8 Rules to Remember That Make More Powerful Portraits

Valentine’s Day is rolling up, which means portrait photographers are aiming to capture beautiful clients looking their best. But even if you simply want to learn to take better, more powerful portraits, here are a few tips from expert portrait photographer, Alexandria Huff As the photographic brain behind the On Creating ChiaroscuroGlare Aware: Photographing Portraits of People in Glasses, and Transitioning from Point-and-Shoot to DSLR: Understanding Full Frame vs Crop Frame Sensors, she’s well qualified to share these 8 essential rules no portrait photographer should ever forget. 

By Alexandria Huff
There are no rules in photography. There are, however, good habits that photographers rely on when they need to quickly capture a solid image. These habits are especially important when shooting for clients rather than just for personal projects.

1) Items in the foreground will look bigger/fatter/wider than the rest.

Keep extremities away from the foreground unless you’re going for that exaggerated look. Even the elbows in the second image are too far forward for my taste.

We get fixated on faces when shooting portraits and sometimes forget about what the rest of the body is doing. Keep hands, feet, and anything else you don’t want looking too bulbous further away from the camera.

2) Cutting off hands, feet, and foreheads can ruin visual flow.

Don’t crowd your frame or cut hands off at the wrists. Watch out for this when shooting in small spaces.

Arms and legs can act as leading lines for viewers that they follow out to the edge of the frame. Cropping at ankles, wrists, and foreheads is often too abrupt a cut-off for viewers. It is generally more acceptable to crop mid-thigh for 3/4th length portraits or at the waist/above the elbow for half length portraits. Also, cropping the forehead can have a “Frankenstein effect” so crop above the hairline.

3) Anything directly behind the subject’s head can make an image look weird.

Lines directly behind the head of a subject can be distracting. Check your backgrounds.

Mind your background to avoid “brain stems” – lines, trees, or other elements that photographers accidentally place their models directly in front of. Even in the studio they’ll appear in the form of wayward backdrop creases.

4) Slide your subject to the side.

Shifting a subject’s body over in the frame can produce more engaging portraits.

Symmetrical, center-weighted images can be really cool but the Rule of Thirds still has a strong place in photography. Placing your subject along one of the vertical/horizontal lines that divide an image into thirds produces pleasing results. Also, placing your model at an angle rather than square with the frame can be “slimming”.

5) Use broad and short lighting to your advantage.

The flash here is set up for broad lighting. Short lighting would dictate moving the flash to the far side of the subject’s face.

In broad lighting, the light is on the part of the face closest to the camera. Short lighting is on the far side of the face. Broad lighting is often good for softening skin and for thin-faced subjects while short lighting is good for bringing out wrinkles/character and for thinning wide faces. Use broad lighting if you want to avoid glare in glasses.

Using broad lighting (left) vs short lighting (right) will have a huge impact on your subject.

6) Direct your model through a series of micro adjustments and expressions.

Direct your subject through incremental changes in body language and expression.

The devil is in the details and your winning shot might differ from the rest because of a slight change in expression (like a Peter Hurley-esque “squinch”, parted lips, or dropped shoulders) rather than from large movements.

7) Make the most of lousy locations.

If you can’t have the location you love, love the location you can get.

Don’t shy away from shooting if you don’t have a studio or a park nearby. A strong portrait can be taken anywhere if you you’re following other compositional rules.

8) Shooting down onto your model is more flattering than shooting up at them.

It’s very rare for a subject to look good when being shot from below.

It’s rare for a subject to look good when being shot from below, even when you’re going for a power look. Nostrils are just not very photogenic — stick to eye-level or above. Remembering these rules and practicing good shooting habits will help you create consistently strong portraits. After a while you will have enough experience to successfully break the rules and develop your own distinct style.

To see more of Alex’s work, browse her SmugMug-hosted portfolio here.

How to Create Success with Amanda Reed Photography

Next up in the lineup of pros we’re tapping to chat with is Amanda Reed, a fun and fearless high school senior portrait photographer. We love her attitude (in addition to her gorgeous images), so we had to ask her how she built her business from the ground up, how she keeps it alive in her tiny West Virginia town and what inspires her to keep capturing those teens at such an important time of their lives. Amanda’s got some amazingly fun ideas for promotion and marketing, too, so read on to see what she says!

Photos by AR Photography

Bright sunny senior portrait by Amanda Reed

What is your niche, and how did you find it? How would you describe your specific style of photography?

My photography journey starts with a personal tragedy that took place when I was 10. When you are 10 you are mostly concerned with Scooby Doo episodes and your bike. Not me. When I was 10 and my youngest brother was 4 he suffered a brain aneurysm. To make a long story short, his life is a miracle. Doctors told us he would not have anything to offer the world, that his life expectancy would be a maximum of 18 years. Damage from the aneurysm was indeed severe. He requires 24-hour care. Epilepsy now wreaks havoc on his body and my now 27-year-old brother will always mentally be my 4-year-old brother in an adult body. So, the doctors were wrong.

When he was 21 and about to graduate high school, he needed senior portraits. Watching my brother be ridiculed, watching him tire after a seizure, I knew this would be a daunting and stressful situation. I told our mother I would handle his portraits. I was always documenting everything with my camera for as long as I could remember. So, I took my brother’s senior portraits. In that moment I realized I captured a moment doctors had told me would never happen and that these images may be all I have to hold on to one day.

That moment changed my life. People recognized my work. My love for photography became more than documenting moments – it became an outward expression of what moves my soul and a journey to perfect this profession.

In 2008, Amanda Reed Photography had legs and of course high school seniors are my niche. It is where I got started, where I feel most creative and where I feel I can have the most impact on a young adult’s life. Growing up in West Virginia it is very easy to be sheltered by our beautiful mountains and heritage. It is easy to be convinced that you will never have more than what your family has. The fact that I still live in the small town of 1500 people I grew up in and have a successful career, that I can travel and experience new places and situations inspires the clients I come into contact with. I want them to know that with hard work and faith your dreams can fly you to places you only dreamed about.

Dark soot senior portraits by Amanda Reed

How did you find your “happy place” in your profession? Did you know how you were going to make AR succeed from the start?

That is a hard question to answer. I shoot from my heart. A few years ago I got caught up trying to emulate what other successful photographers were doing. I spent a lot of time reading blogs, trying to figure out their style and yet I was very unhappy. I began examining my life, my choices. I was working way too much for way too little. I spent half of the night on the computer. I was spending more time with other families than I was my own. My business was running me and I was not happy.

In 2010 I attended my first WPPI convention and learned the importance of a business plan. I came home and went to work on finding me. I stopped reading blogs. I hid every photographer and photography page from my Facebook wall. I developed a business plan. I stopped working weekends. I scheduled work hours from 9 to 5, Monday through Thursdays. I quit relying on sweet light and relied on skill to manipulate and create light. I honed my craft and I found me.

If you want to find your style, turn off the noise, tune out what everyone else is doing and look for you in what you create.

In 2010, the market was saturated with photographers and the economy was in a down turn. Our business was thriving. Every six months it seemed liked I reached a point where I said “go big or go home.” We went big and broke ground on my studio in 2011, by the winter of 2012 we were moved in. Was it scary taking on the debt of a studio when the economy was crashing? Yes, but I knew when the market recovered I would be way ahead of photographers who were relying on nice weather to run a business. While they were praying for warm weather I could master in-studio lighting. Operate on a 12 month calendar of income instead of the 6 month on-location photography calendar. Right now, we are sitting pretty and I could not be happier with our success.

Blue outdoor hat senior portrait by Amanda Reed

Apart from technical skill and perseverance, what do you think is the secret to your success?

I attribute 75% of that to my personality. I am a people person. I love honestly and openly. I know that when you walk into my studio that smile on your face may be hiding hurt and insecurities. High school is a tough time. My high school years were some of my hardest, personally. I want my clients to feel comfortable. We talk personally and comfortably. They are making an investment in my work and I am making an investment in them. I come from a genuine place in befriending my clients. I want every young adult who walks in that door to walk out feeling better than when they arrived. Not only do I invest in my client but I invest in what is important to them. We often joke that I give away more money than I make but I have no problem with that. I give back to our high schools, I rally around them. I want Amanda Reed Photography to be integrated in the happenings of not just my town but my state. If it is a charity event, a sporting event or a simple prayer that I can offer my heart to then you better believe I am going to make every effort to be there.

My essential gear:

  • Canon 5D Mark II
  • Canon 70-200 IS L series lens
  • Adobe Bridge/Photoshop
  • PhotoVision Reflector goes everywhere I go.

Native bear senior portrait by Amanda Reed Photography

We hear you’ve done some pretty fun events to market your brand. What are they?

One year we decided to see how far our fans would go to show their love for AR. The craziest idea would win them $1500 worth of products. My brother kicked things off by shaving my logo into his hairy chest. Yep! Things only got crazier from there. A few examples of entries were: my logo burned into a field, a sleeping baby lying beside milk spilled into my logo, people with backstage passes to concerts having music artists sign autographs to “AR.” All of these were fabulous ideas but the winner tattooed AR on her leg. Those were not her initials, not by any means! We had over 200 entries. Lots of them amazing so it was going to take something big to seal the deal and this did it. I posted every entry to my Facebook account and tagged the entry. When you tag 200 entries and multiply that by their number of friends we were getting maximum exposure. People were waking up to see our page and the craziness going on around it.

This year we are going to prom. Yes, prom. I offered a free session and an iPad mini to the first person to take me to prom. I have no plans of crashing the prom. Only to create buzz, arrive in the limo with clients, pose for prom portrait and be on my way. If you missed out on taking me to prom then you can take Flat AR. It is a twist on the Flat Stanley character. Snap some images with my flat AR persona with you getting ready for prom, family portraits, at dinner, on the dance floor, etc. Whoever shows Flat AR the best time at prom and documents it through images wins $1500 worth of products.

All of these fun ideas create a ton of buzz for our business and our clients realize that we are about having fun.

The promotion I am most proud of is our Annual Toy Drive event. During two weekends in November I will photograph 34 sessions. The cost of these sessions is a new toy valued at $35. Each session lasts 20 minutes with option of purchasing another 20 minutes for another toy donation. Our print pricing is deeply discounted for this event but that still doesn’t stop some clients from ordering over $1800 in products from a 20-minute session. Each year we donate toys to a different charity so that I can spread our love back to different communities who support us. Some of our clients really outdo themselves by donating bikes and electronics to make a child’s Christmas a little brighter.

Archery senior portrait by Amanda Reed

We have to ask: What are your favorite SmugMug features?

High school seniors live in the moment. I believe the faster we can put products in their hands, the happier the client experience will be. That’s where SmugMug comes into play. The ability to link clients to their galleries and the sharing options they have right from their computer or mobile device leads potential clients directly back to me. If I am photographing a charity event or a high school basketball game, the option my clients have for to downloading and sharing the display copies directly from my galleries creates amazing word-of-mouth advertising for our business.

Football senior portrait by Amanda Reed

So, what would you say is the #1 secret to success?

How you define success is very important and my definition should be different than yours. I define my success by the quality of my life and the time spent with the ones I love. It is not about the money, the exposure, magazine covers or speaking engagements. When photography affords me the opportunity to make a difference in an individual’s life, that is when I am most successful. Please do not get caught up in the “do it all” mentality. You do not have to be on the cover of a magazine, have a million dollars in the bank, be on speaking circuit, and have products to sell to the photography industry to be a great example of success.

I believe you have to carry a smile in your heart. When you find you, you find success.

As a final note, I know you are going to visit my blog and website but please do not spend much time there reading about my life and my work. That is how you waste time worrying about the competition. Instead, grab your camera, go find you and find success!

Sportraiture: Punch Up Your Portrait Photos with Levi Sim

What’s “sportraiture?” you ask? Simply put, unique portraits of fervent athletes showing them doing what they do best. Pro photographer and SmugMug educator Levi Sim has a place in his heart for the passion and thrill of this type of portraiture, and today he’s sharing the three key tips on how to make it happen for you.

By Levi Sim

When I started photography four years ago a local photojournalist, Eli Lucero, opened my eyes to sports photography. He said, “You know when you make a great portrait that shows emotion and it’s awesome? Athletes are finally performing what they’ve been practicing, and powerful emotions show on their faces all day. It’s great to be a sports photographer.”

Ever since then, I take every opportunity I can find to shoot sports.

Still, I’m a portraitist at heart, and I can’t help making portraits of people everywhere I go. Here are three tips that let me maximize every opportunity I get to shoot great sports portraits.

1. Know Your Game

Athletes spend many hours every day for many, many years to learn to perform flawlessly. They have worked incredibly hard to have the body and the skills to do what they do. It is disrespectful to put them in front of your lens and then mess around with your camera, trying to figure out the best settings. You owe it to them to be proficient at what you’re doing because you’re photographing other passionate people.

Now, I’m not saying you have to be a pro who knows everything before you photograph someone. I’m saying that you do your practicing before you shoot the athlete. At the very least, grab a kid from the sidelines and practice your setup right before you invite the athlete over. Then you can be confident that you’ll get a good image from that same setup.

I’d also recommend quitting while you’re ahead. If you’ve just taken a good picture with a test setup, don’t say, “Let’s try this other thing,” unless you’ve also practiced the other thing, too. They’ll think you’re the best photog in the world if you fire off two frames and have a great picture; if you mess around with the unknown, they’ll be frustrated and disappointed.

Practice your setup, take a good picture and say thank you.

2. Seek Passionate Subjects

I’m not likely to get the opportunity to spend a few minutes photographing a famous athlete, like John Elway or Danica Patrick. But, if I go to the open track day at the local race track, I’ll definitely be able to photograph some very passionate people, and they are likely to let me spend more than a few minutes taking pictures of them.

This is my pal, Jeremy. He’s the one who told me about the open track days, and his wife’s a member of my local SMUG, so he invited the group down to make pictures. Now it’s become an annual event on Memorial Day for the club, and we have a great time.

The track is crawling with guys and gals who are so passionate about racing motorcycles that they travel across the country to race on a world class track.

These people spend their lives working to earn money so they can blow it on a few tanks of fuel and a few sets of tires in a single weekend. They aren’t the kind who ride because it’s cool. They ride because they can’t not. These are the kind of people you really want in front of your lens, and they are the kind of people who will be pleased to help make a picture.

All athletes fit this category of Passionates. I hope you do, too.

3. Use Technique, Timing, Lighting – Anything It Takes to Create a Memorable Shot

It’s interesting that when talking to athletes they can describe the winning goal of a game they played ten years ago. Passionate athletes remember the intricate details of a split second for their entire lives. And if you think about it, that’s exactly what we do as photographers, too.

When you make a picture after a game, that picture will be part of their memory, and an important piece of the experience. I recommend that you prepare a few techniques that will allow you to create a memorable image –something your subjects will be happy to show off to future generations.

In these motorcycle portraits, the guys just got off the track where they broke speed records passing others around the turn, one knee dragging on the ground and sending sparks flying. They have the courage to get back on their bikes after tipping over and sliding through gravel for a hundred yards. I’m just taking it for granted that you have the courage to approach them and ask to take their picture.

After chatting for a sec about the bike, or the game (or whatever), I usually say, “There’s some really good light right over here, and I wonder if you’d let me make of picture of your bike — yeah, with you in it!”

I’ve never been turned down.

Now, put on your widest lens and get in close. No, closer! These portraits were made within inches of the subject, almost touching their bikes with my lens. I used the incredible Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8. When you get in close with a wide lens you make a picture that is distorted and absolutely not normal. And not-normal makes it memorable.

The key to these pictures is the lighting. These are all made within a half hour of noon, so the sun is straight overhead, and there is no light in their eyes to fill the raccoon shadows on their faces from their eyebrows and ball caps. My solution is to use a speedlight to pound some hard light back into their faces and the shadows on their bikes. These are hard looking guys with sunlight casting hard shadows all around, so using a bare bulb speedlight really fits the scene.

Remember: the speedlight is not mounted to the camera–that would be obvious in the picture and ruin the look. The flash is off to the side, and high, as if it’s a little more sunlight from a slightly different direction. Whether you use your camera’s proprietary speedlights controlled by the camera, a radio trigger or an extension cord, you’ve got to get the flash off the camera to control the direction of the shadows. When using a very wide lens (shorter than 35mm), you can even hand hold the flash to the side and it will be enough. I prefer to have my buddy or my subject’s buddy hold the flash.

One More Thing…

For best results in sportraiture, bring a friend. Or two. The more the merrier! You’ll have more people there to help make your vision happen, and more visions to make things happen. You help each other hold stuff, ask each other questions, make the rest of the town jealous by talking about “that great time you spent at the track,” which then gets more people to join in next time. Photography is always better with friends.

All photos by SDesigns Photography

Retro Rumble

Dirk Behlau of Pixeleye Interactive is one of those unsung photographers you stumble upon on an ordinary day, but you just can’t get the images out of your head. In a world where pinup and retro looks are making a comeback, this photographer from Germany gives even the best a run for their money:

You can see all of Dirk’s pin-up galleries here, but his more contemporary work in the automotive world are definitely worth a look, too.

Faces of South Asia

Alfred Pleyer from Austria has captured touching portraits of locals during his travels to Vietnam and Thailand. In his galleries, the simplicity and joy of life flows through the faces of those he met.

His travel galleries include great sweeping landscapes as well as minute details, and can be viewed here.