11 Reasons Why Your Portraits Still Look Like Snapshots

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.  

2. You haven't learned posing
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.  

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.  

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.  

5. 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.  

6. You never include the environment in your portraits
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!  

7. 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. Shooting in the daytime can still produce great portraits as long as you know the techniques necessary to work with the natural light.

8. The picture communicates nothing about the subject
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.

9. 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.

10. Your composition is boring
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.

11. 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.  

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