4 Key Tips for Capturing Personality in Portraits

Portrait photography is about capturing the personality or identity of your subject. Therefore, these photography tips for portraits will unsurprisingly relate to the person you are photographing. How do you make them look their best, feel more comfortable, or even tell a story about them through your portrait?

Sometimes we think of portraits as just making a person look good but we’ve all seen portraits that seem to communicate so much more. So sure, let’s make someone look their best but let’s also strive to tell a deeper story. How can we create a portrait and what are the elements that go into our creation?
Photography tips for portraits

Below are four key tips for portraits which I’ll be expanding on in this article.

  1. Tell a story with your portraits.
  2. Connect with your subject.
  3. Get the light right.
  4. Play and create.

Tip #1. Telling a Story With Your Portraits

Story plays a part in everything from background to lens choice to posing. The story might be simple like, this is the person’s trustworthy face. Or it might be more complicated like, this is the person where they work and how they are feeling about their passion.

When it comes to posing you’ll want to think about the story of the photo when picking your poses. If your portrait is a professional headshot, they should look professional, whereas if it’s a casual personable portrait, then they might need to be relaxed. Do you want it to look posed and formal or do you want it to look natural and candid?

You’ll also pick your setting based on the story. Maybe you’ll need a clean and simple backdrop to make uniform-looking portraits of everyone at a company. Conversely, you might want to capture a more intricate setting to align with the passions of your subject.

And then you’ll pick your focal length based on the story too. If it’s a headshot you might be focused on choosing a flattering focal length like 85mm. However, if it’s more of an environmental portrait you might shoot with a wider focal length such as 35mm.

2. Connecting With Your Subject

Another storytelling aspect of portraiture is the mood and personality of your subject. How do you capture genuine emotion, joy, or even pain through a photo? Often this comes down to connecting with your subject.

Different photographers have different ways of making their subjects comfortable. Some of us try to be personable and relaxed and have our clients forget about the camera and others are much more directive, trying a variety of poses almost normalizing the process. Regardless of your technique for bringing out personality in your portraits, you’ll want to find a way to connect with your subject so that the audience connects with them through the photo.

One thing that I’ve learned is to have more than one technique because not everyone responds to everything the same way. And while that can make things challenging, it also makes things interesting — I don’t want everyone’s portrait to look the same anyway.

Tip #3. Get the Light Right

The low-hanging fruit with it comes to portraits is understanding light. People aren’t used to being photographed in great light so when they see themselves in nice light for a change it’s an instant improvement. Generally, you’re looking for soft, diffused, natural light in order to prevent weird shadows or skin colors.

Soft light is very flattering. It naturally smooths out your skin by eliminating shadows which allows your eyes to become a focal point. However, light can also communicate a lot in an image, and sometimes you actually want more contrast so don’t be afraid to play around.

If you’re shooting portraits outside, the best way to control the light is by choosing your location and time of day. Alternatively, you can create your own light with artificial light. There are countless lighting methods to try but the key is the intentional and purposeful use of light. Use it, don’t fight it.

Tip #4. Play and Create

You might have a pose you love, lighting that you love, and a plan for the perfect focal length. And then you’re shooting and something is just not working. When that happens, don’t be afraid to play.

Sometimes it takes a while to find the best way to accentuate someone’s features. Often my best portraits happened right after I tried something weird and random that didn’t work but it made a way for something that did. Or sometimes you think you know someone’s good side but then you try them straight on and something just clicks.

If you always stay in your comfort zone you won’t take the risks that might bump your creativity up a notch. Have fun and enjoy what you’re doing. Nail the easy shot first to make sure you have something that you know is good enough and then play and see if you can create something great.

A Few More Portrait Photography Tips (So You Don’t Screw It Up)

While all of the information above is what I think makes a great portrait, I suppose I ought to share some of the technical tips before we part ways. What are the things you need to know in order to not screw it up?

A large aperture is beautiful for portraits but make sure you nail the focus. Typically this means focusing on the eyes, many cameras have eye autofocus to assist you. However, if you’re doing a group photo you need to make sure everyone is sharp so you make sure they’re in a straight line or try an aperture of f/4 instead of f/1.8.

Other things that can mess up a photo are if you crop off someone’s finger in a weird place or have a distracting element in the background right behind your subject’s head. Pay attention to details like clothing, jewelry, or hair. It doesn’t have to be perfect but sometimes one little thing out of place can be really distracting.

About the author: Brenda Bergreen is a Colorado wedding photographer, videographer, yoga teacher, and writer who works alongside her husband at Bergreen Photography. With their mission and mantra “love. adventurously.” they are dedicated to telling adventurous stories in beautiful places.