Photo of man in a mask

The 10 Commandments of Portrait Photography

Almost all rules concerning creative endeavours are there to be broken, and portrait photography is no different. However, if there were ten commandments that should always be followed — regardless of whether you’re set up in a studio or shooting portraits on the streets — these would be those ten.

Portrait of man in a bookshop
© Richard I’Anson

#1 Never say “Just be yourself”

We’ve all been on the receiving end of this well-intentioned but awkward request. Honestly, what does ‘just be yourself’ actually look like? When you ask your subject to act natural or ‘normal’, the pressure to do so ironically results in them looking stiff and unnatural.

Subjects, especially those who don’t have much experience, appreciate a photographer who is confident, sure of their ability and direction, and very specific. It shows your subject that you know what you’re doing, and that they’re in good hands. “Just be yourself” or “act natural” not only lacks specificity, but can pull your credibility into question.

Tip: Remember, it’s not so much about your subjects posing, as it is you directing them. If you need some inspiration, flick through some magazines or social feeds so you can familiarise yourself with what pose works for what subject and have a few fail-safes up your sleeve.

#2 Ideas before technique

Great photos start from the idea out. You don’t need to be a master technician to be a good portrait photographer. In fact, many of the greatest portrait photographers in history such as Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz relied on assistants to handle technical matters. So maybe you don’t have the best technical skills in the world? That’s perfectly fine.

Focus on your ideas, on how to bring your subjects to life, and learn how to get them just right along the way.

Portrait of soldier with helmet
© Richard I’Anson

#3 Technique before gear

It’s better to be technically sound with a $100 camera than a technical novice with a $10,000 camera. It’s not what gear you use that counts, it’s how you use it. Many of the portrait photography greats only use a few lenses, but know how to wield them to get their shots exactly how they envisioned.

Tip: If you’re just getting started, instead of spending thousands on new gear, spend time learning general photographic techniques as well as features and functions specific to your gear — that includes reading the manual cover to cover! Or learn from the master himself when you sign up to our Travel Photography Course with Richard I’Anson who helps you understand your gear inside and out

#4 Change the lighting when you change the angle

Whether you’re working with natural light or a studio setup, a portrait photographer should be thinking of light above all else. When you have the perfect light in a photograph, it’s tempting to keep your subject still as you move around them. But as soon as you change angles, you’re lighting is no longer ‘correct’ and you risk your subject sitting in light that is less than flattering. When you reposition your perspective, you need to make sure the light is still landing the way it’s supposed to land.

Australian Portrait
© Richard I’Anson

#5 Never say ‘cheese’

Just like “just be yourself”, asking someone to smile actually makes them tense up because they’re being put on the spot, resulting in a forced, unnatural smile. You know, that smile you make when you get a gift you don’t like. 

​Instead, make them laugh. A genuine laugh creates genuine smiles and that’s what you’re after. What’s more, sharing a laugh or two builds rapport with your subject and will help them loosen up and feel more confident in the moment.

#6 Jut the jaw

If you want jaw-dropping, then jaw-jutting is a must.

We’re talking about sticking that chin out. No one likes to see their double chin in a photo. All you have to do is make sure that your subject brings their head forward slightly, and then tilts their jaw down and out. The goal is to accentuate the jaw and chin line.

Subjects might feel a little uncomfortable craning their necks, so it’s important to reassure them that they won’t be able to notice it in the finished image. 

Portrait of street musician
© Richard I’Anson

#7 If it bends, bend it

This one often gets overlooked. Basically, wherever there is a joint, have your subject bend at it. That might mean a bend at the hips, arms or neck, but these slight adjustments help to create a very dynamic image free from staticness and stiffness. This rule is true whether the pose is a head and shoulders pose or a full length seated pose.

#8 Watch the eyes

It was Shakespeare who said “the eyes are the window to the soul.” The eyes are everything when it comes to portrait photography. It is important to know how to handle people’s eyes as they are the one feature that can make or break the photo. 

Firstly, it is important to ensure the eyes are in focus. This is particularly important if you’re shooting with a large aperture, when the depth of focus is small.

Secondly, you need to consider the direction. Generally speaking, the eyes should follow the direction of the nose. If there’s an object that you’re subject is looking at is within the frame, this will often create a focal point. If the subject looks outside the frame it can create either tension or intrigue. Just keep in mind the viewers’ eyes follow the subjects and this will alter the narrative of your shot. 

Nose-cheek line in portraits
© Richard I’Anson

#9 Check the ‘nose cheek line’

This rule is one of those that you won’t be able to unsee once you see it. It states that the face should not be turned so far away from the camera that the nose breaks or nearly breaks the far cheek line. Unless your subjects requests it, a silhouette of a nose that ‘breaks’ this line, makes the nose look larger than it is. 

side by side comparison photo
© Official

Take these two images of the same model above. See how his nose is more accentuated when the nose cheek line is breached?

#10 Retouch responsibly

Editing or processing images is a necessary part of digital photography. Minor retouching to remove/enhance catchlights or smooth out small blemishes is perfectly acceptable. Where it starts to get unethical is when the final image is perpetuating something that isn’t truthful, deceiving or hurting both subject and viewer.

You’ve probably seen enough dodgy editing jobs to know where to draw the line. Just make sure that no matter what you do, the integrity of your subject is always preserved—and in doing so, yours too.

Are you familiar with the 10 Commandments of Wildlife Photography? Master more fundamentals by signing up to our ‘‘Travel Photography with Richard I’Anson’ course. It contains exclusive videos and course content from one of the world’s most-awarded travel photographers. You’ll also get exclusive access to the Expand My World photo community to share your photos and get tips and support. Find out more.

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