How to Take Stunning Portraits

Portraitist Peter Bellamy offers tips on how to get the most out of your subjects.

The best thing about shooting location portraits? You have plenty of control. If you don't like your subject's outfit, put it in shadow. Subject in a grumpy mood? Try a glass of chardonnay. Smile resembles a scowl? Go for a backlit silhouette.

Oddly enough, though, when it comes to backgrounds for location portraits, many photographers throw up their hands and relinquish control. Often, they shoot where they find their subjects, against cluttered backdrops that, at best, contribute nothing, and, at worst, actively distract from the subject.

"And that's a shame," says photo portraitist Peter Bellamy of Brooklyn, NY, "because fixing problem backgrounds is often no big deal."

Bellamy, 51, should know. A former adjunct professor of photography at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, he produced 225 portraits for The Artist Project (Abbeville Press), his 1991 book that serves as a comprehensive collection of late-20th-century New York City painters. Now, he's working on a similar collection of portraits of American playwrights, some of which are published here for the first time.

Bellamy shares a few common-sense rules for better backgrounds.

Keep them simple. When choosing a background, the three most important things to avoid are clutter, overly high contrast, and excessively bold colors. Each can draw attention from your subject. Search, instead, for simple, flowing lines and a feeling of space or depth.

Before shooting (especially indoor portraits), remove objects that don't somehow comment on your subject. "Declutter and clean up," Bellamy says. "Backgrounds should complement not compete."

He often removes paintings, table lamps, and anything that suggests the everyday: tissue boxes, televisions, computers and other electronic gadgets, consumer goods with commercial logos or type, and any object that's too brightly colored. Less is usually more. That said, though…

Add objects if they help define space or suggest personal qualities of your subject. Bellamy puts it succinctly: "In portraiture, there's no such thing as an inanimate object. Every element of a background actively contributes to the viewer's feeling about your subject." Positioning the objects is crucial. "Carefully place things to highlight fore-, middle-, and background areas, and add a sense of physical context and space."

"Include as much background as possible--just don't lose your subject!" Bellamy jokes. Set your lens aperture to f/8 or f/11 to keep the background sharp. "Defocused backdrops don't communicate anything about your subject," he adds, "and they can often look gimmicky. The role of the observant photographer is to reveal, not hide."

Light carefully to control tonality. Place the entire scene within the contrast range of your capture media. No shadow should be solid black or highlight solid white. "It's critical to have separate and clear areas of tonality, density and color," says Bellamy. "Think of the picture as a painter's canvas. Try to carefully apply tone to its entire surface. You will create a visually richer look."

Ask your subject not to wear black or white. It can be hard to hold the texture and detail in either.

Place your camera parallel to the background. Real-life parallel lines should be parallel in your pictures. Door and window frames should be parallel to your picture's edges. "Nonstraight walls are subconsciously distracting, even disturbing," explains Bellamy. But walls parallel to your picture's edges not only add structure to a portrait, but they can often operate as internal framing elements, too.

Fairly simple guidelines, no? Bellamy sums it up: "Unless you've got a really beautiful, famous, or unusually expressive subject, it's usually the background that makes or breaks a location portrait." Bonus Portrait Tips

Take one a day. Peter Bellamy disciplines himself to shoot at least one portrait every day. "You only improve with practice," he says. "Portraiture is a learnable, refineable skill."

Light from the side. Side lighting brings out the shape of body, face, and the drape of clothing. Create alternating areas of light and shadow across your portraits. Just say no to on-camera flash as your main light.

Keep them moving. Especially for subjects with inexpressive faces, add gestures. Even the smallest can be telling.

Bring a friend. To keep male subjects alert and engaged, Bellamy often invites a beautiful woman onto the set, either as a friend or assistant. With female subjects, he brings attractive young male assistants.


DO make necks appear long.
DO ask subjects to pull their shoulders back.
DO use lights and reflectors to fill in facial lines.
DON'T get too tight on the face.
DON'T overshoot. Subjects get bored after about 40 poses.