Face to Face: 5 Essential Tips to Improve Your Portrait Photography

From the original “selfie” way back in 1839 to high school yearbook pictures, portrait photography is a notable experience for all parties involved. For the subject, the lens is a chance to freeze a moment in time and escape from the whirlwind that is their daily routine. On the other side of the camera, the photographer is only too happy to use this unique opportunity to capture a raw and intense human emotion that afterwards is proudly displayed on their online portfolio. Because of its powerful effects, portrait photography is also one of the hardest genres to master. It takes time and skill to perfectly balance the light and find the right framing, while constantly focusing on the model - not to mention the mutual understanding of trust and respect that the two protagonists have to build.

But when all the ingredients are combined, oh my, the result is without a doubt worth all the effort. When thinking about portraiture, most people visualize perfectly devised corporate photography examples. But as the showcased photos here demonstrate, portraits can be some of the deepest, roughest and most subjugating images one can see. They have this rare ability to leave you speechless or, on the contrary, filled with questions - two reactions every photographer strives for. The five Wix photographers behind these stunning shots have excellently mastered portrait photography, so we asked them to share some of their wisdom. Here’s what they had to teach us:

Connect to your model

Fashion photographer Kees Penders has photographed his fair share of models, while working for major fashion publications like Vogue Italia. His best tips for mastering portraiture? “For me, communication and connection to the model is key for every shoot.” In order to capture the ‘best’ of your model, make sure to catch their natural behavior and poses, he suggests. Try and look for the subject’s most genuine and authentic mood. This is what you need to portray in order to catch the attention of your viewers.

As a rule of thumb, Kees recommends to always observe the model and how they move while they are what he calls ‘off guard’ (not aware they are being observed). This will reveal their natural gestures and poses that you can use to create natural-looking images. This is also a good trick to use when a model finds herself stuck in poses that don't really fit the mood of the shoot. If that happens, take a mini-break and watch how your subject ‘acts’ right after you’ve stopped shooting. This will reveal her natural, confident self.

Master the light and framing

We asked French photographer Arthur Janin what, in his opinion, are the crucial skills when it comes to portrait photography. With great confidence, he replied that “the two essential things you need to master are: the light and the framing”.

The correct light has the power to make or break a portrait image. There are two types of light you can use: “Natural light with beautiful sunlight (clear skies) that gives off strong shadows that you can soften with a reflector, or not, depending on the style of your photo! You can also go for a light that’s diffused by the clouds without shadows, as it brings a mysterious atmosphere.” The alternative? Artificial light using a flash or LED panel. “What I love to do is ‘lighten’ my model from above with an angle of 30 or 45 degrees with a LED panel or downright full face light (like Terry Richardson)”, explains Arthur.

As for the framing, place the dominant eye in the center of the photo, or split your frame in three equal parts and place the face (or the important feature of the body) in a corner of a strip. A final tip from Arthur: “Regardless of what you focus on, don’t forget to take note of the eyes as this is where all the emotion comes from!”

Create a warm environment

Max Montgomery is a British photographer who shot the cover of Brides Magazine after winning the 2016 Wix Photography contest, and has worked with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, including Heidi Klum, Zac Posen and Josh Ostrovsky (aka: The Fat Jewish), to name just a few.

Considering his impressive and well-established clientele, you would expect him to keep a sort of distance with his models - but in fact it’s quite the opposite. Max believes that providing warm, good vibes is an essential skill to master when it comes to portrait photography. “Make your models feel comfortable! Give them a hug if you feel you need to. People have to feel relaxed to bring the best out of them.” It’s not hard to understand the concept of people opening up more once they feel reassured, but it is crucial as a photographer to include this as part of your process - with the proper words, gestures or routine.

Take risks

It’s often said that the key to portrait photography is simplicity. A good shot needs a strong focus, and as little distracting elements as possible. With that said, you should try and photograph people who spark some kind of curiosity. Sometimes you have unexplainable reasons for wanting to capture someone’s face or silhouette, and you should simply go with your gut. It’s important to react on the feelings you have towards people, take the risk and click away.

Taking risks doesn’t necessarily means going for scandalous models or eccentric lightings. Intensity can be reached with the most minimalistic setup. Jo Schwab’s photography is absolutely captivating in that sense. His black and white portraits are simple, yet provoke so many questions. “Photographs should be provocative and not tell you what you already know. The magic is seeing people in new ways.”

Enjoy the moment

Street photographer and winner of Wix’s Shoot the Cover: Vanity Fair competition, Tony Salvagio reminds photographers to enjoy the process. The more you like it, the more it will show in your pictures. And while you’re in the moment… breathe. Sometimes, with the adrenaline, a photographer's first reaction after taking one or two quick shots is to leave the model alone, so as not to ‘overstay your welcome’. Tony wholeheartedly advices shutterbugs not to do this! “Continue to breathe, put the camera back up to your eye, and focus on your viewfinder/rangefinder.” You need to take the time to get the composition that frames the subject best. Make sure there’s nothing distracting behind them and look for a background that complements what you’re trying to visually say (colors, shapes, angles, or interesting lighting).

Something to remember: “Don’t be afraid to get physically close to your subject - if they are okay with it. Whatever you do, don’t leave until you feel you’ve got ‘it’.”

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By Taira Sabo


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