Hi Gang: Once a month on “The Grid” RC and I do our “Blind Photo Critiques” episode where we ask our viewers to submit images for a live critique on the air. When the submitted images are portraits, we often see the same type of problems again and again, so I thought today I’d share a few hopefully helpful things to ask yourself about a portrait image to see if you’re on the right track â” kind of a checklist to mentally take your image through to see if it’s working.

This checklist is short and simple, and certainly not complete, but at least if you’ve asked yourself these things about it, you’ll be ahead of the game. Here we go:

(a) Does your subject look engaged, either with the camera or someone in the frame (or just off frame)?
Peter Hurley has a great staying for this, he says “Are they giving you anything?” This “engagement” from the subject is incredibly important, and without it, the rest of the stuff below, even if you have them all, probably won’t make it without this (unless “e” below works well enough).

(b) Is the light either really flattering or really appropriate to the subject?
That doesn’t necessarily mean soft â” it might mean hard light, depending on who your subject is, whether they’re male or female, and the mood you’re trying to create, but generally the flattering light part is pretty important.

(c) Is the background clean and simple?
If your background is simple for a straight up portrait, your chances for success go way up. This is bigger than it sounds. If the background is distracting, or has very bright areas that draw the viewers eye, your viewer won’t be looking where they’re supposed to be looking, and that’s not a good thing.

(d) Is the subject separated from the background?
In an outdoor portrait, creating some separation between your subject and the background usually helps put the focus on your subject. Try the lowest-numbered f/stop your lens will allow (f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6 â” the lower the number the better), and zoom in on your subject to help create that separation.

(e) Is the subject doing anything interesting?
They don’t always need to be engaged with you (at the camera) or someone in the scene if your subject is doing something interesting to the viewer. Seeing someone doing something interesting is justâ¦wellâ¦interesting!

Again, this isn’t the be-all, end-all list, but the next time you’re sitting in front of a portrait and you’re wondering if it “works,” run it through this checklist and see how it holds up (an ideal time to do this, is when you’re reviewing images during the shoot, while you can still do something about it â” if not, it’s still something to strive for on the next shoot).

Hope you find that helpful, and here’s wishing you an usually awesome, Tuesday! :)

Best,

-Scott

P.S. If you live in the UK, I hope you’ll catch my monthly column in Digital Camera World magazine (link). I’ve been writing it now for about 7-months and having a lot of fun with it. 

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About The Author

Scott is a Photographer, bestselling Author, Host of "The Grid" weekly photography show; Editor of Photoshop User magazine; Lightroom Guy; KelbyOne.com CEO; struggling guitarist. Loves Classic Rock and his arch-enemy is Cilantro. Devoted husband, dad to two super awesome kids, and pro-level babysitter to two crazy doggos.

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