Portraiture: Angles, lighting, focus, and trust

Updated: Sep 6, 2019

Portraiture: Angles, lighting, focus, and trust

Photographing people isn’t as easy as it seems. Hold up the camera, point at the face, click the button, done. That is basically what you do to get a solid portrait of someone. But if you want to create an artistic portrait with some personal style it takes a little more.

Angles of the body

The shape of the body is often of the hardest lines to work within photography, especially when working with someone who doesn’t know how to pose or move their body to get pleasing shots which is most people. To those who believe being a model isn’t a real job, trust me, it isn’t an easy one. Having a good model can be the difference in getting 20 great shots from a shoot and getting 2, which can be a big deal for companies or artists that use their images for work or advertising.

Depending on your style of shooting or what you want to create with the image will determine what angles you will shoot from. Shooting from down low up towards the model will make them seem large and powerful. Shooting from above, looking down at the model will make them look small and timid. Simply turning the head of the subject or changing the expression can make the feel of the image completely different. Determining the angle of the photo includes both the angle of your camera and the position of the subject.

Two photos of the same person with different angles of the face

A great way to help set up angles is to use the rule of thirds. Remember the grid is not meant to make your photos straight up and down nor side to side but instead to allow the shooter to find symmetry in the image. Learn to use the intersections of the lines and boxes as well as the lines themselves. Having a line flow from the bottom left intersection to the top right will still create symmetry within the photo even though it does not follow the grid lines. You can use the rule of thirds to find the most pleasing angle and symmetry of any line or shape no matter how curvey or misshapen.

Using the rule of thirds to create symmetry

Playing with light

Sometimes the worst lighting is best, especially if you are shooting artistic or black and white portraits. Often photographers are told the best time to shoot is at golden hour, near early morning or late evening. This is true to get the most even lighting which creates visually soothing images for both landscape and portrait photos, but when it comes to artistic shots sometimes the midday sun that creates harsh shadows and bright highlights is the best lighting for getting creative. A great way to get a sense of the effect different types of lighting can have is to take the same image in multiple lighting situations. Practicing to shoot in all types of light will help you get the best images possible in any circumstance or time of day.

The angle the light contacts the subject can determine the mood of the photo and person as well. Being backlit (having the lighting come from behind the subject) can create more focus on the setting since it may show what is happening behind the subject and darken the features of the face or body. If the back lighting is extremely bright, as seen in the left photo below, compared to the light allowed onto the front of your subject it can create a silhouette or blow out the background. Being front-lit (light coming from in front of the subject) will illuminate the face or body and create more focus on the subjects features as seen as the right photo below. Even lighting, which is often found at golden hour or on overcast days, allows the shooter to worry less about the lighting and more about the physical contents of the photo since the subject and background will be lit close to the same.

Focus and blur

The point of focus, or lack of, can be used as a tool to determine which part of the photo is of importance or to add a certain mood to the image. If the subject is out of focus or in a blur, it introduces mystery and allows the viewer to come up with their own conclusion of what is going on in the entirety of the photo. If the face and eyes of the subject are in perfect focus all else around them seems to melt away and viewers will be drawn directly to the features of the person. This makes the story of the photo less about the entirety of the image and directs it more towards the story of that specific individual.

Using movement to add blur

Shallow and Deep focus

If there is a shallow focus, meaning a small depth of the photo is in focus, done by having a low f-stop (f1.4 - f4), it will create a small, exact point of importance for the viewer. If a deep focus is used, meaning much of the photo is in focus, done by having a high f-stop (f4 and up), it will direct less importance towards specific objects and more towards the entirety of the photo.

The style of focus you use usually comes down to the type of lens you choose. Often when choosing a lens, the price will go up as the f-stop goes down. The lower the f-stop, the more light the lens allows in to meet the sensor, giving a greater ability to photograph in darker conditions and create a shallower depth of focus. The focal length of the lens will also effect the depth of field. Wide angle lenses have a more difficult time creating a shallow depth of field because there is less separation between the subject and the background. This makes wide lenses a good tool to take portraits that show what is happening around the subject.

Student in a classroom shot on a wide angle lens with a low f-stop

In the photo below, called “The hand of an artist”, you can see the levels of focus. The smoke and hand are in focus while the face is slightly out of focus and background is heavily blurred. The Subject is a graphic designer and the photo was meant to show the importance of hands and habits to creative individuals. If this photo was focused on the face it would take importance away from the hand and smoke, giving them less meaning in the photo.


Last of all and certainly not least of all, personality and trust with the person on either side of the camera is utterly important. Along with the fact that being comfortable with who you are shooting with will just make it a more enjoyable experience, having trust with the other person involved is extremely important in getting the type of shot you want. This is most important when the idea involves creative movements, poses or angles. To get straight on portraits, the subject just has to be okay with having a camera in their face. To get a creative portrait, the subject must be willing to follow the idea of the shooter or director and be comfortable with doing abnormal expressions or movements. This is often what models are for as it is rare to find a regular person with little to no experience that is willing to do some funky stuff in front of the camera. Regardless of if you are working with professionals, a friend, or a stranger, having trust between the subject and photographer is utterly important to create a great photo with both visual and story aspects.

Getting genuine emotions

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