How to Create Dynamic Portraits


The portraits we take of our university community are a representation of the Illinois brand. This written training aims to offer strategies to create dynamic portraits with simple tools.

Target Audience

  • MarCom professionals from content creators to professional photographers

Brand Guidance

Key Strategies

Strive for Ideal Light

Aim for a light source that illuminates their eyes. If there isn’t soft, flattering light filling their eyes, the portrait will lose much of its life. Proper illumination can be achieved with enhancements such as available light.

Photograph people in shade.

  • Soft light allows a person’s features to evenly illuminate.
  • An effective technique is to direct the person to stand near the outside edge of shade and face the direction of the light or open sky.
  • Avoid direct sunlight as this creates harsh shadows and causes squinting.
  • If it is necessary to photograph in direct sunlight, turn the subject away from the sun and photograph them with the sun at a 45-degree angle over their shoulder.
  • Repositioning toward shade creates even lighting.
  • Use a telephoto lens, if possible, to achieve the best results and reduce glare.

Photograph people facing window light.

  • This is the indoor variation of photographing people in shade.
  • Position the subject adjacent to the wall near the window.
  • Have them turn their face toward the light.
  • Use overhead indoor light to your advantage.
  • Be mindful that overhead lighting can create eye socket shadows.
  • Never put your subject directly below an overhead light.
  • Position them a few feet past the overhead light, looking back toward it.
  • Before the photo shoot, you can hold your hand up to the light to determine where it falls best on a subject.

Turn off overhead room lights.

  • Turning off overhead lights can sometimes help with indoor lighting issues.
  • The key is to have at least one other source of light in the room.
  • A table lamp reflected off the wall or light from doorways/windows works well.

Use supplemental lighting.

  • Adding your own light is a wise approach to overcoming poor lighting scenarios.
  • It is essential to use your lighting to create the effect of shade.
  • The goal is for light to come from a flattering angle and be soft.

Find Storytelling Environments

Showing the space that people work in or a place that illustrates the results of their work helps expand storytelling.

Scout the location.

  • Start with their space – it makes your subject more comfortable.
  • If the setting is not ideal, look for areas of the room that could potentially work rather than showing the full room.
  • If neither of these options are suitable, find an alternate location that reflects well on the university – think about grand spaces.

Fill the space in your frame.

  • Consider foreground/background: Your subject is your foreground.
  • Pick the best background for the person you’re photographing.
  • Backgrounds are almost as important as the subject.
  • Frame your image by placing your subject to one side or the other. Fill the other third of the frame with a storytelling background element. This technique is often referred to as the “rule of thirds.”

Engage with your subjects

Our university is filled with passionate people. It’s our job to capture their unique Illinois story.

Capture moments that matter.

  • Photograph moments, actions and behaviors that illustrate their enthusiasm for their work.
  • Every person has unique body language and certain poses can portray emotions differently—be mindful to pose your subjects in a natural manner.

Evoke emotion through connection.

  • Get to know the person you will be photographing. Ask thoughtful questions that express interest in who they are as individuals.
  • Let your subjects engage with their work or with others, which allows them to be at ease in their element and lead to dynamic images.      

Additional Resources

  • The Illinois Image Database is a curated collection of strong, dynamic photographs taken by the photographers in Strategic Communications and Marketing to best represent the Illinois experience. The goal is to provide accessible imagery for campus communicators to tell the Illinois story in an authentic way.
  • If you’re looking for other sources of stock photos (non-campus specific), plus video, music and motion graphic templates, be sure to check out the university Storyblocks account.
  • You may also be able to use your university credentials to access the Adobe Stock Library. Use your university email account to sign in.


Photography Services, Strategic Communications and Marketing,