Three Tips for Dynamic Portraits

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My sister recently asked me for some basic tips on photographing her two young sons. She and her husband lead busy lives in Boulder, Colorado and she confessed she didn’t have a lot of time to devote toward learning every feature of her DSLR, but definitely wanted to know the important stuff. After running through the basic camera functions, I discussed three elements I am mindful of when shooting portraits. After 20 minutes, she had a handle on everything we’d discussed and began practicing right away.

Sometime after that, she emailed me some great action shots she’d taken of her son at a park, where she had used some of the techniques I’d relayed. Coincidentally, I had also taken some action shots of my son, Sam, in a swing while we were in North Carolina. Though these shots were a little more involved, as I ended up using some lighting equipment, the same principles and techniques were used. Afterward, I decided to use these shots as a vehicle for three basic tips I’d suggested to my sister.


Don’t ask your subjects to say, “Cheese”. I do this when I assist my two-year old in brushing his teeth, but not while behind a camera. Try to engage your subject with either conversation or an activity so that they don’t feel overly self-conscious.

Be mindful of it. Great portraits are ones that easily draw the viewer’s eye to the subject without distracting background elements. Line your subject up within a pleasing frame. Pay attention to everything else that is not your subject and adjust the composition accordingly.

Disable the built-in flash whenever possible. On-camera flashes can effectively illuminate your subjects, but the quality of light is usually unnatural-looking and unflattering. Try to find natural light that looks good on your subject and shoot there or augment with off-camera lighting.

In the shoot with Sam, I wanted to challenge myself by taking an action portrait of him in a swing at his grandparents’ house. I wanted to shoot against some tall trees in the background, but unfortunately the swings were mounted underneath an overhanging deck where there was hardly any natural light at all to illuminate Sam’s face.

I could have gotten better light on Sam had I shot with the house in the background, but again, consider the background! Instead, I kept with the trees, which meant I needed to bring in some additional light, and the pop-up flash just wouldn’t do.

For additional lighting, I set up a Photoflex FlexFlash A/C-powered strobe kit that consists of two lights, a soft box and an umbrella. For my main light, I used the soft box for a diffused, natural look. I raised the light up high enough to create soft, downward shadows on Sam’s face and off to the side to add some sense of dimension. I synced the camera to the strobe with a wireless trigger and adjusted the strobe power until the light levels looked good on Sam and balanced with the ambient.

For a final touch, I added the second light with the umbrella to serve as a rim light. I like using rim lights because they help to create separation between the subject and background and can be visually pleasing.

Here’s a bird’s eye view of the setup.

Once the lights were set up, it was just a question of timing. I knew I’d have a short window before Sam lost interest in being photographed in his swing facing the house (the swing usually faces the trees) and I needed to press the shutter when Sam swung into the spot to where I had manually set the focus, which was also where everything worked compositionally, and where the main light would illuminate him optimally. Light falls off quickly and if I caught him too far back, he would be underexposed, too close and he would be overexposed. Here’s a shot where I disabled the strobes for a sense of what the ambient light was providing.

While I focused on the timing and compositions, Sam’s granddad pushed the swing and interacted with Sam to keep him animated. I got a few keepers before Sam stopped finding the humor in all of this, and this was a clear favorite. Notice how the sun had peeked out for a moment and added nice texture on the ground as well.

This shoot required some technical know-how, but the three basic elements were achieved: expression, background and lighting.

Written and photographed by Benjamin Clay.

Basic Lighting,

Outdoor Portraits,


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