“A woman wearing keffiyeh in Saudi Arabia.” (Photo taken by the Author)

Wanna Shoot Like a Pro? Start Using These 12 Portrait Elements Now

Key Takeaway: Reveal the model’s raw emotion

“The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.” — Andy Warhol

My passion for portrait photography began when I saw my childhood photos 25 years ago. You know, when you only had a limited film of 12 shots in your Fujifilm camera? And back then, people don’t know how to charm their way in front of the lens yet.

Every time our family gathers together, we skim our photo albums from the 90s. I cringe whenever I see pictures that are not well-cropped, angles that really have no story to tell, and poorly-lit shots that destroy the moment.

I promised myself that if I get to have my own DSLR camera someday, I won’t waste every emotion and character of the object I am taking a photograph of. Because I believe that a shot only happens once. Take it the second time and it will never be the same again. Never.

This article will teach you simple portrait photography elements that I’ve learned in the past three years. I am far from a pro yet, but the techniques I will show here are inspired by Tom Ang’s book, Digital Photography Masterclass. Tom advises to “form a relationship with your subject, no matter how powerful or busy they are”.

The models featured here are dear to my heart — friends, colleagues, family, ex-girlfriend, and churchmates. They are my guinea pigs for all the crazy stuff I asked them to do, and I have their permission to use their photos for my blog, and other media exposure.

By the way, I am using Nikon D3400 with a built-in standard lens AF-P DX Nikkor 18–55mm (1:3.5–5.6G VR). I also included standard specs per photo for your references such as ISO, focal length, aperture, and shutter speed.

Element #1: Intersecting Lines

This is Gilian, a graduating dentistry student as of this writing. I installed this chicken wire on top of a dining table bare stand so she could lie on top of it. This photo was shot on a rooftop and the white background you see is actually blurred clouds. So technically, I was underneath her as I was I telling some stupid jokes so she could laugh naturally.

Portrait of a woman lying on top of a chicken wire while laughing loudly
ISO320 | Lens 20mm | Aperture f/3.5 | Shutter Speed 1/125 (Photo Taken by the Author)

Element #2: Color as Emotion

This is Ralph. He loves music, well obviously. Our group of friends decided to unwind on a resort in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia during the Eid holiday. I asked him just to play music on a pier with the beautiful, calm Red Sea in the background. As you can see, different shades of blue are dramatically represented here. They neither combine nor cancel out each other. Instead, this juxtaposition of colors points out how sad the subject of the photo is while playing the guitar, and the sea is his refuge.

A man playing guitar in the pier during summer
ISO100 | Lens 34mm | Aperture f/4.5 | Shutter Speed 1/2000 (Photo Taken by the Author)

Element #3: Float Effect

This is Jean, an amazing singer, and a cook. It was her birthday when I told her my gift would be to take memorable unique portraits for her special day. Well it did not go exactly as planned. Some say this photo looks like a crime scene from Detective Conan! No matter what, this is still a stunning piece. We used the dark blue carpet as her background. It coincidentally matched with her floral strong-pink dress and her light-toned skin that gave the floating effect. And yes, I was on top of 20 monoblock chairs stacked together.

A bird’s aye view of a woman in pink dress lying on the carpet
ISO1800 | Lens 22mm | Aperture f/3.8 | Shutter Speed 1/30 (Photo Taken by the Author)

Element #4: Vertical Lines

This is Mustafa. He was my colleague in my current employer here in KSA. One day we went out on a stroll in Jeddah Corniche (means seaside). As we cross the road, we stopped by a footbridge staircase and I asked him to take a selfie while I went straight down and snap a shot there. I took advantage of the vertical lines as his backdrop because it made him look taller. These lines also lead to a direction upward, which makes the perfect symmetry with the subject’s hand gesture down to his shoe.

An Arab man taking a selfie in the footbridge staircase
ISO400 | Lens 20mm | Aperture f/4.5 | Shutter Speed 1/1000 (Photo Taken by the Author)

Element #5: Sunlight

This is Carol. She is a nurse and a mom of two little girls. She and her husband invited me to Hilton Hotel in Jeddah to celebrate New Year there back in 2018. I didn’t know they have the hidden agenda to use me as their photographer! The sun was about to settle down, and her makeup is perfectly done. So I thought of a very dramatic setup to utilize the sunlight touching her face. I asked her to think of the painful events that she encountered while making hand gestures she freely wants to do. Voila! The monochrome effect really works damn good in this kind of raw emotion.

Black and white shot of a sad woman facing the sunset
ISO100 | Lens 45mm | Aperture f/5.6 | Shutter Speed 1/200 (Photo Taken by the Author)

Element #6: Dark Space

This is Leo. He is my churchmate, a mechanic, and a father of two little boys. He was also with me in a beach resort in Jeddah, KSA when I took this shot. I used the huge body of water as my dark space and converted it to black and white. Dark space could reveal multiple meanings with the subject. In this photo, Leo told me that he has been tired of fishing for hours and still there was no catch. I used the dark space to act as uncertainty and disappointment.

A father catching a fish in the bay
ISO200 | Lens 28mm | Aperture f/8 | Shutter Speed 1/250 (Photo Taken by the Author)

Element #7: Body Shape

This is Diona. She is my ex-girlfriend, and we’re still friends don’t worry! Standing at the edge of a pier, I took a back shot of her body. Body shapes are powerful especially when you want to convey the message of women empowerment, independence, and character. Body shapes must stand out, that’s why you must select a background that is peaceful, plain, and not taking the attention away from the subject.

Back shot of a woman in dress floating above the sea
ISO180 | Lens 55mm | Aperture f/8 | Shutter Speed 1/500 (Photo Taken by the Author)

Element #8: Hand Gesture

This is Simon. A five-year-old handsome kid, and a son of my best friend. Of course, he doesn’t have an IG account for me to link to. This little boy loves to pose in front of the camera. I didn’t ask him to do this hand gesture but he was on it for quite some time while enjoying the sunlight. I know I have to hurry and take this shot because we all know kids change positions every three seconds! Hand gestures are underrated, but these are one of the key indicators of body movement and intention. And so I took the shot. Poor camera. It got soaking wet after.

A handsome child sun bathing in the pool with his hands touching his face
ISO100 | Lens 46mm | Aperture f/6.3 | Shutter Speed 1/1000 (Photo Taken by the Author)

Element #9: Body Accessories

This is Angel. She is a half-Filipino, half-Spanish teacher of a British School in Jeddah, and the mother of Simon (above). She loves fashion, ‘coz why not? She can back it up with beauty. Our friends and I went on a long drive to reach Al-Wahba volcanic crater in KSA. It was blazing hot in this place and I saw her just standing there, looking at the 2-km diameter mouth of this crater. I told her I’m gonna take a portrait shot, but she stopped me. She borrowed my keffiyeh, rolled it up on her head with the tassels touching her face, sunglasses on. And magic. Instant celebrity look! If you could only see her without the accessory, she did look like a lost tourist in the desert.

A beautiful tourist standing at the top of a passive volcanic crater in Saudi Arabia
ISO400 | Lens 55mm | Aperture f/6.3 | Shutter Speed 1/1600 (Photo Taken by the Author)

Element #10: Color Contrast

This is Hamza. He is a 6-foot tall Sudanese engineer working in the same company as I am. We went together to Amman, Jordan for a business trip two years ago. This man loves striking strong colors on his suit. That’s why when he asked me to take a photo of him in the ancient ruins during our tour period, I told him to stand on this wooden gate. The strong blue color of his suit and slacks made him stand out from the ruins. For me, it gives a dichotomy of the past and the future. Choose a color contrast that will make your subject stand out, and not eaten up by the backdrop.

A tall man in suits standing in front of Ancient wooden gate
ISO3200 | Lens 26mm | Aperture f/4 | Shutter Speed 1/6 (Photo Taken by the Author)

Element #11: Diagonal Line

This is Eden. She is a church youth leader and a senior high student in the Philippines. She is standing on the huge boulders of rock above the seawater. The skies are clear blue and there is this perfect plain light-colored wall behind her. I angled the camera to create a diagonal line that separates the two very distinct objects — earth and sky — stretched far away by the arms open wide. Diagonal lines depict a sense of equality and harmony. Use this element when there is a strong contrast of colors between two spaces.

A teenager stretching her arms open wide in a clear blue sky
ISO100 | Lens 40mm | Aperture f/16 | Shutter Speed 1/200 (Photo Taken by the Author)

Element #12: Glass

Again, this is Gilian (in Element #1). Glass is a very powerful tool in conveying a lot of hidden messages. In this setup, I used a dining table glass top that I dismantled and installed upward to create separation. This gives the illusion of transparency, of fear of the unknown, and of breaking free. You see, you just have to be creative if you’re out of budget. Use whatever resources available around you and leverage it to create a powerful portrait shot.

A woman behind the transparent glass with her palm touching it
ISO400 | Lens 48mm | Aperture f/5.3 | Shutter Speed 1/80 (Photo Taken by the Author)

With these 12 simple portrait photography elements, I’m sure you can create a mixture of techniques that is of your own. Experiment and combine these elements in actual practice with a model who is willing to perform out of the box.

Consistent practice makes a perfect shot.

Next time, you won’t be looking at boring portraits with a fake smile and the same angle that has been reused for countless photos!

Aim for a raw emotion shot that captures the character of the model— whether the subject is smiling, frightened, sad, surprised, ecstatic, or hungry. These are all human emotions that we are blessed with and needed to be captured in real-time and unstaged.

All it takes is one fast unannounced shot, and smart use of elements.

You’re welcome.

NOTE: Affiliate link leading to Amazon books is included in this post. I will receive a commission from Amazon whenever a reader buys the book I recommend through my code.

Tech Startup Founder & COO. Master of Technology Management postgrad student at UP-Diliman. I challenge the status quo, nudge the sphere, and that dent is mine.

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