Portraiture is among the most popular genres of photography, in part because each subject is different, with qualities and features that can be used to create a unique image. However, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, continually taking the same old portraits with the same lighting and poses over and over again. In time, your portraits might all begin to look the same, even with all the physical differences between each subject you photograph.
To help combat less than creative portraits, we’ve assembled seven tips for turning up the drama. Let’s get started!
Try a High-Key Look
Purposefully overexposing your portrait can get you an image that has a soft and airy feeling about it. High-key images have a total or near total lack of shadowing, and are therefore bright and upbeat, with a slightly feminine tone. High-key images also have the advantage of masking many imperfections that might be present in the portrait - details will be blown out, masking defects that might otherwise detract from the image. Set up plenty of lights, a light colored background, pose your subject, and fire away!
Give Low-Key a Try Too
Of course, going the opposite direction and composing a low-key portrait can get you fantastic results as well. Naturally, a low-key shot restricts the lighting, creating deep areas of shadows for a mysterious vibe. Because so much of the scene is in shadow, a low-key portrait, just like a high-key portrait, allows you to mask many imperfections. But where a high-key shot is upbeat, a low-key shot tends to be deeply dramatic, if not foreboding. Minimize the lighting, opting for perhaps just a single continuous light, place your model in front of a dark background, and you’ve got a good setup for a low-key shot.
Look for Texture
Looking for texture is a common landscape photography tip because the inclusion of texture gives the image more depth and visual interest, and serves as a hook to capture the attention of viewers. The same principle applies with portraits as well.
If you’ve got a portrait subject that has a lot of character in their skin, why not highlight it? The hands and face are prime targets for texture, and focusing on one of these areas can get you a stunning and unusual portrait. But the focus needn’t be on someone’s wrinkles, per se. Hair can have great texture, as can clothing, and even tattoos.
A person’s cultural history and heritage are great fodder for a more dramatic photo. Whether it’s the clothing they wear, the styling of their hair, objects they have surrounding them, or the environment in which they live, there are cultural elements all around that, when incorporated into a portrait, add another dimension of interest for the viewer. Approach your subject as though you’re seeing them for the first time and strive to utilize their unique cultural perspective to create a truly stunning photo.
Since the vast majority of portraits have the subject in sharp focus, going the opposite direction and purposefully having your subject out of focus makes an immediate impact on your image. You can leave your subject entirely out of focus, with every aspect of their person in mysterious blur, as was done above. Another option is to selectively focus on just one element of their being, such as having their hands in sharp focus while the rest of their body is in nice blur.
Lose the Smile
Not all portraits need to have the subject smiling from ear to ear. Since that’s so expected, again, try going the opposite direction and capture a very serious moment in which your subject is in deep thought. Try a black and white composition as the lack of color will lend to the more thoughtful nature of the posing. But be wary of having an image that is too dark - an underexposed image combined with a more serious pose could make the image feel overly heavy.
On the other hand, using highly saturated colors in a portrait will give it an added vibrancy that will really catch the viewer’s eye. The key here is to avoid going overboard and having too many colors that will compete with one another. Instead, try using selective color to draw the eye to specific areas of the portrait. Bright makeup on the eyes or the lips of the model, for example, will give the portrait added punch without being overwhelming.
As you’ve seen here, creating more dramatic portraits doesn’t require a ton of extra work. In fact, each of the tips we’ve presented are easily accomplished with various lighting, camera settings, and poses. It’s really just a matter of harnessing your creativity, looking for features that you can add to the portrait, and highlighting what your subject already possesses to create a more interesting and dramatic photo.