Photography tips – what makes a portrait?

Today’s tip is just a few things to think about when you are trying to get those hang-on-the-wall photos.  Most people can look at a snapshot and a professional portrait and see there is a big difference.  But what are those differences that makes a professional portrait different from just a snapshot of your child smiling at you?

Here are just a few things for you to focus on when trying to get those enlargeables.

Stage the photo – Yes, I know some of you are thinking, “All I can get from my kids are candids while they are running around trying to get away from my camera!”  However, there are several things you can do to get a better candid.  Most of my pictures are candids of my kids, but I work at getting the best possible chances for good photos.  Here are some things to do –

Clean up the kid – If I want to get some photos, I am not above changing my kids’ clothes before they go out to play.  Yes, I can clone out ketchup stains on their shirts, but I much prefer them to be clean to begin with…which includes their faces.  I try to wipe off any remnants of peanut butter or boogers before I try to take shots of them.  It saves time in the long run.

Know your location – Have some idea of the best spots to take pictures.  I know the spots in our yard that work best.  I love their wood playset but don’t like the slides to be in the photo.  I love taking pictures of Anya on her swing, but don’t want the neighbor’s house to be in it.  I know what angle and direction I like to take pictures in order to maximize their potential to be enlargeables.  Which leads me to…

Watch your backgrounds – Even inside, especially inside, this is important.  I don’t like it when there is clutter in the photo.  That is a big thing in differentiating a portrait and a snapshot.  If it looks like you just pulled out the camera and took a picture in the midst of a mess, then that is generally going to look like a snapshot. There are times you can make it work artistically, but those are few.  Also, when you are outside watch for the items I noted above, plus things like power lines, cars passing by on the road, people walking by, anything that doesn’t fit the story you are trying to tell with your photography.

Have a prop or something of interest – This is just one way to get them to pay attention to you for a little bit.  You can get cheap little toys, bubbles, party favors, etc. that will help to get them to look at you…or at least stand still…for a few moments.  That is usually all you get, so learn to be fast!

Play with them – If I play with them and take a break from taking photos they are much more likely to give me a few moments.  Try not to stress about getting pictures and they, generally, won’t act up while you are trying to get that perfect shot.  Again, they usually don’t give you much time, so act fast!

Don’t use a flash, unless as a fill – I know I have spoken to this in previous posts.  On-camera pop-up flash, unless used by someone that really knows how to diminish the “flashy” feature-dulling look, is usually a bad thing.  Try to use natural light where possible, or if you have a DSLR, buy a flash that you can bounce off of the ceiling or walls.  Know how to use your lighting to help you take amazing photographs.  I rarely use a flash indoors, and the majority of my pictures were taken using available light.  This is where having the flexibility of a DSLR really, really helps.

Use a shallow depth of field – If you have a point and shoot camera, this is where you would put it to portrait mode (usually a graphic of a head).  If you have a DSLR, then this is where you shoot with your lens more open (aperture of f2 to f5).  If you look at good portraits, they don’t have everything in focus, generally, but have that nice blurry background bokeh.

In summary, you will notice most of the above relates to composition.  Yes, you can take candid photos and use composition.  That is how they turn from being a snapshot into an enlargeable.  When your kids are running about, watch the scene.  Notice where the good spots are to take pictures and how the light falls on their faces.  Create a game plan and move your kids in that direction.  When taking your pictures, don’t be afraid to get down on the ground or add tilt to your photos to create an interesting angle. Taking candid photos of children does require a lot of practice to get it right and a plan of sorts.  A bit of work, but it is worth it in the end!

I post photography and Photoshop tips (nearly) every Saturday, so check back for more or browse my archives under Photography Tips.  I’m open to content suggestions, so if there is an area you are interested in, just leave it in a comment!

4 Replies to “Photography tips – what makes a portrait?”

  1. All great tips (of course). I am amazed by the thought you put into everything….I am such an “on the fly” photographer, I don’t consiously take all these things into consideration…but I think I do many of them without thinking about it.

    The hardest part for me is natural light indoors…because the camera(s) I use just can’t do it without lots of blur. ugh

  2. Christina it is just through lots and lots of practice that I have gotten to the point where I see the photos before I take them. I still work on the backgrounds and seeing everything in it, but I am getting better. Practice practice practice!

  3. I have to say, that I could not agree with you in 100% regarding graphy tips – what makes a portrait? | The Land of K.A., but it’s just my opinion, which could be wrong 🙂

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