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How to Take a Portrait

By John Keatley ’03

John Perkins PhotoThough Kerry Park provides a famous view of Seattle’s skyline, John Keatley used the viewpoint’s cloudy skies as a backdrop for this portrait of reconciliation leader John Perkins to remove distractions, focusing the image.

Photographers all have different styles, reflecting the way they see things and what interests them. While some photographers strive for a sense of authenticity in their subjects, I am often looking to create a feeling or a story, based on my own ideas and not necessarily reality.

Though we all have different approaches to photography, several basic ideas and practices can improve your portraits, if you take the time to try them.

  1. Stop and think. What drew you to this place or person? What sparked your initial instinct to take a picture in the first place? Think about this to decide the focus of your picture.
  2. Remove distractions. Cut out all of the extraneous details that distract from your picture. Likely the garbage can or the neon green street sign in the background are not going to add anything to your image. A shallow depth of field will blur out the background, turning unnecessary items into beautiful blurs of color. Avoid poles or objects directly behind your subject’s head.
  3. Think about light. Where is the sun, behind your subject or directly over- head? Coming through a window? You want to avoid long shadows under your subject’s nose, and shadows around his eyes. Sometimes turning your subject 90 degrees is all it takes to make your portrait better.
  4. Take control. Don’t be afraid to move your subject if needed. Ask your subject to brush her hair out of her face, or fix a wrinkle in her clothing.

It’s better to make these changes before you take the picture than ignore them and regret it later. This may seem like a lot to process. But once you practice these simple steps, the difference between a boring snapshot and a great portrait will be only a few extra seconds of your time.


John Keatley is a freelance photographer whose clients include Time, Newsweek, Starbucks, and Miir bottles. To set his portrait subjects at ease, he sometimes sings opera or shows them a giant photo of a cat face. You can view more of his work at