Feminine Urban Portraiture

Find out the most important thing to look for in a location, and how to create a simple, authentic and feminine portrait with a subject who isn’t a model.

It’s easy to focus on the problems with a location (gutters, street signs, cables etc), but a slight change of angle or a different crop can solve all of these. As long as the lighting is good, there is usually a way to make the location work.

It would have been easy to walk past this ordinary wooden door in a stone wall, but it provided the perfect opportunity for a portrait of Cimmie that contrasts her femininity against the masculinity of her environment.

Keeping poses authentic but feminine

To get the pose, I simply chatted with Cimmie until she relaxed. She naturally took up a stance similar to what you see here, and all I had to do was finesse it. This makes the pose more reflective of her, rather than something that she wouldn’t do normally.

Cimmie’s front leg is bent at the knee and with the foot slightly lifted. This does three things. Firstly, it shifts her weight to her back leg, which is partially hidden. Secondly, it softens the stance, making it more feminine and less confrontational. Thirdly, it narrows the figure in the legs, enhancing the curve of the figure up to the hips. An alternative way of achieving this is to ask your subject to cross her ankles.

Once she was stood in place, I asked her to place her left hand in her pocket. People rarely stand with both hands dangling loosely, so having your subject’s hands hanging by their sides looks odd.

When facing the business end of a camera lens people forget what they would normally do with their hands, so it’s up to you to guide them. Give at least one hand something to do such as resting on a hip, tucking into a pocket or interacting with something or something in the scene. If one or both hands are visible, soften them for a feminine portrait by splaying the fingers slightly, loosening a fist or facing the thumb side of the hand away from the camera.

Location, location, location

This portrait was taken in a side street in a typical English village, and there are a whole bunch of reasons why I chose it.

The door creates a frame within a frame, which is a powerful compositional tool. The wood it is made from is a darker tone than the other materials in the scene, providing enhanced contrast against Cimmie’s skin and outfit. She is the lightest part of the image, which draws your eye to her.

The different surfaces of the wall and pavement provide texture, interest and a sense of place to the shot. There’s enough room in the location that I could shoot wide, with a large amount of ‘negative’ space to the left of Cimmie, which adds drama to the image, and places my subject in a key part of the frame, according to the rule of thirds. The gaps between the bricks and stones, the panels of wood in the door and the curb edge all contribute repeating horizontal and vertical lines, which I’ve kept as perpendicular as possible.

More important than a great location, though, is great lighting. This section of the wall has overhanging trees, which provide top shade and direction to the light (it’s hitting Cimmie from in front and to the side). I’m shooting into the shady, North-facing side of the street, and the light is bouncing off a large wall directly behind me. This means she is sheltered from direct sunlight, but the reflected light is giving her face shape and depth.

You may not have easy access to a little English village, but almost everywhere has potential. Look for the opportunities in the locations around you, and you’ll start to see potential backgrounds everywhere.


Camera Settings

  • Focal length: 70mm
  • Aperture: f/4
  • Shutter speed: 1/90 sec
  • ISO: 200