Portrait Photography Tips

Do you just snap pictures of family or friends, without a thought to how it might turn out? 

Portrait photography takes you a step up from people photography.  It gives you elements to notice such as the angle you take the photograph, the lighting you will use, and the expression of emotion on a person's face. While you may be an amateur photographer deciding to take photos without the expense of paying someone you will need to have some basic knowledge of techniques used by an experienced professional.

First when taking a photograph of a person you need to study their face.  The face is important to the angle you will shoot from.  Though it is a cliche, it is true some people have a better side.  This could be in relation to scarring or acne breakouts or even simpler.  For instance someone’s left eye, (or another part of the face) could be larger than their right by just a bit, and looking head on into the camera will cause a horrible portrait, however if you come from the right side and angle them up a little, the light and shadows will help even out the features while keeping the distinctions that make your who they are.

Portrait photography is about capturing the essence of the subject, the personality.  The little nuances of a face add character to the portrait.  You will want to loosen up or relax your subjects.  As you are become an experienced portrait photographer you will want to learn about your subject as you are taking pictures or perhaps meet them before the session.  You feel like you are part therapist, part counselor, part psychologist and part photographer. You can’t just snap away in silence or be saying turn left, turn right or smile and be expecting to get a genuine display of someone’s real personality if you are not interacting with your subject. If they are just your family then you should know what would get their personality captured on film. 

Lighting is the next important step to portrait photography.  A lot of pro's prefer natural light to artificial. Many call themselves ‘natural light photographers’ and even market themselves this way. That’s great but working with existing light has certain limitations and you may want to invest in a few decent flash units for (off-camera) lighting and even a reflector. If you are not going to use flash, remember you will use the light you have.  Natural light will often require setting the aperture and ISO to compensate for the cameras lack of definition.  In other words you need to create the contrast with the light and shadows for the effect you want.  Often artificial light is harsh and not directed properly – obviously it’s not a studio. Forget about ‘Auto’ mode, again you will need to use the manual settings on your camera to create the perfect portrait. 

The background is also important when discussing light.  In a studio a photographer will pick a background that will not wash your features out or your clothing.  They want to have a distinction or contrast between you and the background. You will want a background that gives color to your subject rather than taking it away.  Finding a nice spot with a tree to sit on and mountains in the background can be a great portrait, but you will want to make sure the background is not too busy to distract from the subject.  Make the subject seem a part of the picture rather than outside of it.

One very experienced photographer told me - Don't just focus your eyes on the subject if you are creating a portrait and incorporating an interesting background. Yes they need to be looking your way, have their eyes open and the relevant expression, and be standing or sitting properly, but now... look at the background. What happening?... are there people walking in or out of frame, is it straight?, Is the aperture correct to have everything focused properly, is it too busy?... there are lots of things to think about and coordinate to create a memorable portrait.

Photography is just like art, what you see in the mind needs to translate into an image. Sometimes it's a balancing act to get all aspects aligned and achieve what you want to create. This becomes easier with the right gear, a familiar understanding of its use, and the experience to work with existing elements and then to know when you need to (or not) add some other elements to the mix. All this while trying to keep your subject interested, and capture some genuine aspects of their personality.

The type of camera and if your old-school the (film) you use will really determine the quality of the photography.  Once you combine all these techniques such as lighting, angles, the type of gear your using and an understanding your subject you will be able to create a near to professional if not professional portrait for your friends and family no matter the occasion