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Taking great portraits requires a certain degree of skill. You need to be able to relax your subject, whilst applying technical skills and ensuring flattering angles.
Fortunately, there are certain tips that you can learn to help make the job easier. In this guide, I’ll be sharing with you some of the important things that I, and other professional friends, use to get fantastic portraits on every shoot.
1. Dealing with nerves
When I work with a new client, the very first thing that I need to do is establish a relationship with them. Most people have some degree of trepidation about having their photograph taken – probably because most photos of them are snapshots, which have been taken on the cuff.
A portrait is something entirely different, as time is taken to get good results. But to get those good results, your subject needs to be relaxed. From speaking to a wide selection of professional friends, it seems we share a similar approach.
Talk to your subject! When I’m shooting people, I keep up an almost endless stream of chatter. I ask questions, and I tell a variety of terrible jokes (which will either get a groan, or hopefully a laugh), so as to keep people engaged. And I rarely tell them that I’m taking a picture. I’ll snap away as people are talking or listening to me and, after a little while, people generally start to forget about the presence of the camera. This leads to better results.
2. The eyes have it
Think about all the portraits you’ve loved, and I’ll bet that one of the things that they all have in common is pin-sharp eyes. Even a slightly out of focus eye can ruin a portrait, as it takes away the viewer’s connection with the subject.
The simplest way to ensure sharp eyes is to use your focal points. Select an appropriate focal point (for example, if you are shooting a vertical portrait, select the top point) and position it between your subject’s eyes – a bit like a bullseye! This will make sure that you always have perfect focus.
3. Invest in good glass
If you’re serious about portraiture, then you might want to consider investing in a dedicated portrait lens. I shoot with the Canon 5D range, which are all full frame cameras. This means that for portraits, I usually shoot with either a 50mm or 85mm lens. These are known as ‘prime’ or ‘fixed’ lenses, which means that they only have one focal length to cope with, generally meaning that the optics are better. These lenses also have a large aperture – my 50mm is a f1.4, and my 85mm is a f1.8. This means that you have more options with light and depth of field (both things we’ll discuss later).
Even better, a portrait lens needn’t cost the earth. Canon and Nikon, for instance, both do three 50mm lenses, with apertures of f1.8, f1.4 and f1.2 respectively. And you can pick up a f1.8 lens for around $100. It’s made of plastic, and you’ll probably need to stop down to f2 to get decent results, but it’s a bargain in photography terms.
4. Understand your depth of field
A strong portrait usually utilises a small depth of field, keeping the subject sharp but blurring out the background behind them. This is also the quickest way to isolate a subject in a crowd, or to eliminate distracting backgrounds. On a portrait lens, suitable f-stops tend to be around the f4-f5.6 range, but remember that different lenses treat different f-stops slightly differently.
5. It’s all about the light
There’s one thing that all photos need, no matter what you’re capturing, and that’s light. No light means no photograph – it’s as simple as that! Professionals often use artificial sources in the form of studio lighting, as it gives us very finite control over our images.
But what if you don’t have access to this kind of lighting, or want to take natural shots outside?
The key is to choose the right time of day, and the right kind of light. Landscape photographers, for instance, generally shoot in the hour after dawn or the hour before dusk – known as ‘The Golden Hour’ – as the light is very pink and golden. When shooting portraits, try and avoid shooting in the middle of the day, as shadows are very harsh and strong. Early morning or mid-afternoon will provide you with a more forgiving and softer light. Avoid shooting in direct sunlight – try and choose a day when there is some shade, but make sure the light is evenly distributed across the frame.
6. Don’t try and capture everything
A common mistake when people start shooting portraits is to try and get everything into the frame – both subject and a fair chunk of background. Don’t be afraid to zoom in – whether it be by using a zoom lens, or by simply moving closer to your subject! A strong crop can really improve a portrait, and there’s a big difference between a deliberate crop and an accidental one, where a photographer has accidentally lopped off a limb.
7. Be creative!
Simple things can turn a portrait from the everyday to something spectacular. Most people will automatically shoot a portrait vertically, so even the simple act of trying a horizontal shot can add something new. Try filling the frame with your subject, as mentioned above, or shoot your subject off to one side of the frame with a space to look into.
Don’t just shoot your subject straight on either – changing your angle of view by either sitting on the floor, or climbing up onto something can give very different results.
8. Posing your subject
Although you want your subject to relax and be as natural as possible, it’s still worth helping them with their pose to ensure the most flattering results.
Most people do not photograph well if the portrait is taken straight on. This flattens the face, and can make even the slimmest people look a little chunky.
Think about your angles. So much of photography is about finding the angles, and using them to draw the viewer into the picture. Most people have a ‘good side’ and will look better if turned slightly. Get your subject to turn slightly to this side, and then tilt their head back towards the camera. This creates a strong jaw line.
In addition, remember to remind your subject to keep their shoulders back, so that they don’t look too slumped in the photos.
9. Draw inspiration from different sources
Good portraits inspire a connection in their viewers – we look at a portrait and we can see a story in them. When you’re thinking about how to pose people, or what location to shoot them in, you can draw inspiration from all sorts of places.
For instance, I listen to a lot of music and find this inspires me with my portraiture. Other professionals I know swear by taking inspiration from fine art and the poses used in paintings. Just walking around and watching the world helps you to become more creative
Have fun! It sounds like a trite comment, but taking portraits should be fun and enjoyable. Treat it as such, and you’ll get good results.