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Tips for making storytelling portraits (it's not just a headshot)

and • July 2, 2015

Here’s the situation. You’re out in the field reporting a killer story and you’re meeting interesting people that aren’t necessarily in the public eye. You’re thinking about how your radio story could be presented online, and realize that it’ll help to give readers a view of who these folks are.

So what do you do?

Pull that smartphone or point-and-shoot out of your pocket and make a few portraits! Pictures of the characters in your story will help readers connect with the work you’re doing, and can give them a view of a person or a place they might not be familiar with. Plus, portraits can be super easy.

Now let’s get rolling! Here are six tips to getting the most out of your portraits:

1. Look for a clean and simple background 

And try to keep things from sticking out of the person’s head. A plain wall is great if you can find it, but if not, just be aware of where they’re standing.

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Photo by Ariel Zambelich/NPR

2. Don’t forget to focus on the subject’s face

On a phone, the easiest way is to tap the screen so that the focus box appears on their face. Remember to re-focus between photos as necessary, especially if the subject moves or you move. And don’t be afraid to take a lot of photos! 5 or 6 snaps to make sure you’ve got it is better than one that’s out of focus.

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3. Natural light is your best friend!

A great way to make a simple portrait is to get your subject near a window, or under some sort of even light. Watch for how the light hits them: Is it too dark? Is the light on them inconsistent? Try even shade or bright rooms, and it can help to ask the subject to tilt their chin up slightly to avoid shadows under their eyes.

Protip: While it’s great to have them stand near windows, don’t have them stand in front of the window — you want the light to brighten them, but not overpower or silhouette them.

Protip: If you can avoid it, don’t use the on-phone flash. The light can be very harsh, and can be difficult to work around when you’re trying to tone the photo.  ashraf-ghani1

Photo by Emily Jan/NPR

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Photo by Kainaz Amaria

4. Try photographing the person from different distances

Protip: Get close — try to frame them from the waist up, and include their whole head / limbs.

Protip: Alternately, back up — give us a sense of the characters in the context of the space (both inside and outside), and visually answer questions like, “How large is this place? How do these characters interact with the space and each other? Where are we geographically? How might this look different compared to what readers might think?” These types of images are called “environmental portraits” because they show us a person in the context of their environment, whether that’s a neighborhood or their home.

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Photo by Emily Jan/NPR
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Photo by Carrie Kahn/NPR

5. Have some creative input on the scene

When it comes to portraits, you may ask your subject to stand up or sit down, or face in a particular direction — but don’t ask them to do something they wouldn’t normally otherwise do.

Protip: Put the subject at ease — talk to them about what they are doing, how their day is going, or whatever else to get them in the zone. How comfortable they are with you will come across in the picture. Just try to avoid taking all of your photos while the person is talking — it helps to just keep shooting, and wait for natural pauses in conversation.

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Photo by Frank Langfitt/NPR
omalley-zambelichPhoto by Ariel Zambelich/NPR

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Photo by Frederica Boswell/NPR

6. Smiling faces are not always appropriate for the story

So keep the tone of your story in mind. Often, people will naturally smile when you point a camera at them, so be patient, let them relax, and if all else fails, ask them to try not to smile for a few photos if you need to.

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Photo by Jason Beaubien/NPR

Ariel Zambelich is a photo editor for NPR Visuals. Emily Jan is a former NPR intern.