Skip to main content

The first portrait photo was taken way back in 1839. Technology has come a heck of a long way since then. Just pick up a Nokia 808 PureView to see how far. Unfortunately, most of us still flounder when it comes to taking people pics, both with our phone and camera. Happily, our resident photography pro, Adam Monaghan, recently shared some top tips on how to turn yourself from a portrait zero into a portrait hero.


People mostly assume that the term portrait means the subject is filling or nearly filling the entire frame. But a photograph can be just as much ‘of’ someone, even if they only make up a small part of the image. Giving the subject a little contextualisation can work wonders and can help generate some depth of meaning in the picture. Legendary photographer John Hedgecoe was a great example of someone who used props and backgrounds to help bring his pictures alive.

Whites in the eyes

A sure fire way to bring a portrait to life is by making sure the eyes have a highlight in them. These little glints can be achieved by using reflectors, flash guns, natural light or even an old desk lamp but whatever way you do it, you’ll be guaranteeing your model that extra bit of sparkle!

High key and low key

High Key and Low Key photographs are those which feature extreme contrast. In High Key shots most of the shadows are ‘blown out’ with strong lighting; consequently they are very light and often associated with upbeat subjects. Low Key shots are, inevitably, the exact opposite. Black will normally dominant the composition and only the contour or outlines are really visible. Low Key shots are often used to create a feeling of tension or drama.

Go natural

Everyone loves a blue sky and a bright sunshine in their landscape shots, but when it comes to portraits too much light can be a bad thing. Strong sunshine creates harsh shadows and will leave your subject squinting at the camera. Instead, make the most of slightly more overcast days when the light can still be bright but is far more subtle. And even if you’re shooting indoors, use the windows to give you great natural light and wistful and pensive positioning opportunities.

Exploring the shadows

Moving the light source away from the camera can help create all sorts of dramatic effects and atmospheric photographs. Although it’s best to use proper photographic lights, since they are infinitely more controllable, you can always start out with bare (and bright) domestic bulbs or work site lamps. Just remember – lights get HOT!

Depth of Field (DOF)

One technical trick that has to be mastered for portrait photographs is depth of field. DOF refers to those bits that are sharply in focus while the rest of the image goes blurry. The DOF is determined by the f-stop you use; the smaller the f-number the wider the aperture is open and the shorter the DOF. The blurry bit (known as bokeh) can also play a big part in the composition.

Who’s that then?

It’s possible to reflect someone’s personality by photographing other parts of them instead of their faces. Perhaps the subject has an amazing tattoo or great hands or shapely legs; they are all elements that go together to make that person who they are. It can also be fun to make portraits that don’t immediately give away who the subject is – even if the subject is you! Artist John Coplans is a good proponent of this type of image; using his own aging body as the focus of his work.

Get them candidly!

Whilst it’s nice to set up portrait sessions with perfect lighting, very often the best shots can be those quickly grabbed candid ones. Most people have some sort of ‘photo face’ – that smile / grimace they pull when they’re being photographed – and unless you’re very lucky, it’s not usually their best look! Capturing people in more natural situations will often give a far more flattering shot.

Some brilliant tips from a man who’s been there and snapped that for more than a decade. But which of these bright ideas gave you the biggest flashbulb moment? 

Image credit: Adam Monaghan