9 Tips for Perfect Photo Portraits

Portrait photography has been with us for a long time. It started to become very popular with the advent of the daguerreotype in the middle of the 19th century, where its reduction in exposure times, meant that sitting for a portrait was less of an ordeal. Until then, the average portrait shot could take minutes. Luckily, technology has given us all the means to enjoy portrait photography in the studio and beyond. We want to introduce you to portrait photography and pass on a few ideas and tips to guide you on your way to becoming the next David Bailey.

1 Eyes in focus

The eyes convey emotion – whether sad, happy, playful or mysterious. If the eyes are not in focus, then the connection to the subject is lost. That doesn’t mean the subject must always be staring down the barrel of the camera lens. It is suggested that if subjects are staring at the camera, they are portraying confidence or arrogance; if they are looking away, then they can be said to be nervous or mischievous.

This is not always the case, but it can be a starting point in the portrayal of your subject. Even if the subject has their eyes closed, always think about making the eyes the point of focus. This can even be true when photographing non-human subjects. Dogs, for instance, are soulful creatures too, and our connection to them is through the eyes.

2 Point of view

It is quite common that nearly all portraits are taken at around the eye level of the subject. This is fine in most situations and is the staple of many portrait styles. However, sometimes it is great to change, so don’t be shy in choosing other odd viewpoints. Think about getting low down and shooting up at your subject. Conversely, get up high and shoot down on your subject.

Try mixing it up a little when shooting. Close-up portraits are fine, but perhaps there is a great shot to be had in a full-length portrait. Trying both landscape orientation and portrait orientation is also good practice. Don’t be afraid to experiment; you never know what you will discover.

3 Think about location

The location is also important. If you shoot in a studio with a plain backdrop, then the story is told only by your subject’s face. If you shoot on location, then it too can help convey emotion or a context. Shooting a portrait of a trucker with his vehicle or a solitary guy propping up the bar are examples of how the location can expand upon the story being told.

It can be argued that a subject on their own, in close-up with no background, is a headshot; a subject photographed in an environment that is part of the storytelling, is a portrait. A subtle distinction, but perhaps true.

4 Composition

Just where and how the eyes are placed within the frame of the shot can add to the feel of the final image if they comply with the rule of thirds. There is conventional wisdom that states that a subject must have room to ‘look into’ a shot. Meaning that if they are looking left, the left of the shot has more empty space than the right.

Now having just said all that, it’s tempting to consider that rules are meant to be broken. Sometimes, odd placement of your subject in the frame can create a sort of visual tension that gives depth to the meaning of the shot. Having your subject’s face dead centre or just have them barely in frame with one eye just keeping inside the border of the image can be a strong composition.

5 Lighting is important

Lighting is an interesting subject when shooting portraits for colour or black and white conversion. There are so many different styles out there, it would be folly to try and pigeonhole one as being better than another. Light is there only to illuminate the story being told, or the emotion being captured. Just keep in mind the basics of lighting such as trying to avoid shooting in direct sunlight, as it creates harsh, dark shadows with no detail in them.

Using a large white surface to reflect light back on to your subject will create a fill light that can lessen dark shadows. Alternatively, move to a more shaded area. If possible, avoid shooting with a camera-mounted flash, as you run the risk of getting ‘red eye’; this is where the light from your flash bounces of your subject’s retina back into the camera causing the pupils to look red.

6 Using manual Mode

It’s time to get into manual mode and out of your comfort zone. If you are working in consistent lighting conditions, on a sunny day or in a controlled environment with studio lights, or constant artificial illumination, choosing manual settings will present no problems. Just choose a group of parameters that yield the kind of exposure you want and shoot.

Your camera won’t be second-guessing every exposure every time and altering settings without you knowing. Also, try using just one centre AF point, rather than letting the camera decide. This method of single AF ‘focus and recompose’ is a great place to start losing the habit of letting the camera make the choices. Only if you are using insanely shallow depth of field would ‘focus and recompose’ present an issue.

7 Lens choice

Give some thought also to the lenses you use. Wide-angle lenses are not considered appropriate for close-up portraiture as they distort the features; but a good 50mm, 85mm or even 135mm prime lens is used for portrait work. Watch out for too much depth of field; it can be a great distraction for your background to be as sharp as your foreground.

A little blur in your background is a great way to separate your subject from their surroundings, keeping them the focus of the shot. Also, keep your eyes peeled for the classic error that can crop up, where an item in the background appears to be sprouting out of the top of your subject’s head.

8 Why prime lenses?

Fast glass is much prized in the world of portraiture. Fast glass has very large apertures, letting in more light and offering faster shutter speeds in low-light conditions. A good portrait lens that has a maximum aperture of f/2.8 – f/1.2 is fantastic at creating the background blur so sought after by photographers.

The quality of defocused light this blurring produces is referred to as bokeh (pronounced boh-keh). The ability to shoot at f/1.2, for instance, means you can shoot more natural light portraits, without the reliance on strobes. Prime lenses from 50mm focal length and up are the best choices. Because of their simpler lens configurations, image quality is better and they offer larger maximum apertures over their zoom counterparts.

9 Reference material

In order to maximise the time you have available with a model, research and gather a series of images that you can use as reference when it comes to posing them on the day. If photographer and model are new to fashion or glamour style photography, then having something on hand to kick off ideas is no bad thing. If you have a series of images loaded onto a tablet, you can call upon them whenever you feel the need for some inspiration.

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Mark Frost

Mark started work as a commercial artist during the good old days of Letraset, spray mount and having to process your photos at a local chemist. Having discovered his passion for photography, Photoshop and the wonders of digital image manipulation, he has not looked back. He is well on his way to owning more cameras than he’s had hot dinners.

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