Dade Freeman
Photographer & Trainer


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Top tips for stunning portraits

10 Top Tips for Stronger Portraits

I was flattered to be asked by Digital Photographer Magazine for my top ten tips for creating portraits, although that warm, fuzzy feeling turned into a cold sweat when reality hit. If you missed the article, or saw it but would like to read an extended version, here are my thoughts on the subject. I know the ‘rules’ of photography but, nowadays, I work more from my gut and from what pleases my eye. Nevertheless, here are my top ten handy hints to consider when taking portraits: 

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  1. Composition.
    Most people will tell you not to put your subject dead centre, because it can make for boring snapshot-type images. Nonetheless, I say do what is right for the image. In quite a lot of my work, the subject takes pride of place in the centre, but that’s because I typically zoom in tight and photograph interesting subjects. I prefer to place my subject where I feel it balances the image best and I encourage you to do the same. If you are unsure where is best, try photographing your subject in different positions within the frame - on one of the thirds, in the centre, slightly off to the side (use the golden ratio), and don't forget to photograph both in landscape and portrait orientation. 
  2. Backgrounds.
    I like clean, simple backgrounds, even in an environmental portrait. I want the viewer’s eye to be focused on the subject, not distracted by objects in the background or which are merging with my subject. So, for example, watch out for lampposts growing out of people's heads! Having said that, you should consider whether you need the background to add to the story - if so, bring it in, or simply imply it with a shallow depth of field. Whichever you choose, make it a conscious decision. 
  3. Borders.
    Watch the edges of the frame for distractions and for things creeping into the frame. This simple tip could save you hours in Photoshop! Before you push the shutter, just take a quick look at the edges of the frame for things like tree branches or signs - usually just a side step or a tilt of the camera can remove these.
  4. Props.
    I have found that a simple prop can have a huge impact in an image and often helps to hold a picture together. Next time you are doing a portrait, try giving your subject something to hold, like a pair of sunglasses or a product. This has the added advantage of giving the sitter something to do and interactive with, as posing hands can be tricky - holding a pair of sunglasses is a simple solution and makes the action appear more natural. 
  5. Lighting.
    Experiment with your lighting, move it around, switch it up, change modifiers, get your lights in close. Your lights don’t have to stay where you found them or where you first put them! Lighting is something I love to play with and I frequently try different set-ups. You never know - sometimes something that seemed perfect in your imagination can be improved simply by moving the lights. Never be afraid of studio lighting - it is easier than you might think. Small flashes are a good place to start, as they are portable, cheap(ish), and offer a wide variety of modifiers. Studio lights offer more power - they are less portable, but do have a larger range of better modifiers.
  6. Location.
    I prefer shooting in a studio - it simply gives me more control. Yes, they can be cold and sterile but at their core they are clean and simple. I suggest you find a good studio, somewhere with plenty of room, ideally with a good selection of lights and modifiers, then spend at least a day playing around there, testing out the space, the equipment and the backdrops. If money is a factor, split the cost of the studio hire with 3 or 4 others and act as models for each other. Failing that, outdoors can work perfectly well, providing you choose a good location. Find a couple of spots in case one doesn't work for your needs, so you can quickly move on. Consider where the light will be, how the weather will affect the shoot and whether or not you need a permit to shoot there.
  7. Collaborate.
    Find a good stylist, makeup artist and model and use them regularly. Each of these elements can make or break a shoot. If you are just starting out, it really helps to find people who are experienced in certain areas. I have often seen TF* (time for disks/prints) photoshoots put together by an all-amateur group but the time and effort can be for nothing if the images miss the mark. Try to have at least one experienced person on set. Don't forget that after the shoot it is your responsibility to deliver and credit the images accordingly.
  8. Editing.
    Choose your best images (I would say no more than three) from each shoot and show them off, usually through social media. Part of your job as a photographer is to also be a good editor, and that means making cuts to your beloved images. Have you ever seen contact sheets from the old film photographers, with scribbles all over them and just that one highlighted image they want printed? That is their edit. Unless you are doing a photographic series, the world only needs to see your “best of the best” shots. 
  9. Feedback.
    Get honest feedback, though this is harder than you might think. Always remember that Facebook ‘likes’ do not a good photo make. Find a place you can post your images and get genuine constructive feedback. Be prepared to hear it too - often it stings, but if it’s done properly and comes from the right source, it will help you grow. Ask the team you worked with for their input too. They will be looking for different things within the image - how did the makeup come out, was the hair shape right, did the garment get shown off properly, did the lighting flatter the subject?
  10. Practise.
    The more you photograph, practise and learn, the more you will start to understand photography. It is an art form and if you approach it as such, your images will be stronger. If you find it hard learning on your own, find a photographer buddy, join a photography group, watch online tutorials (CreativeLive / KelbyOne / The Photographer Academy / Phlearnand get out there and experiment. Photography doesn’t need to be a lonely pursuit.

Oh, and one more thing…

... enjoy it :)