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Portrait Photography Tips

September 5, 2012 by Marie Joabar

People are by far the number one subject of photographs. Whether it is parents taking photos of their children, friends taking party snapshots, or a commercial photographer shooting fashion, people pictures and portraits are being taken by millions of photographers, both professional and amateur, daily.

With a little understanding of the essentials and the right equipment, anyone can begin making great portraits. Here are a few things to focus on to get the most from your efforts.

First, it is important to know that what makes a good portrait and the basis of good portrait photography is “capturing” your subject.

  • The character of your subject or an aspect of their personality should be evident in the photograph and the photograph should set a mood. This can be as easy as capturing a child’s smile or laughter but it can also be more difficult if your subject is stiff and uncomfortable in front of the camera.
  • If you’re shooting someone you know and have a rapport with, you’ll most likely have an easier time.  However, if you’re shooting someone you’ve just met, it would be very helpful to have a casual conversation with them before the shoot or even during the shoot to help them feel more relaxed and natural when being photographed.
  • A portrait is a representation of someone’s likeness and we all know that there is more to everyone than what we see on the surface. Look below the surface and photograph that. It sounds tricky, and it can be, but it is the foundation of any really good portrait.
  • With practice you will learn to capture and enhance what makes your subject special including any unique traits or even quirky mannerisms and attitudes.

Of course you’ll need to consider the technical end of things and use the right camera settings as well.  This is important to achieve proper exposure and to control depth of field.

  • Traditionally, a portrait should mainly focus on the subject removing any distracting background clutter. This can be accomplished by using a wide aperture, like f2.8 or f4 to achieve a shallow depth of field and emphasize your subject.
  • The next important exposure element in portrait photography is your ISO setting. It is always good practice to use as low an ISO as possible to achieve the best picture quality.
  • Experiment with some different settings, but try to adhere to these rules for the best results if you’re just starting out.

Lighting in portrait photography can actually be done a scale from very simple, to very complex. For total control, professional photographers typically use studios, but that’s not to say you can’t get  great portraits with a more basic setup.

  • One simple setup requires no special equipment and can be accomplished using only available light. Find a place indoors with a window that lets a good amount of light into the room. With your subject placed off to the side of the window (so that the light is shining on them have them face you. Now, use something to reflect the light to the other side of your subject. A reflector would be the best option but you can achieve a reflective result with something as basic as white cardboard, poster board or even aluminum foil.
  • The use of light modifiers like umbrellas and reflectors can be an inexpensive way of controlling light and obtaining more precise results.  The better your tools, the less work you have to do.
  • To obtain the best results, simply using off camera flashes can give you the right amount of light, where you need it and when you need it.

Last but not least, digital photographers have the powerful tool of editing. There are many software programs to choose from but regardless of the level, from Photoshop Elements to CS6, image editing programs allow you to put the finishing touches on your photograph.

  • Most programs make it easy to quickly fix things like red-eye, or crop out distracting elements that draw attention away from the subject. It is after all, about the subject.
  • By adjusting color, contrast and saturation levels, and cropping or straightening your photograph, you can quickly iron out any “wrinkles” you may have had in the original.
  • Even a small thing like slightly overexposing a portrait can have beneficial effects. Slight overexposure will reduce the appearance of blemishes and make for a more uniform appearance in skin tones.

To recap; Always try to “capture” your subject and inject that mood into the photograph. Second, make sure to use proper camera settings, like a wide aperture and low ISO. Third, consider options for lighting your subject and last, remember that image editing is your friend.

Start with the basics and practice, share, look at others work and learn.  With diligence, you’ll be capturing incredible portraits you’ll be proud to share, show off and even get paid for.

Thanks to Moshe Zusman and Julie Richards for contributing the images in this article.