There are many tips that have improved my portraiture, but if I had to pick one, it would be this.
The title hopefully implies that this is not an article for seasoned veterans of photography. This is instead aimed at newer photographers who are looking for advice on how to improve their portraiture. So, what is this simple tip?
Before you have a wealth of shoots under your belt, any type of photoshoot can be a little overwhelming. You might be trying to gauge settings, pose, lighting, as well as myriad other non-photographic factors. With all that in mind, you can forget to move your feet. It might sound like odd advice — to move more — but the dynamism it will add to your shooting and your results will pay dividends.
One of the reasons I — like many others — prefer to shoot using prime lenses, is it forces you to move to get a different style of shot. I still use the classic 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses, albeit begrudgingly, for events and certain shoots where constantly moving isn’t always an option or there isn’t the time to do so. But if I am free to choose a lens, it’ll be a prime. So, what are the benefits of moving during portrait shoots?
The first and possibly most powerful is it will change your images. I will often move left and right, but then get down low to the ground, or climb on something and be high above my subject. I will hide behind objects to obscure part of the frame. I will try every angle — no matter how bizarre — just to see how it looks.
Shooting face-on at eye height isn’t bad by any means, but if you’re looking to shoot several different images, they’ll lack any diversity and become dull. By moving in all directions and shooting from every angle you can think of, you’ll find some interesting shots you might not have thought of before starting. You’ll likely end up with loads that don’t work, but that doesn’t matter. Get up high, lay down on the floor, be that photographer if need be.
A sense of depth in your portraiture can be achieved in a number of ways. The two most common methods are the angle and aperture. When you move, you are constantly changing the angle of the shot. Images of people taken square on — particularly against a background — can appear flat, which is often boring. By moving to be at an angle to the subject, you’re allowing the scene to appear more three dimensional. Generally, this is far more interesting to view and can tell more of a story.
When it comes to aperture, there’s a common mistake that I have written about before: wide open isn’t your only option. When we spend so much on fast glass, the temptation to shoot every portrait at f/2.8 or wider is always there. While this can offer great subject separation, it limits you. Moving around will throw one of the subject’s eyes out of focus, or the background will become distracting. Instead, try shooting at more narrow apertures like f/5.6 or above. If you get close enough, the background will still soften out even if it doesn’t become gooey bokeh, and you’ll find that you can be more creative with angles, and the scene around you isn’t lost.
The most limiting factor of standing still too much during a shoot is with your composition. Asking your subject to move around is good practice and necessary, but your composition will seldom change. By moving around, you can develop and even discover new compositions and not end up with a shoot full of centered subjects. It is also a lot easier to guide the eye with tools like leading lines, such as the classic headshot technique of having someone lean against a wall, and the photographer shoots from against that very wall, using the lines between bricks to guide the viewer’s eyes to the subject.
Division of Responsibility
Ask any model: they’ll tell you that a lack of direction is a big and common problem, particularly with newer photographers. The problem is if the photographer just stands there and expects the model to do all the work, it’s unlikely to be a good shoot. And that’s models. Most subjects you photograph won’t be agency models with experience, offering a multitude of poses and ideas. By moving your own feet, you can bounce off your subject. I’ve photographed agency models and I’ve photographed people on their first shoot, and by moving, you instantly offer a division of responsibility. The onus isn’t all on the subject, and people of all experience levels will have ideas and experiment with different poses as you change your angle and composition.
It also makes your shoots more fun, which shouldn’t be undervalued!
The enemy of a creative, enjoyable, and fruitful portrait shoot is stagnation. By moving your feet and experimenting with different angles, distances, and heights, you’re likely to come away with a more varied collection of shots. Moving around during a shoot is one aspect of being a portrait photographer that many beginners overlook in preference of concentrating on the settings or the lights, which can impact the quality — not to mention the variety — of your final images.
Do you move a lot during your shoots? Do you have any tips when it comes to movement while shooting? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.