15 Reasons Why Your Portraits Still Look Like Snapshots

Portrait of a business man and a woman in business attire at night in the city.
Night Style – by Jim Harmer

I wish I had a dime for every portrait photography tip I've read in my life.  Websites and books are literally filled with an endless lists of ideas on how to take better pictures of people.  There's nothing wrong with this, but it can lead to problems when photographers focus so much on the little things that the most important aspects of a good portrait are lost.  Thus, this list of 15 reasons why your portraits still look like snapshots–even though you bought an expensive camera.

#1: Your light is too hard

Many beginning photographers mistakenly believe that hard light simply means that the light is too bright.  The brightness of a light has nothing to do with how soft the light it.  Soft light is created by large lights that are relatively close to the subject and which are diffused.  Soft light gives the face a more pleasing and natural shape, makes skin look more softened, and removes distracting harsh shadows.  To read more about how to soften your light, check out this post.  If you are wondering if hard light can ever be used for portrait photography, then check out this post on hard light portraits.

#2: You haven't learned posing

In my opinion, the pose does more to convey the essence of the model than anything else.  Why?  Because we humans rely so much on body language.  The pose is the only way that the viewer can get a sense of the mood or the message that the subject of the photo is conveying to the viewer.  Your goal as a photographer is to help the model use body language by placing them in a pose that conveys the message they want to send.  If this is the weak link in your portrait photography, then check out this post where I reveal my secret to posing models.

#3:  In Photoshop, you soften skin by smearing the life out of the picture

Somewhere in history, a poor photographer began teaching that the best way to soften skin was to select it and then add blur to the skin.  Sure, the skin looks soft, but it also looks like you just smeared the crap out of the picture.  There are much better ways to re-touch skin than simply smearing the life out of it.  The fact is that skin has texture on it.  It's okay to have pores!  The goal of photographers is not to smear the skin, but to soften it and remove blemishes.  For a fantastic tutorial on skin softening, check out the Beauty Portrait Retouching for CS5 class on Kelby Training.

#4: You have not yet learned self-control with depth-of-field

Using short depth-of-field is an essential technique for any portrait photographer.  It seems that the recipe for most portrait photographers is to spin the selector wheel until the lowest aperture is selected, and then fire away.  This frequently leads to unintentional soft focus on the nose or the hair of the model, which can be distracting in a photo.  Worse yet, in group photos, it can make some of the people blurry.  For more on how to use self-control with depth-of-field, check out this article.

#5: You don't use Lightroom presets–or any digital styling

The reason I included this tip is that I have a friend who is a wedding photographer.  Okay, I have a lot of friends that are wedding photographers, but this one is especially relevant to this discussion.  She has a great eye for composition, lighting, and knows the camera well enough to take a decent shot.  Unfortunately, she hasn't yet mastered digital image editing.  Even though she does everything else well, the fact that she hasn't learned to style pictures using Photoshop or Lightroom makes the photos look too plain.  I'm not saying that every portrait you take needs to have a preset applied, but I am saying that presets are an important tool for portrait photographers, and if you haven't learned to take advantage of that tool, your portraits won't look as good as they could be.  To learn more about Lightroom presets, check out this beginner article with links to some of my favorite Lightroom presets.

#6: You aren't cropped in tight enough

Filling the frame almost always adds drama and impact to a photo.  In fact, the most popular portrait ever posted on Flickr is cropped in so tight that it only shows the subject's hand and part of her side.  By the way, I interviewed the photographer who took that picture a couple months ago.   If you missed the tips from that interview, check it out here.

#7: You never include the environment in your portraits

No, I don't mean that there isn't enough nature in your shot.  Environmental portraits are about including the surroundings of a person to help communicate something about the subject of the photo.  Environmental portraits are not only stunning and powerful, they are tons of fun to do!  Here's an environmental portrait I took a couple months ago.

#8: You haven't learned how to work with natural light

Flash photography is great for portraits, but until photographers learn how to use the natural light in a scene, their photography will be severely limited.  I always think it's such a shame when I hear photographers say that they can only take good portraits at sunrise and sunset.  Shooting in the daytime can still produce great portraits as long as you know the techniques necessary to work with the natural light.

#9: The picture communicates nothing about the subject

Frequent readers of this site know how much I bemoan going to Walmart or JC Penney to get my picture taken in a studio.  Ugh!  It makes me cringe.  They sit you on a stool with a black cloth on it, put an ugly blue smudge of a background behind you, and then fire over-powered flashes at you for 20 minutes and then take all the money from your wallet.  More than anything else, the experience is unsavory because the pictures are bland.  It's just my body in front of a fake background.  It doesn't communicate anything about who I really am.  Once the photographer spends the time to understand the subject and plans a shoot to capture that personality, real portraits can be made.  Until then, it's just a snapshot.

#10: Your subject is still smiling at the camera

It takes most photographers about a year of doing photography before they finally dare to ask the subject to stop looking at the camera.  For some reason, we have all been trained that a proper picture means the subject smiles and stares squarely into the lens.  Breaking this habit adds mood to the photo and gives the viewer of a photo the impression that they are looking into someone's life, rather than having someone stare you down.

#11: You interpret “creative” to mean “odd”

I a couple hours per week perusing the Internet for inspiring photography.  This helps me to think of new concepts for shoots and allows me to relax and enjoy art for a while.  In the last two or three years, many photographers have fallen victim to the misconception that “creativity” means “oddity.”  I realized this when I opened up a picture on Flickr and saw a man sitting on a toilet, a box on his head, and lipstick on his lips.  The comments on the photo praised the photographer's “creativity” in the shot.  No, I thought.  That's not creativity, that's just plain strange.  Creativity is controlled and constructive play time for adults.  So what is an example of a truly creative photo that isn't just strange?  Here's a great example of creative photography that I saw this week.

#12: Your composition is boring

I know, I know… you learned the rule of thirds a long time ago.  Unfortunately, many photographers fall into the trap of thinking that the rule of thirds is the only compositional technique in photography.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  Especially in portraiture where the direction the subject is facing impacts the composition so drastically, it is vital for portrait photographers to learn more advanced techniques to create strong compositions in portrait photography.  Photographers who want to learn more about composition should study the golden mean, the Da Vinci Rule of composition, leading lines, etc.

#13: You haven't yet dared to use off-camera flash

Most photographers put off investing in a simple flash and wireless trigger system because they see the price in the store and are scared away; however, there are cheap options for off-camera flash that do as good of a job for 1/10th the price.  Using off camera flash will instantly differentiate your photos from the pack of other moms with new cameras.  Not sure what to buy to enter the world of off-camera flash?  Read this article on cost-effective solutions to easy off-camera flash.  Oh, and you might want to check out this article, too.

#15:  You haven't taken my class on portrait photography (Shameless self-promotion)

This list is the course outline for a new addition to Improve Photography–online classes.  The first class will be called “30 Days to Professional-quality Portrait Photography.”   Check out the course description here.  The purpose of this class is to teach photographers who have already learned aperture and shutter speed, but who want to improve their portrait photography to the professional level.  Each of the items mentioned in this article will be taught in great detail with students-only videos, weekly assignments, and new exclusive content every day for 30 days.  In addition, you will have full email access to me and will be able to see the photos from other students to get new ideas.    You don't need to own any special gear other than a DSLR camera and any lens.  The cost of the course is $87 for 30 days of personalized training.  Further, the content from the class will remain available to you so you can come back and review it again-and-again if you don't have time to look at it each day.  This class is cheaper than practically any piece of photography gear and, unlike buying more gear, this will actually improve your photography.  Click here to read more about this class.

8 thoughts on “15 Reasons Why Your Portraits Still Look Like Snapshots”

  1. I love this compilation of tips with references to your previous posts, all of which I also read. I’m not primarily interested in portrait photography, but am often asked to take people’s pictures because I’m a “photographer”, and don’t often like what I get. This article is very helpful. AND I followed your link and bought the 5-in-1 reflector–I’ve been experimenting with shiny window insulation from home depot, which works pretty well, actually, but is a little bulky. A thought about portraits from my perspective–many of my best shots of people have been candid shots with a long lens at a distance where they don’t know that they, specifically, are being shot (at garden parties, at the beach, at family gatherings, etc.); they seem more genuine with a greater variety of expressions, plus it does capture the environments in which they like to place themselves (colorful chairs, admiring flowers, enjoying the food…). I guess that’s not really “portraiture”, but a lot of people do pick my photos as their facebook photos. Comments?

  2. Ellen –

    Candid photos are the bomb! It’s certainly an easier means to capture the real person, rather than the plastic posing folks fall into when they step in front of a camera. Course, getting your subject comfortable enough to be real is part of what separates the better portrait photographers from the rest.

  3. Good tips, already knew most of them, but I learnt a few things, that I imagine will improve my work in a noticeable fashion, and I’m sure that they will be very helpful to others : )

    Thanks for sharing you knowledge with us… one thing though, there’s only 14 tips, you go straight from 13 to 15 missing out 14. Is there any chance of getting one more? Because the 14 that are there are all great.

  4. Thanks for the great advice.

    I try to go off auto as much as I can, vary my lenses and dof and use an off camera flash.

    A lot of the photos I take are for a community online newspaper; the subject matters are varied and I manage to take some good “snapshots”.

    However, I’ve just looked at some istock type photos and I realise just how far I still have go to improve the technical quality of my photography.

    Thanks for the tips

  5. Thanks for the great advice.

    I try to go off auto as much as I can, vary my lenses and dof and use an off camera flash.

    A lot of the photos I take are for a community online newspaper; the subject matters are varied and I manage to take some good “snapshots”.

    However, I’ve just looked at some istock type photos and I realise just how far I still have go to improve the technical quality of my photography.

    Thanks for the tips.

  6. I love your shameless plug! The article is great too! Came upon this searching for an answer to a search I was doing. I did a Senior photo yesterday, and uploaded the photos last night, looked them over and began editing. I had the thought that his face looked pretty good with little manipulation, although I noted at the time that his lips seemed really pinky/red. I shrugged, went to bed, and loaded them again this morning, because I was really tired. So here I sit today with a fresh eye, and I swear to you that it REALLY looks like he has lipstick on! It is rather freaking me out! I thought maybe it was an unintentional adjustment so I went to the raw photo, and sure enough, it looks the same. What’s a girl to do? I don’t want to give the mother these photos looking like I put lipstick on the kid in editing! Argh!

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