Unique Methods for Photographing Beautiful Portraits


Most (if not all) of us relate a person’s identity by their face. The unique features and expressions on one’s face tell a lot about the personality. Quite naturally, capturing perfect profile/portraits is a task that is generally accomplished by keeping the subject’s entire face in focus.

However, as with any other art, the fun of photography lies in experimenting with new techniques, and portrait photography is no exception either.

When it comes to portraits, however, gone are the days of the same traditional routine clicks with the smiling face in the center. Read on, as we explore three unique methods of shooting portraits:

Technically speaking, a ‘profile’ contains only one side of the subject’s face in the photo. Yes, the entire face is not visible. To shoot superb profiles, consider the following tips.

You might also like our collection of Lightroom Presets for creating stunning portraits.

Pay Attention to the Appearance

It goes without saying that the subject needs to have their best appearance. There are some ‘standard’ techniques that proofessional photographers tend to follow as commandments, such as having your subject turn the head slightly away from the camera (to the extent that the far eye is no longer visible, or at best, only eyelashes are visible).

Similarly, when shooting profiles of women, the standard practice is to focus on the jaw-line and ears. Flaunting the ‘unique’ (not necessarily ‘mind-blowing’) facial features of the subject is always a good idea, such as prominent nose, curly eyelashes or even pierced ears.

Side profiles are a great way to portray people who have a well-defined facial structures.
Exposure: 1/60sec at f/16. ISO: 400.

Don’t Forget the Background

In a profile, the person is the main subject, and so loud backgrounds such as heavy scenery, crowded places (unless you blur the background using shallow depth-of-field to focus on the subject) are generally avoided.

Personally, I prefer a plain background with solid and dark colors and without distractions like road signs, trees and people to keep the main focus on my subject.

Exposure: 1/8sec at f/4. ISO: 200

Mood and Placement

Unless your profile tells a story, it has little merit. Seriously, why would anyone look at half-a-face unless it is highly suggestive? To capture the mood, you need to know your subject’s personality traits or at least some quirks.

Need some examples? A profile of an old man, for instance, with his hand under the chin and looking down can show him reflecting on his experiences in a very thoughtful and pensive mood. A young girl’s profile looking down or sideways and smiling can denote her shyness. A profile of a Congressman with arms crossed shows his influential status. A soldier’s emotionless face shows his resolute and courageous nature.

Posture, body language, expressions and use of space are things to think about for a side profile photo.

As regards placement, positioning your subject at the center of the frame is by far the safest practice, though the best results are obtained after experimenting with different positions such as off-center or nearer to one particular side.

Furthermore, try placing your subject on the opposite side of the direction they’re looking at. This not only gives a void area for them to direct their gaze but also leads the viewer’s vision towards the subject’s gaze.

Talking about gaze, your subject doesn’t always have to look or stare at an empty area. For example, a journalist reading a book or paper or a woman admiring a sleeping child in her arms are some of the highly picturesque poses.

Perfect Lighting

You can either choose to shoot a backlit silhouette (by positioning your subject such that the backlight highlights mainly the outline of the face). This lighting is called rimlighting and is best suited for extra-photogenic faces such as those of movie stars.

If you desire a serious tone, try sidelighting, that is, placing the subject beside the source of light. Shadows tend to be prominent in sidelit photos, and a remedy is to place a thermocol sheet below the subject to bounce off light and fill the shadow.

Frontlighing, if employed at a 5 o’clock angle, can lend soft touches to the profiles.
At first, it seems a challenging task to shoot side-profiles. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll realize that side-portraits are the most effective way of portraying the different traits of the subject.

Portraits Without Faces

Have you ever thought about shooting portraits without including the entire face in the frame? Or, even better, omitting it all? Sounds absurd perhaps, but such no-face portraits can be fun to create.

The challenge lies in shooting the subject’s persona well enough so that the photo conveys the intended message even without the subject being visible. Here are some ideas for this innovative and unique genre of portrait photography.

Shooting Silhouettes

The outline or silhouette of the subject always makes for a great portrait. There are two things that demand special attention while shooting silhouettes: the intensity of light source and the subject’s posture.

Ideally, the subject should stand directly in front of the light to cast visible and clear silhouettes. Furthermore, the subject’s posture speaks volumes. For instance, if your subject is a dancer, ask them to try some dance pose.

Instead of showing a person’s face, you can use their posture, body language, garments, etc to depict their personality.
Exposure: 1/40sec at f/2.8. ISO: 800.

Use of meaningful props always comes in handy, like a guitarist’s portraits can have his silhouette with the guitar. Similarly, for a writer, even an ink-pen on a notepad can make a great photo.

A photograph of a mother hugging her daugher will be more effective than both of them sitting together.

Silhouettes can be an effective tool to tell the story about a person without showing his/her face.
Exposure: 1/250sec at f/3.5. ISO: 125.

Focus Well, and Focus Right

A good idea is to focus on the gestures and body language of the subject. For example, a soldier’s salute or a celebrity’s waving hand, if captured skilfully, are more than sufficient to portray the setting. However, the thing to bear in mind here is to capture just one element at a time.

If you capture more than one element, say a soldier’s saluting hand as well as the medals on his shoulder, chances are that more often than not you will end up perting your viewer’s attention and the appeal of the portrait shall perish.

Be Extreme: Eliminate the Subject Entirely

Ok, this is something I’ve tried only rarely, but each time my shots have received tremendous reception and so it seems logical enough to share. You can try shooting the subject’s possessions or living space, instead of the subject himself.

Personal objects such as diaries, laptops, musical instruments, books or even phones speak a lot about the subject. If you are capturing someone you don’t really know well enough, talk to them about their likes and dislikes and chalk out a subjectless portrait.

An image of someone’s possession tells a lot about the subject’s likes/dislikes, age, character and personality.
Exposure: 1/60sec at f/5. ISO: 400.

Portraits in a Flash!

How many times have you tried using the camera flash while shooting portraits, only to get washed out, super sunny photos as output? Yes, flash indeed is a handy tool, but its effectiveness depends on the way you handle it.

Flash as Fill Light

Sunlight usually casts not-so-photogenic lights on the subject’s face. This can be solved by using flash as fill light. Don’t blink, you read that right. Flash, meant to provide light in dim conditions, can be used to counter light in sunny conditions.

To do so, your flash exposure should ideally be 1-1/2 stop less intense than the main light (from the camera’s meter reading). So if the ambient exposure is 1/125 sec at f/11, the flash should be far enough (from the subject) to get a reading of f/8.

Flash, if rightly used as fill light, automatically will lend your photo some level of saturation. If you are one of those adventurous types, try underexposing the ambient light to get some Photoshop-like creative effects.

Exposure: 1/250sec at f/3.5. ISO: 100.

Tilt, Swivel and Bounce!

If your flashgun has a tilt-and-swivel head, you can use it to bounce the light off ceilings, walls or reflectors. It lends a more casual feel than direct flash light. However, in this case your ceiling/wall/reflector becomes the main light source and thus the flash light tends to take the source’s color.

If in case this casts shadows under your subject’s eyes and chins, use a reflector to fill in those areas.

Exposure: 1/200sec at f/5.6. ISO: 100 (Nikon SB-900 flash at ½ power placed on camera right, zoomed to 200mm. Nikon SB-800 placed on left at ¼ power).

Zoom ’em Up

Most flashguns today have a zoom function with focal range of 24-105 mm. Depending on the focal length of your lens, the angle of coverage gets adjusted to light up the subject sufficiently. This means that if you mount a wide angle lens like a 14 or 17 mm on a full frame camera, it will result in a vignette at the edges of the frame.

You can either correct this vignette by using a wide angle diffuser over the flash head, or take advantage of it by zooming in further. For instance, you can set the flash head to 80 or 100 mm zoom while shooting a wide frame (focal length set to 20 or 30 mm). This will narrow the light beam from the flash and create a spotlight effect on the main subject.

Using More Than One Flash

Most modern wireless flash systems can be operated off-camera. I use a primary flash to highlight the main subject while a secondary flash to add hairlight that separates the primary subject from the background. If your photos are suffering from that light-in-the-tunnel type background, try using a second flash to specifically light up the background.

So what’s the wait? Try taking a change of settings, angles and positions to exploit the potential of flash and add that extra charm to your portraits!

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