Cell Phone Portraits

Who amongst us, at one time or another, hasn’t been tasked with snapping a headshot to accompany a staff or student profile, news story, department release or event announcement? Fortunately for all (except some dismayed professional freelancers), the advent of cell phone cameras has made it possible to capture and post pleasing images of a colleague’s countenance.

Consider these simple steps to improve your take:

  • Aim for what pros call the “environmental portrait.” This is simply a background or prop that visually lends itself to a storytelling aspect of your subject. Unfortunately, many UMN faculty and staff offices are where photos go to die. So try a lab, classroom, building lobby, or every photographer’s friend, the outdoors, for a setting.
  • Pose your subject next to or facing natural, softer window light instead of harsher, overhead light, which can lead to shadows in the sockets (“raccoon eyes”). Outside, on a sunny day, seek shade, which affords pleasing, even light instead of harsh shadows and helps prevent squinting.
  • Keep your background simple. A bookcase, modest artwork on a wall, or a prop placed strategically in the background or a hand is enough to add oomph to your photo. Even something as simple as a lab coat will help convey what your subject does at the University. If you must take a person-and-their-computer photo, have them turn around and seat them in the foreground with the monitor in the background. As Wordsworth wrote, “Sometimes clichés are clichés because they work.”
  • As for orientation, consider the format where your photo will be published. Is it traditional print or online? Horizontal (landscape) will likely work best. Social media? Images there will display larger as verticals.
  • Place your subject slightly off center, left or right, with shoulders turned a bit toward the center of your frame. This pleasing “weight” of the photo illustrates the compositional “rule of thirds,” a concept you needn’t know any more about other than to mutter it at your next gallery visit and nod approvingly.
  • Have the subject fold their arms or put hands on hips, partially in pockets, resting on the back of a chair, holding a prop, or even folded over each other—anything to get them in the frame. Unless you are shooting a very tight, chest-up photo, hands cropped out of the frame at the wrist is an unpleasing look.
  • Spend a few seconds closely checking appearance details. Straighten ties, collars, necklaces. Tamp down crazy hair. And notice how that window light illuminates faces.
  • Avoid the one-and-done and tell your subject you will try six or seven shots. Vary your angle or the subject’s pose a bit between each, and shoot at or slightly above eye level.
  • Like all other art, photography is about emotion and light. So smile! We all look better with a smile, whether slight or toothy. For some serious subject matter, however, a smile will be inappropriate.

Congratulations; your headshot cum laude is now a portrait.

Bonus: A Couple of Tips to Avoid the Group Photo Disaster

The odds of a lousy photo rise exponentially as people are added to the group. Nevertheless, this is an oft-requested image for publication or for sending to attendees of events, and if done successfully it can be a pleasant reminder of a memorable occasion.

The key, of course, is to be able to see everyone’s mug. Six is roughly the maximum number of people standing in a line for a group photo. With seven, try four in front and three behind. Imagine your group within a rectangular boundary. Avoid one long row of people (the "horizontal bookmark"), and your graphic designer will buy you Starbucks cards by the truckload.


  • At events, remove name tags, handbags, card/key lanyards and sunglasses.
  • Have taller people stand toward the back. If there is a person of prominence, a speaker, or an honoree, keep them front and center. Get close and fill the frame; no need to see legs and feet.
  • Always stagger rows so that each person is looking between the shoulders of the two people in front of them. While this may look like a high school soccer team photo, it is done for a purpose: so you can see the faces of everyone, the opposite being the bane of group photos. You’re shooting for aesthetic proficiency here—no one wants to be that “oh, you can’t see me” attendee. Pros always use stairs, a stepped stage, or a hillish incline for larger groups.
  • Take the photo outside in even shade if weather and light permit.
  • If you are comfortable standing on a chair or have a small step ladder from which to take the photo, use it! A higher angle, again, affords better chances of seeing everyone. And from your vantage point, take time to make sure you can see everyone. If not, don’t be afraid to move someone to the left or right; they will appreciate your attention. Also remember that blinking happens. Give a shout to get everyone’s attention, and take a bunch of shots.

Extra Credit:

If you’ve read this far and enjoy photography and the creative process, experiment with the “portrait” mode or filter on new phone software. In a nutshell, this setting will lend a pleasant, simple blurring to the background of your photo, forcing the viewer's eye to concentrate on the subject. This is referred to as the bokeh (BOH-kə) effect. The term comes from the Japanese word boke, which means "blur" or "haze" and used to be created by varying the aperture of the camera lens.

Still not convinced? See the UMN recommended vendors and photography freelancers under the Tools Section on the University Relations Resources web page.

Happy snapping!