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DIY Photography Portraits — The Four Keys

PhotographyHow-to

Four Keys to DIY Your Portraits — Step by Step

DIY photography is one of the best ways to capture the moments that pass too quickly and document the days of the people you love or are inspired by most. These are the good old days, and there are many more to come, but savoring the ones here now before they’re distant memories is truly an art form. That’s why learning DIY photography is important.

 

Whether you’re taking your own family portraits, pictures of your kids, snapshots of friends, or content for social media, have fun with DIY photography while you document your days and ways.

 

If you want to do amazing DIY photography, here are four keys to keep in mind when taking your own, do-it-yourself portraits that will tell more of a story than a selfie can.

 

While professional and DIY portraits will differ in a lot of ways, these snapshots will be valuable because of the people in the frame, and they’ll be upleveled by the keys you’ll keep in mind while taking them.

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You’re capturing great portraits but also learning and creating new memories as you do it.
woman taking a picture with a camera

 

Truly, to put it simply, professionals use the best cameras and lenses they can, learn how those cameras function in order to leverage their capabilities to the fullest, invest in education and experience, lead sessions as they capture their images, and then edit their images in specialized software they’ve mastered using, so your images likely won’t look entirely professional simply by using these keys, but that’s okay because that’s not the goal. The goal is to learn the basics of taking portraits you’re proud of, period. 

 

Therefore, you can use any camera you have on hand, including the one in your phone, and make the most of the tools you have, starting with these four foundational keys. 

 

Simply don’t get discouraged! See each picture for what it is—a captured moment, relationship, or message.

 

These images are going to be entirely unique and special to you. Try not to compare your pictures to anyone else’s lest it steal your joy. Don’t be tempted to do a Pinterest side-by-side or compare your images to ones taken by a professional with years of training and experience. Sure, seek inspiration if you want, but your images are going to be perfect because they’re yours.

 

Now, onto the step-by-step guide through our four key points for taking traditionally styled portraits: planning, location, light and posing.

 
office supplies


KEY #1: Have a Plan

You get to decide how intensive your planning is depending on how relaxed or structured you want your DIY-portrait session to be, but here are a few ideas to keep in mind.

Decide your details.

Figure out the who, what, when, where and why, and make sure everyone is on the same page. We’ll get into the where and when later, but when choosing your why, get really specific.

 

Are you documenting your child’s current milestone? Are you trying to take a family picture for your Christmas card? Are you trying to take some really cool pictures of your friend? Are you trying to update the aesthetic of your social-media feed or connect with your audience?

 

Whatever your “why” is, make sure it’s clear and inspiring to you for motivation.

Choose your wardrobe.

Decide how you want everyone in your session to dress. Choose your style and colors, and if you have a group for your portraits, have fun bringing your core look into the look of everyone included.

 

You might want to start by choosing one or two main colors. (Choosing a single, matching color for every member can limit your options, and it can sometimes cause everyone to blend into each other in images.)

 

Then, find some complementary colors or different shades of your ideal look.

 

Textures and limited patterns can help liven your look in addition to your color choices.

 

Don’t forget about shoes and accessories if you really want all of your details styled.

 

If wardrobe isn’t your priority or you don’t coordinate with everyone, your pictures won’t be ruined in the least. 

Choose your poses.

Go ahead and scroll Pinterest or other inspiration images before your DIY session. Create a board or collection of only poses you can realistically do in a safe—for both your subjects and your camera device—and manageable manner with your time, location, and resources. 

 

If you’re doing self timer for self portraits or for a group you’re in, make sure you have everyone posed before you press the timer so that everyone is ready, and you know how to slip into the shot before the shutter goes off. 

 

Make sure you show anyone who’s in front of the camera exactly what you’re looking for so your vision comes to life more easily. If you’re planning this session so someone else can take DIY images of you, make sure you still show your camera-person your inspiration images so they can get an idea of exactly what you’re looking for.

 

Choose to laugh.

Anything can happen while you’re trying to capture memories.

 

The wind can whip your perfectly styled hair. The shutter (or iPhone) can go off mid-blink or mid-sentence. Kids can have meltdowns, and even adults lose patience. That’s okay; just be patient and work with what you’ve got. 

 

If you’re not a professional photographer, this is going to come with a learning curve. The easiest way to be patient instead of disappointed during pictures (and most things in life), is to laugh your way through it. No matter what, just don’t get discouraged!

studio lighting

KEY #2: Light

Question: What is one of the best superpowers a photographer can have?

Answer: Mastering light.

 

The light can make or break pictures, so make sure you’re attentive to it. That said, if any part of your pictures aren’t perfect, including the light, your pictures are still valuable because of the people in them, so just try your best!

 

Note: these steps might require you to go to the exact place you’ll be taking your DIY portraits on a day before you actually take your pictures so you can assess the lighting situation.

 

Time the light.

If shooting outside, try to shoot during the “golden hour”—within an hour or half-hour of sunrise or sunset to avoid harsh light when the sun is still high in the sky. (Harsh light can make those in your pictures squint if they’re facing it, or it can cause your pictures to be foggy if the light hits your lens directly or nearly make your subjects into silhouettes.) 

 

If shooting inside, choose your location, and look at how the light pours in the window on a day before your DIY session. The best light will typically be within a few hours of sunrise and sunset. Look out for harsh shadows or really bright spots. 

Find the light.

If shooting outside, try to avoid spotty light, like that which shines through tree branches. Just try to keep your subject from looking like they have polka dots of bright spots and shadows unless you’re trying to get an artistic, moody portrait. Also consider that trees and buildings might block the “golden hour” light if the sun goes behind them at that time.

 

If shooting inside, try to find the room with a window that faces where the sun rises or sets, and turn off all other lights if possible because they can cause shadows and affect the colors in your pictures.

camera and map


KEY #3: Location

While your portrait subjects are the stars of this shoot, your location can set the tone beautifully.

Pick a place.

Choose a spot that’s simply stunning or one that has sentimental value. The location can really add to the energy, ease, style, and feel of your session. The choice is completely yours!

Consider background and brightness.

Try to look for a clear background. Of course, you don’t have to shoot in front of a blank wall, but try to keep away from having a tree from popping out of your subject’s head or tons of cars driving in the background.

 

If you can see light or sky in the background (rather than a brick wall or thick bunch of trees), your images can automatically be brighter and feel lighter.

Give some space.

If you’re shooting in front of a wall, bush, or other objects, have your subject take a few steps away from the background to create some space. This will help your subject stand out in the portrait.

woman looking at camera


KEY #4: Posing

You already chose your poses in the planning stage, so here are a few pointers to help everyone look their absolute best in front of the camera.

Angles matter.

Try to avoid shooting “up” at your subject. (Angles from above are good for more than selfies.) 

 

Aim to at least be level with your subject’s eyes, and try to angle the camera slightly down at them from above, if possible. If you’re using a self-timer, try to use a tripod or safe spot that’s at a flattering height. 

Framing matters.

It matters where you put your subject in the picture when you’re taking it. Always try to leave some space over your subject’s head, and try not to cut off any feet.

 

If you want a lot of options to choose from, you can get many images using the same pose by changing your framing.

 

This means the person behind the camera will move, but those in front of the camera won’t. Get close ups that focus on faces without getting uncomfortably close. Get a full-body shot as well as one that’s closer, from the waist up. Within each framing choice, you can also have your subject(s) look into the camera, away from the camera at the ground—get creative! 

 

Remember that you don’t want to exhaust those in your portraits by trying too many variations, so once you try the variations you have in mind, you can move on to the next pose. 

Comfort matters.

If the people in your pictures aren’t comfortable, that will probably show, so make sure you prioritize people over all other variables. Encourage everyone, and make the experience fun in order to capture memories worth remembering.

 

Regarding posing, make sure everyone has clear communication and understanding of expectations. 

 

“What do I do with my hands?” is a common question when people are in front of the camera. Placing hands intentionally for solo portraits and creating connection points among people in a group—whether arms are slung around shoulders, wrapped around waists, or whatever is appropriate—helps those in the group feel connected, and that connection comes through in the images.

 

If you aren’t working with a professional model, you shouldn’t expect them to own their posing and strut their stuff, but if you clearly communicate and encourage them enough, they might feel confident enough to try.

woman taking a picture


Final Notes

Above all, have fun! You’re capturing great portraits but also learning and creating new memories as you do it. 

 

Even if your images aren’t perfect, if the experience is positive, everyone involved will likely feel positive about the images, which is the goal! 

 

If you’re looking for purely pretty images, never stop practicing and learning! Build on these four foundational keys, and flourish. 

 

Last but not least, once you know some of the “rules” of photography, you can always intentionally break them for the sake of creativity.

 
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