Use These Tips to Take Better Portraits with Your iPhone

...and we're back to portraits.

In my last article I strayed a bit from my three-part portrait series to talk about 2 iOS remote devices I've been using; Nova Off-Camera Flash and the Satechi Bluetooth Button Remote Shutter Release. When I first got the flash, then the shutter release I thought they were interesting, but unnecessary, and the new-gadget excitement quickly wore off. But after finding myself in situations where these devices came in handy I started looking at them differently. Now I find that I use these devices and other gadgets a lot more than I thought I would, and I like the results I'm getting because of them.

Your mileage may vary.

So, it's back to the third and final installment in my iPhoneography 101 portrait series, this one involving what I call "formal portraits." These are portraits where you control the environment, the subject, and every aspect of the photo taking process. I have a lot to cover so lets get to it.

If you've read the earlier two parts of this series then you're aware of my Discipline of Film. In this installment I will complete the rules of my Discipline and also talk about more about portraits. So lets get to it.

The Formal Portrait

Portrait of Jackie (All phots taken by Vern Seward)

Don't be confused by the term "formal," it's not as if you need to don gown or tux to take a photo. Heck, you don't even have to take a bath (though I would take it as a kindness if you did).

By formal I mean that the perfect portrait is the goal and to achieve it you take full control of the lighting, subject, background, pretty much everything in order to get the shot. You can take your time and compose, create lighting effects, and just let your creative juices flow.

Great formal portraits are ones where you get to see a side of the subject that may not be readily apparent if you see him or her on the street. That can be difficult to do because people tend to want to put what they believe is the best image of themselves in front of the camera and often that image isn't the real person. I won't tell you that I've taken some great portraits, but I have taken some pretty good ones.

One of my favorites (which I can't show you, unfortunately, because I don't have the permission to do so from the subject) is of a twenty-something girl. Whenever I pointed the camera at her she would smile and tilt her head just so and look at the camera. Apparently she was very comfortable in front of the camera. I hated it when she did that.

So, I waited until she let her guard down and I took the shot. What I got was an image that so portrayed who she really was (a very open, sweet, and sensitive person) that when I showed her the finished portrait all she could do for the first few minutes was to stare at it, study it. Then she told me that she didn't realize that she looked so innocent and that it was the most honest portrayal of her she had ever seen.

That story illustrates the difficulties involved in getting a good formal portrait. But even if you get the shot you think is best, the person in front of the camera may not think so, which can be a problem to which there is no easy solution.

Anyway, my last Discipline of Film rule is this...

Next: Rule# 7: Compose in Your Head First

Page 2 - Rule# 7: Compose in Your Head First


This rule lines up nicely when taking formal portraits because you have control over the environment, you can decide how you want to the portrait to look. So, think about it first. What about your subject do you want to say? Is he a serious sort? Is she gregarious? What about your subject stands out and how would you best show that? If you don't know then put the camera away for a moment and chat up your model. Try to get a sense of what makes him unique. This requires practice, even for the most outgoing among us.

Once you've decided what you want to show about your subject your task then is to figure out a way to get what you have in your head to print. Not always an easy task, but remember, you control it all.

The picture below shows a simple setup for taking a formal photo. My iPhone is mounted on a tripod, I have chosen a bright background so I'll need good frontal lighting, which I get using a reflector (not shown). Note the lamp on the right. I used that to provide a warmer tone on the right side of her face.

My makeshift iPhone studio

If I needed a flash I would have involved the Nova BT Off Camera Flash. I am using the BT shutter release (also not shown) which allows me the freedom to move around and position the light, subject, and whatever as I see fit, snapping shots as I go.

The woman who graciously volunteered to be my model is Jackie, who is an outgoing, upbeat person who smiles easily, but she also has another side which is a bit more sedate. Both views of her makes her happy. I tried to show that in the resulting portrait.

OK, there you have it and I hope it all helps you get better portraits. While I've offered pointers within types of portraits you are by no means limited to them. Use what I've offered as a foundation and build on it.

In my next article I will talk about tripods and camera mounts. Stay tuned.