When you think of what makes a portrait visually impactful, what comes to mind?
For me, I’d have to say it’s how the shot is framed.
I know that might sound like an unusual answer to my own question, but hear me out…
When I hear the word “portrait,” I immediately think of the Afghan Girl picture by Steve McCurry all those years ago.
Do you remember that shot?
It’s gorgeous in more ways than one, but I especially remember how the photo was close-up, but not so close that it felt restrictive.
But that’s just me!
There are plenty of other elements that can make or break a portrait. Let’s take a look at 11 examples of how photographers can create portraits that make your jaw hit the floor.
When creating an environmental portrait like the one above, it’s important to include details that help tell the subject’s story, but without taking attention away from the subject. In this case, the illumination on the boy’s face helps draw your eye to him, but the photo is also inviting enough to inspect the surroundings in which these boys live. By having the same view over the valley as the boys, we get a better idea of what life might be like for them.
This portrait is a prime example of how the angle of view impacts the feel of the shot. By getting down to a low angle, the photographer emphasizes the size of the two men in the frame. What’s more, the low angle of view gives us a front-row seat to the supporting details - the lantern, the fire, and the boats, making this a more compelling image to view. Imagine this shot if it had been taken from a high perspective or even an eye-level view. It wouldn’t have the same visual impact.
Composing a portrait from a good distance away can be tricky because the subject can get lost among the details. However, as we see in the portrait above, using a frame within a frame - the tree - helps to keep the viewer’s attention on the boy riding his bike. What’s more, the tree helps block out the intensity of the rising sun, which allowed for the creation of a beautiful, detail-rich silhouette of the tree, the boy, and his bike.
Black and white portraiture is often trickier to pull off than color portraiture because you have to learn how to “see” in black and white. That means paying attention to details like shadows and highlights, patterns, and textures. In this image, the sidelighting helps create interesting areas of light and dark, while the inclusion of the pots adds some geometric visual interest. The placement of the man to the right, which follows the rule of thirds, allows for a composition that feels more balanced and active as well.
When striving to create a candid portrait, one of the best tools at a photographer’s disposal is a long focal length lens. By shooting at 200mm, the photographer of the image above was able to take a position far enough away from these boys that he didn’t interfere with their playtime. As a result, we see a genuine, natural portrait of kids being kids without them feeling as though they need to “act right” or “look right” for the camera.
Leading lines are often associated with landscape photography, but as we see here, they are also a powerful compositional tool for portraiture. The converging lines of the pathway and the vertical lines of the columns on either side of the path help point our attention to the two boys. The different types of lighting in the photo - the soft candlelight that gently illuminates the boys’ faces and the brighter, broader light coming in from above that highlights the texture of the walls - gives the image a greater level of depth and dimension.
Unlike the previous photo, this one was taken with a 15mm wide-angle lens, which just goes to show that you can create a compelling portrait with any type of lens. The wide-angle view does two things for this shot: the boy in the foreground appears more prominent in the frame and we’re afforded a view of his surroundings in the temple. Of course, the shafts of light streaming in from the window are the highlight of the image, and act as an ideal visual element to frame the primary subject.
All portraits - all photos for that matter - benefit from great lighting. But when creating a close-up portrait, lighting becomes even more important because it helps the viewer inspect the details of the shot. In this case, the soft, even lighting perfectly illuminates the features of the subject’s face, so much so that you can easily see the texture of their skin. The highlights on their cheeks and lips give the image just enough brightness which contrasts beautifully with the subject’s dark eye color.
Silhouetted portraits like this one can benefit from the inclusion of fine details that help catch the light from behind. In this case, the action of the man holding the net up gives his body a more interesting shape to silhouette, while the illumination of the net adds those needed details to make the shot more visually engaging. Note how the backlighting helps define the texture of the water as well, which adds another layer of interest to the photo.
In another beautiful example of a wide-angle portrait, we see how shooting at 15mm helps define the space around the subject. The wide-angle view incorporates the walls on both sides of the image, which acts as a delicate frame to lead the eye deeper into the shot. The archway behind the boy acts as another visual frame, helping our eyes to be drawn in by the warm lighting flooding in from out of frame. The wide-angle view also makes the boy seem a little smaller, giving the impression that this temple is quite voluminous.
This image is an ideal example of how strong lighting can result in a beautiful black and white portrait. The long shadow cast by the light entering from the left creates a better sense of dimension. The lighting also gives us a good view of the texture-rich wall behind the subject, which adds another layer of interest to the shot. Additionally, this portrait was taken at ISO 3200, which just goes to show how far you can push the ISO on some cameras without getting an overwhelming amount of digital noise.
What these photos have in common - aside from them all being jaw-droppingly beautiful - is that they were taken by photographers on a trip with Discovery Photo Tours.
When most people think of photo tours, I imagine they think of landscape photography. But when traveling, there are ample opportunities for portraiture as we’ve seen in the photos above.
What’s so great about participating in a trip by Discovery Photo Tours is that you get to practice your photography skills in all kinds of settings with other photography enthusiasts. Work side-by-side with photographers of all skill levels, and learn new techniques from professionals who come along for the ride for the specific purpose of helping you become a more skilled photographer.
Share your work, get feedback, improve your skills, and see the beauty of the world all at the same time. That sounds like a wonderful way to spend a few days!
For more details about upcoming travel dates, visit Discovery Photo Tours.