Great portraits don’t just convey basic visual information about how a given person looked at a particular point in time. They also seem to capture a piece of the subject’s essence as if by magic. What’s more, they do this in a way that shows skill, creativity, and vision on the part of the photographer.

Anyone can point their camera and take a quick snapshot of another person, but it takes know-how and ingenuity to create really good portrait photography. Here we’ll go over a few must-know tips that will really help your pictures make the grade. You’ll see yours go from “good” to “wow” in no time.

  1. Help models drop their guard by using props.

As touched on above, we can’t all be hams that positively live for having our photos taken. Some of us need a little extra help. The next time you find yourself dealing with a model that’s nervous or uncomfortable, think fast, introduce a prop, and watch how quickly they relax.

For instance, you can pick a flower or grab a feather and ask the subject to play with it a little. You can hand a toy or a stuffed animal to a child or gives couples a tasty treat to enjoy together. Be creative! Keep in mind that the prop doesn’t necessarily have to make it into the frame (although that can sometimes look pretty awesome as well).

  1. Know how to talk to your subject.

The most effective way to get the best out of your subject when taking portraits is to make them feel good. Get them laughing, or playing, or doing something that makes them feel comfortable. You can also pay them a sincere compliment. Everyone likes to be complimented or told how photogenic they are.

Never tell a subject they look uptight, or nervous, or stiff. Don’t order them to loosen up either. If someone’s already feeling a little camera shy, the last thing they want to hear is that they don’t look good. In fact, it’s pretty much a guarantee that their nerves will become ten times worse.

  1. Understand that you can’t get around good lighting.

Your finished portraits are ultimately only going to be as good as your lighting and there’s no way around that fact. This doesn’t mean you’re doomed to only shoot lackluster, mediocre photos if you don’t have a professional lighting set-up though. You just need to know how to make the most of the light you do have.

Shooting a subject indoors in the middle of the day? Natural light inside a home or other building when the sun is high and bright isn’t always flattering. Consider positioning your subject in front of a window. They do an excellent job of diffusing light and softening it to perfection. Shooting outdoors on a day when the light is far from its best? Face your subject away from the sun to keep their face from looking too dim.

  1. Shoot what you love.

Knowing how to get what you want out of your models is only part of the equation when it comes to shooting amazing portraits. It’s just as important that you as the photographer enjoy what you’re doing. Always choose subjects, themes, and shooting styles that suit who you are as an artist.

Are you a serious, by the book type? You’re probably at your best in a traditional studio doing classic shoots. Are you fun-loving, extroverted, and energetic? You’ll probably thrive shooting inquisitive models in fun, carefree settings that bring out the best in both of you.

At the end of the day, your portraits may be shots of other people, but they’re also a reflection of who you are as an artist. That said, choosing to create photographs you’re truly passionate about isn’t just important. It’s the best way to reach your full potential.