Contemporary portrait photography is modern, fun and creative, often characterised by outside the box compositions, unexpected locations, experimental use of light and raw, simple posing that captivates the viewer.
Bronwyn Pickering is a CLG Advanced Grad who we would describe as a master at this genre, but the truth is she shoots this way instinctively… in other words, she’s a true artist. And so it was Bronnie we turned to when we wanted to give you an actionable set of steps you could use to guide you in taking contemporary portraits.
Read on, take notes, and get out shooting with these 5 key elements in mind…
One of the key differences between traditional and contemporary portraits is the location, partly because they’re often included as a wide shot, and partly to create unexpected and striking juxtapositions which is also a common element of contemporary portraits.
The elements you want to look for when you’re scouting a location for an urban portrait shoot is texture, gritty or decaying architecture, strong shapes that could work to frame your subject. Lane ways are the ultimate in open shade and can provide gorgeous light.
And here’s a tip… it’s a common misconception that urban means city. You don’t have to live in the big smoke to try urban portaits, urban means any town, big or small.
Head out on a Sunday drive and keep your eye out for landscapes with rich colour and texture in the landscape. This red earth among the gum trees makes a stunning, natural backdrop and the golden hour light intensifies those elements.
Look for landscape that curves and undulates, for imagery with depth and layers.
Head to your fave cafe for some fun lifestyle shots. Look for the most interesting spot inside and nab a table right there. A tip – go on a quiet day so you’re not shooting around crowds of people (or worse, annoying people with your snapping!).
Approach it in a storytelling manner, and take wide shots to incorporate the environment for context, close ups of their food or drinks, shoot hands holding food or eating, go outside and shoot through the window. Shoot the view from inside, shoot through the door. The options are endless.
They don’t have to be pretty fields of sunflowers to make a fantastic backdrop for a contemporary portrait… this was an open field of scrub literally on the side of the road.
Look for a long stretch of deserted road, use line markings as leading lines, and incorporate lots of negative space for visually strong, contemporary imagery.
Who would think a cactus garden would make a great location for portraits… but there you have it. You can find these in desert areas and hot climates, just google for cactus gardens.
In country or bush areas abandoned buildings that you can access are more common. Which is perfect because they offer SO much texture and interest, and you can find beautiful, unexpected pockets of light through openings in walls and ceilings that weren’t there in its heyday!
If you do find an abandoned building you want to use as a location, obtain permission to enter the property. If you gain permission, check it out for safety before shooting in there.
These abandoned caravans were found at the back of a dodgy old caravan park. Ugly yes… but with this beautiful subject in that golden light? A striking juxtoposition.
Dynamic or unexpected light is a signature of beautiful, contemporary portraits.
Don’t be afraid of it… just use it to your advantage and include your subject’s shadow.
If the light on their face is too strong and unflattering, include a hat for portable open shade, or have them look down (or both!).
Try a sunset silhouette and when the light in the sky is pretty, shoot to expose for the colour in the sky and your subject will be default be silhouetted.. Get down low to place your subject high on the horizon, and let the sky take up at least 2/3rds of the frame or more.
Related: How to Capture Silhouette Photos
Silhouettes don’t need to be created by a sunset. Any backlight can be used to create a silhouette if you expose for the light.
Look for pretty patterns made by surrounding trees and objects, place your subject into a pocket of light and incorporate the shadow patterns mindfully in your composition.
Related: Shadow Photography
The way you frame your shot is one of the key differences between contemporary portraits and more traditional portraits. Contemporary portraits lean toward more dramatic compositions… unexpected frames, rule breaking, obvious leading lines, excess negative space and framing using unusual objects are just a few of the hallmarks of modern and artistic portraits. Try these…
Shoot through windows, doorways, fences, mirrors, trees and branches, curtains and fabric.
the use of negative space isn’t unique to contemporary portraits, but when you use a LOT of negative space, or use it in when its unexpected, you can create really impactful imagery that stops your viewer in their tracks.
Framing is also not unique to contemporary portraits, in fact it’s a common compositional tool in all genres of photography including traditional portraits. It’s what you use and how you do it that makes the difference.
Use dramatic clothing, one strong prop, or items that would be unexpected for the location to create impactful contemporary portraits.
Capture them indulging in their passion, especially if it’s as photogenic as these fantastic retro roller skates!
Know someone with a cool car? Invite them to come along on a concept shoot for the fun of it. Oh and hey, bring your car!
With younger kids, bring along a prop that gives them something fun to do.
Contemporary portraits tend to be looser in posing than traditional portraiture, and in that sense I really think posing is a misnomer for this style of portraiture. And generally speaking prompts tend to be used to ellicit an expression or a emotion. But an easy way to ‘pose’ subjects for a more contemporary look is through prompts that give them something to do, rather than simply bringing about a natural smile or a thoughtful expression.
Pack these 4 easy prompts into your bag of tricks for your next portrait session. To get a big variety of shots take close ups and wide shots, capture details, different expressions, try different angles and perspectives for every prompt.
Many thanks to Bronwyn Pickering for your fabulous tips and beautiful portraits! Bronwyn is a CLG Advanced Grad from Mildura, Australia, where she works at Essie and Elsie, as a contemporary portrait photographer known for her raw, candid and uniquely artistic images.