QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Taking Portraits That Say Wow!—Part One

A couple of months ago, Carolyn and I gave some suggestions on how to get a great author picture. For this short series, we’ll provide pointers in case you’re able to recruit one of your friends to take them for you. Friends tend to do a better job at making you relax compared to a professional photographer, especially if the photographer is pretty much a stranger to you.

These tips won’t turn your friend into an award winning portraitist, but they’ll help you get photos you’ll be happy with.


When people look at a photo, they should be immediately drawn to the subject. This is achieved through a number of ways:

Frame Your Subject

                                ©Carolyn Kaufman

Use body parts, doorways, trees, windows, landscape, anything that brings attention to the individual.

The frame can either be in focus or blurred. It can take up most of the picture, or it can exist in the periphery. The goal is to emphasize your friend, not the framing device, so make sure it doesn’t overwhelm her.

Rule of Thirds

                                            ©Stina Lindenblatt

Many amateur photographers tend to take photos with their subject smack bang in the middle of the picture. Ho hum! To avoid this, divide your frame into thirds—as in the above picture—and try to place your subject on one of the imaginary lines.

In this photo, the teen’s eyes are the focal point of the picture and are approximately a third of the way down. Also, notice her face is in the upper right quadrant, exactly where two of the lines would have intercepted had I drawn them in.

Selective Focus

                              ©Carolyn Kaufman

By using a shallow depth-of-field (aperture), the background is blurred and the subject is obvious. The smaller the number, the fuzzier the background. If your camera lets you select the AV (found on SLR cameras and many point & shoot ones), you can easily do this, and it makes a huge difference in your portraits.


If too much is going on in the photo, it’ll be difficult for the viewer to figure out what your subject is. Again, depth of field can play a role here.

Also, check the view finder before taking the picture to make sure there’s nothing growing out of the individual’s head, like a tree in the distance. It looks unprofessional and can be very distracting.

Lighting for Emphasis

                                                  ©Stina Lindenblatt

The contrast between light and dark is another way to emphasize your subject.

In this photo, the first thing you notice is the boy’s face. The distance of the window from the floor threw the dim north light predominantly on his face. Use this trick if you live in the northern hemisphere. If you live in the southern hemisphere, then use a south facing window. The lightening won’t be as hash.

Tomorrow, we’ll have some more suggestions to help your friend take a great author picture for your blog, website, book cover.


Shakespeare said...

The biggest problem I see with amateur photos is that the people are too far away. I don't need to see their jeans... their faces are the most important.

I suppose if one is visiting the Grand Canyon, one would want to get some of it in the shot, but that is still very possible while also focusing on a subject's face.

Claude said...

Great advice, many thanks! Especially the "one third" rule and the light contrast rule are very, very useful. I'm a painter and I do this when I make a portrait and would you believe I tend to forget this when taking photographs?

Wow, how silly of me! Many thanks again!

The Tame Lion said...

Yeah! Cool!

B.E. Sanderson said...

Awesome advice. I could've used it last week when I was taking my daughter's senior pictures, but I ended up with some really nice shots (after dozens of bad ones - thank goodness for digital cameras and the delete button).

Angela Ackerman said...

I love Janet's picture that you did, Stina! Lucky for me you live right here in the city and so when the time comes I can stalk you to do mine, too!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

A.J. Cattapan said...

You're absolutely right about the AV function on the camera making a huge difference.

I know nothing about photography, but I take pictures of food for my baking blog all the time. One day a "happy accident" led me to using the AV function on my camera, and what a difference it made!