Learning the technical skills involved in photography is one thing, but having an eye for it and using your creativity is an entirely different realm. However, with time and practice, you can find your strengths and will be well on the way to a portfolio of original, expressive work. Great adult portraits are the result of careful composition and technical knowledge. Much like in a research lab, the majority of your time should be spent experimenting. How will you know what works best, if you haven’t tried as many options as you can? Having said that, here are 10 useful tips on how to compose great adult portraits in a way that works for you and your style.
1. Change your Point of View
One of the main “rules” of portraiture is to focus on the eyes, but this does not mean that all pictures have to be taken at the subject’s eye level. You are not stationary and, most likely, neither is your subject. Therefore, your camera should have a range of motion equitable to your own. Get moving, try different angles that will create more visual interest and the results might surprise you. Shoot from an incline, or even from below your subject. By engaging with the space available, you are also expanding your creative range.
2. Break the Rules
Photography has many composition rules that initially appear resolute and impenetrable. However, most, if not all, can be broken easily and with wonderful results. Once again, the depth of experimentation is up to you, but the benefits of trial and error are irrefutable. For example, the Rule of Thirds, which states that a composition has to be divided into nine equal parts with the main subject standing in the intersection points of those lines, is one you can consider transgressing. In some photographs, this rule creates a lot of tension, energy and interest, but a portrait set at the center of the frame can also look very powerful.
3. Eye Contact
Now that you are set and the subject is ready to pose, ask yourself: where are the subject’s eyes pointing? Thinking about that angle will help you create a narrative and a singular connection between the subject and the viewer. A direct line, from their eyes to the camera is a common choice, but there are many options to consider depending on the story you want to tell. Here are two possibilities: the attention of the subject can be focused on something outside the frame, allowing the purity of their expression to translate in an undiluted form. Alternatively, you could select something inside of the frame to create a relationship between the subject and the object of interest that is both captivating and visually dramatic.
Whether you are shooting in a studio or on-location, there are many different random and creative ways you can light up your subjects, depending on the effect you are looking for. For example, side-lighting can subtlety create specific moods, while backlighting has a more powerful and direct impact on the picture. A useful tip, which works in a pinch, is to put the light at a 45 degree angle to the subject on both the horizontal and vertical planes. This simple lighting design gives a very classic, Rembrandt-Style look to your adult portraits.
5. Dealing with Shyness
For some funny and surprisingly stunning results, try to get the subject out of his or her comfort zone, taking care never to make them uncomfortable. A little push in the right direction might help the subject to ease up and forget about the camera. For example, ask him or her to jump around, get moving. It might be a little awkward at first, but it often helps loosen up your subject, allowing you easier access to the raw, expressive photos you are looking for.
6. The Pose
Asking for a pose is not necessarily the best direction for your photo shoot, as poses can appear rigid or formulaic. Instead, give your subject something to do or something to play with – anything to eliminate the “staged” qualities of your portraits. You can also try adding relevant props to the mix. Observe how your subject interacts with it to determine whether it “works” in the photo or not. Being responsive to your subject and his or her comfort level is the key to getting the breathtaking photos you desire.
7. The Background
If the person in your portrait is the central subject of your piece, placing them in front of different backgrounds with varying textures and shades can be useful in deciding on the final composition. Changing the background color, assuming your set is a simple single colour backdrop, will help you alter the mood and the effect changes the tone of your portrait. For example, a faded color tone can give your picture a very romantic air, while a bright color background will make your subject stand out more starkly.
8. The Subject
The streets of New York City are overflowing with people from so many different backgrounds, age ranges, etc. Don’t be afraid to go out there and try to ask strangers if you can take a picture of them, always operating under your best judgment, of course. Remember, not everyone is interested in having their photo taken, but it can’t hurt to ask! Once you find your ideal subject, you can choose a nice background, turn your back to the sun, and shoot! The real benefit of this comes after. Talk with them, build a story around that image, get to know the essence of their character out in the field. You will be able to get an extraordinary collection of photographs and adult portraits by doing this and it’s a great hands-on experience.
9. Play with Emotions
In some photos, the subject’s mood can influence the story of the image. This means that a lot of the power of the photo resides here, and you can play with that. Ask the subject to try different faces that illustrate different kinds of emotions to determine how you can get them to produce what you need. The idea is to extract the most authentic and genuine emotions from your subject. Children are especially good at this effortless sort of candor and really seem to enjoy the process.
10. Introduce Movement
Even though the concept of a portrait is a still image, that doesn’t mean you have to exclude motion. You can do this in several ways. The first is more technical, try to introduce movement in your shots by playing with the shutter speed of your camera (it has to be low). Some other options would be to either make your subject move, make a second element move around your subject (a blurry crowd that is running about will make the viewer’s attention focus on your clear subject) or move your camera. All of these can be tried and tested during your photo shoot to determine what works best.
With these 10 things in mind, you will be able to take better adult portraits in the short run, and in the long run, you will begin to grow and progress as an artist. Don’t forget that like most worthwhile endeavors, photography requires effort, time, and patience. So go out there to experience, practice, observe, and take photographs constantly to really refine your work as a portrait photographer.