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Creative portraiture

An up close portrait of Hmong girl in black and white taken in North Vietnam - Pics Of Asia Photos Travels Tours

Creative portraiture

In travel photography, and mostly in Asia, we tend to focus our photography on people. People in this part of the world are more relaxed and easy to approach. But portraits can look very similar if taken with the same angle. It works fine of course, but I personally feel the need to go beyond the traditional close-up portrait and produce some more original work.

While environmental portraiture allows us to be more creative using elements of the surrounding, the options for close up portraits are more narrow. When being very close to our subject, we can only be creative using so few elements: two eyes, a mouth and a nose. Maybe a couple of ears and some hair. On top of that, people have been taking close up portraits for about a hundred years. Everything has more or less been done before, and it is easy to create images that are extremely similar to other portraits. So I believe there is a need to think beyond the usual photography composition techniques and find some tips which are specific to close up portraits.


First, let’s have a look at the “usual” portrait composition rules with this video


Now, these “rules” have been around for a wild, and they are nothing new. I consider them to be more “classic” portrait rules and are a great way to get started and take different portraits. But there is much more we can use to make our portraits more creative.

Only work with the best subjects

Something I often witness in Asia is photographers rushing to take their portraits because they are “allowed” to do it. Whether they are using a guide that smoothes things for them, or they asked permission to their subjects, they will portrait anyone who allows them to. And this means that they spend a lot of time taking portraits of people who are not great “portrait material” or people who are sitting in the wrong place. We will talk further on about using the elements around your subject, so let’s focus on your subject itself.

Because people allow you to take their photo doesn’t mean that you should. Some people look better on the camera than others. Some people know how to strike a pose, some people will just smile in an awkward way. Your first step, if you’d like to come up with the best portraits, is simply to work with the best subjects. As simple as that!

portrait of a man unloading coal from boats in Dhaka


Use the elements of your subject itself

Now, what difference is there between subject A and subject B? Their facial features are obviously different, but surely you can find other elements to play with. A hat, an earring, a necklace, some lines of the neck, etc… may lead you to compose more original and creative portraits. Including these elements, or deciding to exclude them, will help reinforce the story you are trying to tell. It will also help you placing lines through the frame, creating a flow for the viewers’ eyes to travel from one corner to the other. Your portraits suddenly become easier to look at, more pleasant to the eyes.


Woman in Vietnam with conical hat



Focusing on these special elements, placing them as “main” subjects instead of your subject’s face will eventually lead to different framing.

Portrait tip: it’s not only about eyes.

When using elements that your subject is wearing and making them the center piece of your image, try and remove more “classic” elements, like, for example, the eyes of your subject. By removing the eyes, the viewer will spend more time looking at what you want to show them instead of going straight for the eyes.

portrait of a man in Phong Nha park with Pics of Asia

Also, while doing portraits we tend to be very close to our subjects. I do recommend everyone travelling and willing to take great portraits to drop their long lens and get closer (I shoot mostly with my 50mm lens) for more creativity and better results. That means that our depth of field will be much more shallow (mostly when using primes), and this can help us isolate certain elements around the subject, telling a different story.

By looking for and finding these other elements, placing them in strategic locations (mostly using the rule of thirds to keep a balance), you will create more striking and original portraits.


Creative portrait



Use your foreground/background

A very beautiful background or foreground will help you to think outside the box. That is if you spent the time analyzing your surroundings! If you want to include a specific background or foreground, you will instantly become more creative with your angle of approach. Instead of shooting from your eyes level, this will force you to go up (if you want to use the floor as a background) or down (if you want to use the sky as a background).

On top of that, this will help clean your image from distractions that may have been present around your subject.

Myanmar girl portrait


Use your subject’s body language

When being so close to your subject for a portrait, it is more difficult to find the elements that will help to create dynamic lines. Portraits tend to be centered and very symmetrical, and when being so close, there are no elements around our subject that we can use.

To recreate a dynamic line or shape, it is useful to use the subject’s body language. By the way, we have already been writing about using your subject’s body gesture to improve the dynamism of your images. It’s in these quick moments that a photographer can find a way to make a certain subject look different than just posing for the camera. It will help re-create dynamic and directional lines to lead the eyes.

But be aware of one thing: these little body movements are often not predictable and can happen very fast. That means that when shooting close up portraits, you do have to shoot, quite a lot. It is not rare that for a close up portraits I shoot 25 frames using the same (or almost) composition, waiting for the time my subject will look away or tilt their heads (on top of trying to have my main element in focus).

Creative portrait of a Burmese lady

Don’t be shy to use a macro lens

As I often say, the best and easiest way to keep a photo simple and filling the frame is to get closer. The macro lens is simply the best tool to do that. As it can create an extremely shallow depth of field, you can isolate very small elements of your subject and also tell a different story. Also, do not be scared to shoot using wide apertures, it will simplify everything, and can sometimes help you to get rid of a messy background.

Portrait of a girl in Myanmar with Thanaka


Remember: a portrait is not necessarily a face

We mentioned earlier the fact that removing the eyes of your subject will allow the viewer to spend more time to look at the whole frame. Pushing this even further, we could also remove the entire face. It is very interesting to tell stories capturing only parts of your subject: hands, feet, etc… as long as they have elements of interest and tell a story.

Man hands in Myanmar


A portrait should be emotional

This is one of the trickiest things to achieve when taking portraits: creating a mood, an emotion that the viewers will be able to perceive. There are several ways to do this, from the quality of light you are using, the type of exposure, as well as the post-processing. But at the moment you take the photo, you can also rely on your subject to make it happen.

It is often a matter of seconds, if not less, for your subject to show a certain expression on their faces. When shooting people and trying to capture emotions, you need to shoot quite a lot as it is very difficult to predict. And this means that if your subject is posing for you, smiling at the camera, you will always end up with similar emotion. A very flat one it is.



And of course, do not forget to shoot the light

As I described in this article, this is probably the best way to bring creativity and originality into your work. Shooting the light, and only the light, will force you to look at things a different way, only including the elements in the light and removing the rest. So if the light only covers half of your subject’s face, why not only shooting this half?

On top of that, if you are lucky enough to find a subject in the light standing in front of a darker background, you will manage to isolate them the way you would do in a studio.

close up portrait of a man in Rashjahi market in Bangladesh




Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.


  1. Rueben Olivas on July 7, 2016 at 5:22 am

    Just awesome photography. You capture the essence of the person. So inspiring.

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