Portrait photography is the most popular and widely used genre of photography. It’s about capturing the personality of someone in the picture. Every person who has a camera or a phone is doing portrait photography.
If you are into street photography, you shoot portraits. If you are a travel photographer, you also click portraits. In fact, if you are taking a selfie or a groupie, you are doing portrait photography.
So, today let’s talk about some tips that can improve your portrait photography.
1. Choose the right gears:
Choosing the right gears is important for all kinds of photography. In portrait photography, both the full-frame camera body and crop sensor body give you amazing results. A full-frame body has slightly more advantages than a crop sensor body. It has a bigger sensor, capturing more details, giving you a shallower depth of field, and working better in low light conditions.
Lens selection is more vital for portrait photography. I am sure that you’ve heard or read that the 50mm lens is best for portrait photography. It’s true but only if you are taking full-length shots. If you take a close-up shot with a 50mm lens, your subject’s face will be distorted. For close-ups, a lens above 100mm is good and 200mm is perfect.
We’ll discuss it in more detail in the next article. If you click portraits using a phone, don’t worry. All other tips will be equally valuable for you too.
2. Lighting is the key element:
Good lighting is a critical component of portrait photography. To click beautiful portraits using natural light, you should always shoot in the morning or evening when the light is soft and warm. This period is called golden hours and it’s around one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset. In this time, light is diffused so it gives softer shadows, evenly lit face, and amazing skin tones.
Never click portraits in the afternoon when the sun is at the top. At that time, the light is very harsh and not flattering. If you don’t have an option, always take your subject to some shade. A cloudy day is also a good option for portrait photography because clouds make the light softer.
If you are using flash as a fill light, don’t use on-camera flash. It’ll create harsh shadows and hotspots on your subject. Always use an off-camera flash with a diffuser to get soft light or use a reflector.
3. Think about the background:
When you are clicking a portrait, always check the background before you press the shutter button because the background can make or break your shot. The background should not have any distracting elements or colors. If it has, moves your subject or move yourself to remove the distraction from the frame.
We can always blur the background, but if it has some bright color objects, the viewer will have a problem keeping the attention on the subject.
Second, the background should have complimenting colors. Let’s say your subject is wearing a yellow dress, in this case, a blue wall is a great option for the background. You don’t want to shoot a person wearing a yellow dress in front of a yellow or orange wall.
A blurred background emphasizes our subject, but if you are taking an environmental portrait, keeping the background sharp creates a better story.
4. Focus on the eyes:
Shakespeare said that “eyes are the windows to the soul” which means you can feel a person’s emotions by looking into his eyes. Portrait photography is about capturing emotions so eyes become an essential part of a photograph. As a photographer, it’s your job to keep the eyes in focus.
To get sharp eyes in the picture, use single-point focus settings in your camera and move your focus point to any eye. Since both eyes are in the same focal plane, both will be sharp in the picture. Nowadays, many cameras have eye focus settings that detect eyes and focus on them automatically.
5. Expose for the skin:
After eyes, skin is the second important thing in a portrait so you need to make sure that it’s properly exposed. To set the exposure for the skin, you may use the spot metering mode of your camera. This mode calculates exposure based on a tiny circle at the center of the camera, which is around 5% of the frame.
Simply point this circle where the skin is and set the exposure for the skin. Some advanced cameras have both the focus points and exposure area linked so when you focus on eyes, it’ll automatically set the exposure for that area. If your camera doesn’t have it and the exposure area is at the center of the frame, use the following trick.
Move your camera so that the center part of the frame comes where the skin is and lock the exposure using the exposure lock button (AEL or *) which is located near the shutter button. Now reframe, focus on eyes and click. Exposure settings will be locked until you take the shot and you have to repeat it for the next shot.
The color of the skin is also very important, so make sure that you capture the skin tones accurately. You may do it in-camera by choosing proper white balance settings or you may fix it in post-processing.
6. Make a rapport with your subject:
For portrait photography, you must create a bond with your subject. Have a meeting with them before the shoot, talk to them, and know them so they feel comfortable while shooting.
During the shoot don’t just give them instructions for posting, instead talk to them about other things like their hobbies or sometimes crack a joke. Soft music also helps to put your subject at ease.
If you are shooting with kids, it’s necessary to have a bonding with them.
7. Pose them properly:
The posing of your model is a very crucial element in portrait photography. As a photographer, it’s your job is to pose your model properly because you are the one who sees that how they are looking in the camera. Sometimes a small change in the pose like leaning forward a little or tilting the face could make a huge impact on the picture.
So give them clear instructions and appreciate them after every shot. You can give some general instructions before the shoot like put the body weight on one leg, close the eyes and open them gently just before you press the shutter so it looks natural, turn away the body from the camera for flattering poses and make eye contact with the camera.
8. Follow the composition rules:
There are some rules for a better composition and following them will give you better pictures. Never place your subject in the center of the frame, instead use the Rule of Thirds and place your subject according to that.
According to the Rule of Thirds, divide your frame with two horizontal and two vertical lines and place your subject where these lines intersect. If you are taking a close-up shot, your subject's eyes should be placed at this intersect point. Nowadays almost all cameras or even mobiles have the option to show these lines inside the viewfinder or on-screen.
If you have some lines within your frame, use them to draw the attention of the viewer toward the subject. If you see something that is creating a natural frame like a window or a door or an arch or a frame created by trees, place your subject within this frame. It also helps to lead the viewer's eye toward that subject.
Your frame should not have something that is not required in the picture. If you have it, zoom in or move closer to the subject to remove it from the frame. Always shoot from your subject's eye level, if you are shooting a kid, go down to their level. If you are shooting someone taller than you, stand on something to match their height.
If you are taking a group shot with a shallow depth of field, make sure that everyone stands at the same focal plane so everyone looks sharp in the picture.
9. Learn the basics of post-processing:
The importance of post-processing for a photographer is similar to the importance of garnishing for a chef. No matter if all your camera settings are perfect, there will always be some requirement of post-processing. Sometimes your photo will lack contrast, sometimes colors will be a little off, and sometimes you need to crop it slightly for better composition.
One example is, when we click pictures in a garden, light reflects from grass and trees and it creates a green tint on the photo. These kinds of problems can be solved only through post-processing.
So learn the basics of post-processing like adjusting exposure and contrast, color correction, removing blemishes, skin smoothing, dodging and burning, cropping and straightening, noise reduction, and sharpening.
10. Create your style:
The last but a very essential tip is that you should always create your style. All renowned photographers have their unique style, some photographers place the main light source behind the subject and take backlit portraits, some photographers use a particular color tone in all of the shots, and some photographers always use bright colors.
You should also have your signature style, so when someone goes to your social media profile, it shows a uniform style and sets you apart from the rest. Even make your style so famous that when your friends see a similar picture, they think that it’s probably clicked by you.
So here are ten tips for portrait photography, use them and I am sure it’ll improve your pictures. All the best.
Related Article 1: High Speed Portrait Photography Ideas and Tips
Related Article 2: How to Shoot Portrait Photography Using a Camera Trigger
Blog and Image Credits: Ramakant Sharda
Ramakant is an Award-Winning Photographer, Author, Mobile Apps Publisher based in the beautiful “Pink City” of India, known as Jaipur. Many of his works have been published in magazines, newspapers, and international blogs. He writes about photography and also teaches photography in his workshops. He has published three (so far) coffee table books. Get his latest book Mastering High-Speed Photography.