Portrait photography is one of the most popular genre in photography. A basic definition of portrait photography is: “photography of a person or group to capture the personality of the subjects using effective lighting, backgrounds and posing”. The word portrait itself means “a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant”.
A good portrait tells us stories, creates some mystery or brings out some memories. Good portraits also reveal the true personality of someone. From austere black and white images to dreamy images with blurred backgrounds, portrait photography relies on a photographer’s handle of the camera, their sense of the subject, and their creative ability to bring those elements together in unique ways.
Whether you want to take good portraits for creating an amazing photography portfolio or you just want to get better at taking a portraits, in this article I am going to share with you “13 Essential Tips And Tricks For Portrait Photography Every Photographer Should Know”. Now, there are also many different types of portrait photography and this 13 essential tips apply to all of those. So, let’s get started!
Here is a quick look of the 13 Essential Tips And Tricks For Portrait Photography Every Photographer Should Know:
- Select The Right Background
- Knowing Importance Of Lighting
- Camera Settings For Portraits
- Make The Model Comfortable
- Try Different Pose, Angles And Positions
- Draw Attention To The Subject
- Take A Lot Of Shots
- Consider Using A Longer Focal Length Lens
- Prime Vs Zoom Lenses For Portraits
- Consider Using Props To Get Creative
- Capture Emotions And Story
- Find Your Own Portrait Photography Style
- End With Editing And Post-processing
Now, I am going to explain what each one of those means:
1. Select The Right Background
Background is a very important element in portrait photography. So, before taking a portrait make sure you choose a background which doesn’t interfere with your subject. A simple backgorund does a better job in most cases. However, there are times that background will be as important as your subject and it will totally depend on what type of portrait photography you are doing.
For example: If you are doing a lifestyle portrait or an environmental portrait, the background (location) should mean something to your subject. For instance, if you are photographing a portrait of a scientist doing his work the background (location) should be a science lab. If you are doing a Formal Portrait, the background should be formal.
Backgrounds are a prop that the photographer can use to communicate something about the subject or to help frame it. While the focus should always stay on the subject, using the right background can help the individual stand out for a more memorable shot.
2. Knowing Importance Of Lighting
While performing a portrait photography or just photography in general, you should know the importance of lighting in order to capture a best portrait.
When selecting an environment, consider that a soft, diffused natural light from an indirect source is best for shooting portraits. Direct, harsh light or a full sun can cast unwanted dark shadows or create unnatural skin colors. Use a diffuser like a soft box or a white sheet to help soften the light and produce a more flattering effect but again it is not always the case, sometimes you might also need hard light to create moody portraits.
The bottom line is, it will depend upon what type of look you are going for. Here are some different types of lighting you can consider while shooting portrait photography:
- Natural light
- Flat light
- Soft light
- Hard light
- Rim light
- Loop lighting
- Broad lighting
- Short lighting
- Butterfly lighting
- Split lighting
- Rembrandt lighting
3. Camera Settings For Portraits
The camera settings for your portraits will totally dapend on what kind of portrait photography you are doing and what is your desired output is. There is no such thing as the perfect camera settings for portrait photography but you can follow the below mentioned tips as a guide and adjust the settings according to your needs.
1. Exposure Settings
Three settings of the exposure triangle:
- Shutter Speed: The ideal shutter speed is informed by your light source and factors like ISO and aperture settings. When it comes to selecting the right shutter speed, your best bet is to defer to your in-camera meter and adjust until you get a center reading in the meter. This will ensure a crisp focus in your images. Shutter Speed doesn’t matter so much for portraits as long as it is fast enough that neither camera shake nor your subject’s movements add blur to your image. In most cases, any shutter speed faster than 1/100th of a second will work.
- Aperture: For portraits with an out of focus background, you will want to go with a large aperture between f/1.4 – f/2.8 – f/5.6 This effect is called a “shallow” or “thin” depth of field. For group portraits and portraits where the background is as important as the subject go with a small aperture such as f/8.0 – f/9.0 – f/16 or even further.
- ISO: Setting your ISO to the lowest possible setting helps reduce noise. Depending on your lighting conditions, set your ISO to between 100 and 400 this will only work if you are shooting outdoors in daylight and indoors in studio lights. For taking portraits outdoors at night and indoors in low-light conditions you will have to increase the ISO. I recommend reading one my article of my free online photography guide which is solely dedicated to low-light conditions. Click here to read it.
2. Camera Mode
The camera mode I recommend is aperture-priority mode or manual mode for portrait photography. Especially if you are a beginner, aperture-priority mode is the best option for you if you are still not unable to use camera fully in manual mode.
3. Camera Focus Settings
The camera focus settings for a beginner photographer I recommend is One-Shot AF (Canon)/AF-S (Nikon), which represent single-focus capability. In this mode, when you depress the shutter release halfway, the camera focuses on the subject. The best option is to use manual focus mode if you can.
4. Metering Mode
If you are placing your subject at the centre of your frame I would suggest using Center-weighted Metering Mode and if you are taking group portrait I would suggest using Matrix Metering also known as Evaluative Metering.
Again remember that there is no such things as best camera settings. You can use this provided information as a guideline or reference and adjust it according to your needs.
4. Make The Model Comfortable
In order for the portrait to look natural and in order to bring out the true personality of your subject, you must make your model comfortable. They must feel at home in order to be free and spontaneous. Make sure you spend some time with your model before starting the shoot to get to know them better and also make them comfortable. You can also just smile and make some jokes or talk about something which interests the model.
5. Try Different Pose, Angles And Positions
Pose and the angle of the body and face play a key role. Looking straight at the camera with motionless expression can be boring. Try to flare up your portraits with some twist. Maybe it is an inviting smile, a sexy expression, a flamboyant look, tilting the chin down or up, turning the head back while walking forward, or sitting and looking up. Experiment with poses and you will get some great portraits.
It is the same with angles, try different angles for each different pose until you find the right one and also remember each pose might require you to change the angle. Positioning the camera high or low while keeping the focus on the eyes brings out interesting features and adds different flavors to the portraits. So make the model sit, stand up, climb up to the stool or ladder or stairs and shoot or you go high, climb up, or position your camera high and shoot. You will have more and more interesting options.
6. Draw Attention To The Subject
This is the most important tip of all. If your subject doesn’t catch the attention of the viewer your portrait is jsut not good enough. When it comes to portrait photography, the general rule of thumb is, the subject is the main event. As such, the individual or people you are photographing should be the focal point in the composition of your images.
Try using different composition for drawing attention to the subject which will ultimately lead to a pleasent and flatering image. The main goal of the portrait itself is to attract attention and highligh the subject. You can also use lighting to achieve this. A good portrait draws attention to the subject and captures their character on film
7. Take A Lot Of Shots
It is always better to take extra shots or to try something and fail rather than regretting it later by thinking “if I would have tried this” or “what if I would have taken this shot from a different angle”. In simple words, shoot as many portraits as you can with as many angles, poses, and expressions from your model as possible. It will not only give you the chance to shortlist some great portraits but it will make your model more comfortable; they will get used to your shooting and it will bring out their true personality. Your portraits will look more natural.
8. Consider Using A Longer Focal Length Lens
A 50mm lens is considered a mid-range telephoto lens, and a standard length many portrait photographers like to use. However, this length creates a familiar and ordinary scene. Use a longer lens, like one in the 85mm to 200mm range, to produce better image compression without distorting the pixels. A longer focal length can bring your background closer to your subject, increasing the bokeh (background blur), and creating a more dynamic image.
Also remember that it is not always the case. For instance, if you are taking a full body portrait and you don’t want the background too blurry there are times photographers also use a 35mm focal length lens for portraits.
9. Prime Vs Zoom Lenses For Portraits
When it comes to choosing the best lens for your portrait photography style, your choices fall into two categories: prime lenses and zoom lenses.
Prime lenses offer a fixed focal length. In other words, it’s a lens that doesn’t zoom, making it easier to work – if your subject is within the focal length the lens is built to work with. Prime lenses produce sharper images, which is why professional portrait photographers swear by them. In sum, the benefits and drawbacks that prime lenses offer include:
- Pros: sharp focus, easier to work with
- Cons: single focal length, requires the purchase of multiple lenses
On the other hand, zoom lenses can accommodate multiple focal lengths. This means they allow the photographer to switch between a variety of styles and perspectives without needing to transport and switch to different camera lenses. A zoom lens is a great choice for beginners as they figure out what focal length best suits their style before investing in a prime lens. In sum, the benefits and drawbacks that zoom lenses offer include:
- Pros: accommodates multiple focal lengths
- Cons: less sharp images, more settings to consider
A pro photographer’s toolkit is likely to store multiple prime lenses that work with the focal length they prefer. Meanwhile, a beginner may have a zoom lens and a prime lens in the focal length of their choice.
10. Consider Using Props To Get Creative
Using props as part of portraiture photography can help take your images to the next level, make your composition more realistic, or help bring character into the image. In addition, props are a great way to give more nervous subjects something to do with their hands. For an engagement photoshoot, you may bring a decorative chalkboard into the shot to add more context to the image. To bring a sense of excitement to an image, a colored smoke bomb can visually communicate the gravity of the occasion.
Shoot through objects in your foreground, like foliage or architecture, for a more dynamic element to your composition. A longer lens can help blur the objects in front, centering the focus on your subjects, adding an interesting aesthetic component to your shot. Shooting through transparent objects can produce unique patterns or reflections, while shooting through something like a fence can provide interesting framing around your subject. Capture your subject through store windows or between branches for a more dynamic composition.
11. Capture Emotions And Story
If your portrait doesn’t have a story or it is an emotionless portrait, it will not be as eye-catching as the portrait which has it’s own story and you can see and feel the emotion of the subject. An emotionless and a portrait without a story is a very boring boring and nobody wants to see it. You need to capture the moment, capture the emotion of the model. Portraits which shares inspirations tends to do better that an emotionless portrait.
12. Find Your Own Portrait Photography Style
It’s important to remember that portrait photography is as much of an art as it is a skill. After mastering some of the techniques and approaches, it’s up to you to hone your skill through trial and error. With time, you will find your individual style and know how to replicate it with confidence across environments.
13. End With Editing And Post-processing
Retouching and enhancing your photos with editing software can give your scene the final look it needs. Whether you need to crop an unwanted edge, lighten a distracting shadow, or tweak the background of your shot, become familiar with editing programs and their functions in order to bring your portrait photography to the next level.
Portrait photography is full of opportunities ready to be conquered, and each shoot is always a little different, just like your subjects. Just use the above tips as a guideline for your portrait photography and adjust everything according to your need.
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