Portrait Photography Tips For Great Looking Portraits

Portait Photography

Portraits make the best photographs, but how does a photographer make a better portrait? It’s not always easy; care must be taken in several areas. If just one aspect isn’t quite right, it can completely ruin an otherwise great image.

Portrait photography can be divided into to types—formal and informal. Formal portraits are often taken in studio settings—which allows for fore-planning and control—while informal portraits are more ‘spur-of the moment’ images captured with a mixture of skill and luck.

Every portrait photographer has their own style, what works best for them. But the general parameters must be followed by every photographer to get that one special portrait.

Better portrait photography can be boiled down to four steps to ensuring the best possible image.

Tips #1 - Ensure Your Subject is Comfortable

Portrait photography tips #1 - ensure your subject is comfortable. If the person isn’t willing to be photographed, it will come across in the picture. But how do you do this? Establishing a rapport with your subject by talking casually about something that interests them; if they have children, talk about how bright the child’s eyes are, or the curls on the child’s head.

If it’s a child you’re photographing talk about popular children’s shows, or about puppies—something the child feels passionate about. Their emotions will translate into bright eyes and authentic expressions.

If it’s an older adult, talk about their families or grandchildren. If you’re a more reserved person this might be a bit difficult, but with practice you should be able to manage it.

The portraits below illustrate how much of a difference a comfortable subject makes. In the first image, the little boy was nervous at having his portrait taken, but after several moments disc

ussing the important aspects of his sunglasses, he relaxed enough to pose. While talking freely with the subject, take a few shots to get them accustomed to the sounds and lights

of your camera. This is also sometimes results in an interesting candid shot such as the photograph on the far right.

Tips #2 - Consider Your Background Carefully

Portrait photography tips #2 - consider your backgrounds carefully. There are two types of backgrounds—studio and environmental. Studio portraits are those that are more formal in appearance, environmental backgrounds show the subject in the area in which he is working, or living, or just in that moment. The baseball shots above are examples of environmental backgrounds.

With environmental backgrounds, care must be taken that objects in the background don’t clash with or overpower the subject. All the items in the portrait should pull the eyes toward the subject—wherever the subject is located in the frame. At all times, your background should accent or compliment your subject.

If you are taking a photograph and the background is loud, cluttered, or inappropriate, cut out as much of the background as possible. Or, lower the depth of field to blur the background objects, making for a soft, low-key portrait. The photograph on the right was taken using a lower depth of field, this resulted in the loud and cluttered background being muted, making for a cleaner photograph.

Tips #3 - Be Aware of Lighing

Portrait photography tips #3 - constantly be aware of the lighting. A shadow in the wrong place willl darken a face, or a band of light from the wrong direction will wash out an image. This is especially true in black and white portraiture, with its lack of color hues. For more formal studio portraits, it’s best to have three light sources—two larger lights and one smaller back-light.

The two larger lights should be placed equidistant on each side of the position the photographer will be occupying. They should not be too close to the subject or the washout will be greater. Position the lighting and the subjects so that the light looks natural. The backlight should be placed between the subject and the background to prevent the much larger lights from causing the subjects to shadow.

The same general idea works out of doors as well. Position the subject so that the light is hitting them at an angle. This will reduce unecessary shadows behind the person, and can elimanate the urge to squint. Make sure the light source is behind you, but do not stand directly in front of it. This can lead to you shadowing your subject.

The light should be used to illuminate the photograph. The photographs below show several examples of lighting. In the first image the young man is properly lit, in the middle image, the lighting is too harsh. He should have been angled more to put the direct path of the light falling slightly behind him. In the portrait on the right, the shadow causes a loss of detail that detracts from an otherwise excellent portrait.

Tips #4 - Be Careful With Posing

Portrait photography tips #4 - do not be careless with posing. Learn to plan your shots quickly. People, especially children, do not stay still and any movement can ruin your photograph so you must work fast. Study the types of poses—and be able to decide which ones to use very quickly.

Some studio photographers can do a child’s sitting in under half an hour—without messing up a single photograph. They do this because they have a general idea of what types of portraits are needed. The same can hold true for outdoor portraiture.

There are three main types of portrait shots—close-up, three-quarter, and full-length. The three baseball portraits above illustrate three quarter, close-up, and full length portraits. Each type of portraiture is self-explanatory. When doing a photo shoot—whether indoors or outdoors—mix up the three types to provide variety.

Also, learn the basics of body positioning. A subject should never be posed directly facing the camera. Their body should be at an angle. This is more flattering and makes the portrait look less like a ‘mug shot’. Finally, remember the rule of head & shoulders, knees & toes when framing a portrait.

Many a good image is ruined when the basic setup for one of the three types of portraits is present—but the subject is missing appendages. The most common cut-off places in a photograph are the tips of the head, elbows, hands, knees, and feet. Keeping your subject framed correctly ensures that no body parts disappear—or seem to float with no body support.

A final word—posing a large group is much different than posing an individual. Vary the heights of your subjects to break up any monotony and always angle your subjects to prevent someone from looking larger than they are. Finally, always take more than one shot. People never stay still, so a backup shot is always a good idea.

Like any form of photography, portrait photography requires planning and skill, but anyone can take great portraits—if they pay attention to the subject, the background, the lighting, and the pose. While knowing the mechanics of your specific camera is definitely important, being able to accurately gauge these four areas will result in a cleaner, more professional looking portrait.

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