5 steps to make your photography portfolio stronger

I love offering portfolio critique sessions. It is a joy to guide new photographers toward their goals!

With many of my sessions, I have noticed that there are certain bits of advice that I give every time. These lessons are universal for any photographer. Whether you just got your first camera, are on your way to becoming a Click Pro, or are a seasoned professional, you can benefit from these observations now.

Isolate your subject

Isolating your subject doesn’t mean that you have to put him in an empty room in order to photograph him. Rather, it means that you need to make it your goal to let you subject shine. You want the focus of your photograph to be the first thing your audience sees, right?!

These are some of my favorite ways to isolate subjects:

•Using aperture to blur the background

•Keeping the subject far away from background elements

•Placing the subject in an empty space

•Placing the subject in great light

•Ensure a bright subject is on a darker background OR

•Ensure a dark subject is on a brighter background

•Utilize composition (ie: the rule of thirds, leading lines, framing elements)

Place your subject properly within the frame

The easiest way to improve your photos RIGHT NOW, is to avoid cropping at the joints (knees, elbows, wrists, ankles, throat). To have the edges of the frame running through these joints is uncomfortable (the term “limb chop” sounds bad for a reason!). So take a step back and make sure that your composition allows your subject to be comfortably within the frame.

Similarly, don’t have horizontal lines (ie: horizon lines and background elements) running through these joints. This can be a little tricky as we don’t always notice that pole or tree behind our subject when we are happily shooting away. However, I promise that taking a minute to ensure that nothing is “impaling” your subject (yikes!) will yield stronger photographs every time.

In this example, my dark subjects are on a brighter background. They are framed by the horizon line and they are in a clean space. Their limbs are fully within the photograph and the light is beautiful.

Add depth to your image

How does one add depth to a two-dimensional photograph, you ask? By carefully constructing a frame that has elements in the foreground, the middle ground, and the background. Doing so will create a sense of space that will make your photographs so much stronger.

Sometimes a simple portrait calls for only a singular subject with no other elements in the frame. And that is fine! However, when you want to tell a deeper story with your photographs, you need to use every millimeter in your picture!

You want your viewers feel as though they can move through the frame and into the story themselves. Here are some simple ways to add depth:

•Put something in the foreground (but don’t let it distract from your subject…nothing too bright or eye-catching)

•Opt for a point of view where we can see the environment

•Close your aperture to keep desirable elements in focus

•Use light intentionally (backlight allows the sun to be the background element!)

•Place cool colors at the back and warm colors at the front of your image, and vice versa, to see how colors recede and emerge (this is a great trick I learned in Fine Art and Visual Expression with Elle Walker)

In this photo, I shot through the parents. It adds a layer and it also provides a contrast in the tones so the baby can really pop as he is in a bright area.

In this image, I chose to backlight, to back up, and to shoot through some cedar branches. I kept my aperture at f/9 to help me to get a nice sun flare, too!

Balance the frame with light and shadows

Creating a balanced frame means to create a path for the viewer’s eyes to “read” the photograph. Our eyes read from what is bright to what is dark. We search for geometrical forms. Our brain is drawn to the color red. We are automatically attracted first to human forms, faces, and eyes.

If you do not have light on your subject or if the brightest light has fallen elsewhere, it can lead to an imbalanced frame. Should red occur in an area of the frame that is unimportant, it can distract the viewer from your intended subject.

In other words, creating balance means that you have organized the photograph in a way that guides your viewer to your subject first and does not pull them away from that intended focal point.

In this image, I was drawn to the quiet light falling on my son’s face and hands. I was happy that I happened to have my camera in my hand! The light was at just the right place and allows the viewer to read the frame just the way I intended.

The post-processing in this image was very important. I needed to keep the curtain as dark as possible, in order to make the starburst the “star” of this image alongside my son. The relationship between light and shadows balances the frame and draws the viewer to the starburst area.

Here is an example of how red can grab our attention, even when it’s out of focus. In this frame, the bike was part of the story of a bike ride that didn’t end well. But for someone who doesn’t know the back story, it might be distracting.

Work to get accurate white balance

Color in photographs can be such a difficult thing to see at first. Our brains are wired to autocorrect when there is a color cast that we know is wrong.

However, achieving correct white balance can make all the difference in the effectiveness of a photograph. I urge you to learn how to edit skin by the numbers. Using these mathematical baselines will help you retrain your eyes and will eventually make seeing and editing correct white balance second nature.

There will always be trends in post processing, but if the white balance is weird, that’s all I can see! Feel free to explore new techniques but don’t allow yourself to be the victim of passing fads. Having solid white balance is crucial to creating timeless work.

Avoid in-between moments and distracting elements

When looking at your work, don’t put “mommy goggles” on. This is not to say that you shouldn’t take a few of those super close-up shots of that adorable toddler (because that is what I did and while they isn’t likely appealing to anyone else, I know those shots are just screaming LOOK HOW AMAZINGLY BEAUTIFUL MY SON IS!). Instead, I want you to take those shots and then be intentional in taking shots that tell the story of your subjects.

Don’t forget you are taking pictures for your kids so they will be able to remember and relive their childhood. So, look at your favorite images. Do they tell the story of a moment? Or do they capture a moment that is more in-between?

Be intentional. Know why you are shooting. Choose your settings to support the story. Click. Look at the back of your camera. Move. Repeat.

Here the light really helps to tell the story. It sets the time of the day so we can understand she was not supposed to be sleeping at 4pm. She fell asleep on her iPad after drinking her bottle of milk. We discovered the next day that she had pneumonia. All the elements in this frame complete the story.

Look again at your best images. Is there a person or a thing that doesn’t belong in your story? If you meant to feature your gorgeous daughter bursting with laughter, you don’t need to put Dad mowing the grass in your frame! Simplify your frame. Get closer and choose an angle to avoid distracting elements.

In this image, the only way I could make this silhouette was by getting low in the grass and shooting through the scene to have his limbs separated and his body not merging into the tree or the electricity wires!

So now for some homework! Put together a portfolio of your 25 best images. Are you following these bits of advice? If not, how could this advice improve those images? Go out and try again to improve upon what you love! As your mentor today, I want you to improve and I want you to feel empowered by these tools to do just that.

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About the Author:

Annick is a French Canadian documentary photographer who likes infusing fine arts in everyday life. She loves capturing the essence of a family, their rituals and funny moments, and most of all the bond that brings their unique tribe together. She is based in Québec, aka Maple Syrup Heaven.

4 Comments

  1. Karine Rocheleau Nov 01 2018 at 9:11 am - Reply

    Thank you Annick for the tips. I really love your constructive observations!!
    I will be on vacation next week and I will have more time to apply them!

    • Annick Paradis Nov 06 2018 at 9:36 am - Reply

      I’m glad it is helpful Karine 😀 Can’t wait to see what you will shoot during your vacation!

  2. Cami Turpin Nov 04 2018 at 9:01 am - Reply

    Annik this is all such good advice and so important to remember! I hope people are taking notes and looking at each of these things in their portfilolios. Thanks for the awesome reminders and beautiful examples!

    • Annick Paradis Nov 04 2018 at 9:03 am - Reply

      Thank you Cami 😀 These are simple but not so easy to apply when we first begin our photography journey! xx

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