pain.


It doesn’t always have to be pretty. When shooting portraits and people pictures, don’t forget to capture the raw struggles, the pain, the exhaustion, the uncertainty and the difficulties that your subjects face. Often times, these are very defining moments that communicate tons of personality and life. In fact, a large part of adventure photography is capturing these kinds of moments.

For this photo above, I captured the determined end of a 20-mile cross country ski at 10-below zero with a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens, a flash and a Lumiquest Softbox III.

3. Use Great Light.

LOC-SPCY-356As with any type of photograph, better light will make all the difference. A strong subject won’t always look great in any light, but great light will make any subject look better. Make use of end of the day sunlight, or manufacture your own light to add pop, zing and life to your people photos.

4. Use a Flash.

Winter portrat of Jim Kohl, outside in the snow, Anchorage, AlaskaThis one is kind of a continuation from number 2. External lighting can make a huge impact on your photos why do you think that professional portrait photographers have so much fancy lighting equipment? However, you don’t need tons of gear to make a good portrait, just the light from a single flash and a small handheld softbox can add a tremendous amount of kick to your people imagery. I recommend the Lumiquest Location/Portrait Lighting Kit, which is a compact, inexpensive set of extremely usable flash modifiers that will fit in just about any camera bag or laptop case.

5. Use a Diffuser.

Portrait of Abby Rideout

The problem with sunlight is that it’s often just too damn bright, especially in the middle of the day. However, sometimes you can’t change the time when you shoot, but you can change the quality of your sunlight. Using a hand held diffuser like the Lastolite TriGrip Mini Diffuser will soften that harsh light considerably and make for much more light-friendly shooting conditions. The photo below is shot in straight light without any diffusion, where the top photo is using diffused light.

Portrait of Abby Rideout

 6. Build a Rapport With Your Subjects.

Young Buddhist Lama, Ladakh, India

This tip is especially important when traveling. I can’t stress enough how much better your travel portraits will be if, instead of just walking up to your subject and snapping away, you take the time to talk with them and build a friendly rapport. Even if you don’t speak the same language, you can still communicate in a meaningful way that help your subjects drop their guard. The more comfortable they are, the better your photos will be.

This shot above was shot after a few minutes of hamming it up and acting silly with a subject who is, first and foremost, a ten-year old boy. What ten-year old doesn’t like to goof off and laugh? The photo below was the first shot I got of him before I opened up and started to build that rapport. A few minutes of your time not only gets you a better shot, it also gets you a personal connection that you’re unlikely to ever forget. This image was also shot with a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens. Are you seeing a pattern here? The 50mm is a superb lens for portraits and people photography.


7. Move in Cose. Really Close.

Portrat of trail runner Ryan Sherman, Anchorge, AlaskaTry getting as close to your subjects as you can. Robert Capa used to say that “if your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough.” Don’t be afraid to crop in pretty far, like I did in the lead off photo at the top of this blog post. And sometimes, don’t be afraid to get even closer!

8. Always Have Your Camera With You.

Portrait of Jim KohlThis can’t be said enough. I shot this photo above AFTER a day of skiing and adventuring in the mountains. We stopped at the roadhouse on the way home to grab burgers, and although I left the DLSR gear in the car, I grabbed my Fuji X10 and brought it inside with me.

For further reading, check out Chris Orwig’s great book People Pictures: 30 Exercises for Creating Authentic Photographs. It’s full of 30 helpful self-assignments that you can use to hone your people photography skills. I’ve got it on my iPad and use it for reference when I need some inspiration. You can read my review of the book here.

About the author

Hi, I'm Dan Bailey, a 20+ year pro outdoor and adventure photographer, and official FUJIFILM X-Photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.

As a top rated blogger and author my goal is to help you become a better, more confident and competent photographer, so that you can have as much fun and creative enjoyment as I do.

  • Great tips Dan. I think I need to take some pictures of people other than my family. Do you often come across people who don’t want their picture taken and are adamant about it?

  • I’m pretty good at disarming people’s apprehension. It usually just takes a few minutes of good natured personal interaction and a friendly demeanor.

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    Terry Bourk

    I have read you new book “Behind the Landscape.” I could not “put it down” meaning that I kept at it because each photo you presented/analyzed was interesting and informative. I am trying to develop an eye for composition (both the scene and the light).

    Thank you! The examples you present and the suggestions are very helpful. Purple Mountains, McKinley River and Wonder Lake are fascinating.

    Roger Sinclair

    You have done it again! Another triumph.

    Your generosity to share, the clarity of thought and concise explanation thereof is brilliant. Perhaps I should also mention the beautiful photos and the talent necessary to produce them.

    Thank you, Dan.