The difference between a good portrait photograph and a great one can be very subtle. It’s possible to take beautiful portrait photographs with some basic equipment, and expensive cameras and lenses aren’t really needed. Portrait photography is often more about how you relate to the subject rather than having great technical skills with a camera.
The following basic steps will set you on the path to taking portrait photographs to rival the experts.
1) Look at the background. When you are taking a portrait of a person, always begin by paying attention to the background. Ask yourself if the background is distracting for any reason. For example, is the background a bright colour or bold pattern which will distract the eye from the real subject of the shot? It’s usually very easy to deal with this, and in doing so you will make an instant improvement to the portrait. You can change the angle you are shooting at or move the person to a different spot before taking the picture. Alternatively, you can open the aperture of the camera and blur the background to remove the distraction.
2) Consider the quality of the light. When shooting portrait photographs, soft, diffused light is usually the most flattering and effective. The exception is if you want to create a very dramatic portrait with high contrast. If you are working indoors, use light from a window and use a reflector to bounce light back into shadows. If working outdoors, find an area with shade from direct sunlight.
Harsh lighting and shadows can ruin an otherwise great portrait. The effect of lighting can often be exaggerated by a camera, and what looks good to the human eye may look too harsh in a photograph. Flash can be used to fill in shadows, but it’s important to balance this with natural light.
3) Mount the camera on a tripod. This one step can make a huge difference to your portrait photography. The act of attaching a camera to a tripod can change the way you relate to your subject. Rather than being hidden behind the camera, you can sit and talk to the person and engage with them. Once the shot is framed and the camera locked to the tripod, you no longer need to look through the viewfinder.
If you are using natural light, you may have to set the camera to a slower shutter speed to ensure correct exposure. If the camera is securely mounted to a tripod there is no risk of camera shake spoiling the shot.
4) Shoot lots of pictures. Digital photography has opened up much greater freedom for the photographer. The simple fact that there’s no cost of buying film and having it developed has revolutionized photography. When it comes to shooting portrait photographs, remember that the more pictures you take, the better chance you have of capturing the perfect expression. Experiment with poses, lighting effects, expressions and locations. You stand much better chance of capturing the person’s true personality if you shoot hundreds of different pictures. Often you will see one perfect picture, but you have to take many to capture this.
5) Choose a prime lens over a zoom. Prime lenses use less optical elements, thus there is minimal chromatic aberration or distortion. In simple terms, prime lenses generally produce much better results than the similar focal length on a zoom. Zoom lenses are more convenient for framing a subject without having to move the camera, but there is a price to pay in terms of quality (While this used to be true, zoom lenses manufactured by the major brands — Nikon and Canon — in the past couple of years have improved to the point where most photographers, and nearly all clients, can not distinguish between images produced by prime of zoom lenses).
6) Make the model or subject comfortable. It’s important to relax the subject of a portrait photograph before you take your camera out. This is especially important when photographing children. If your subject is relaxed and happy, the pictures you take will be far better than if you rush into things. Talk to the person and find out about them. Explain what you are going to do and take the time to put them ease. If photographing children, you need to make a portrait session fun and entertaining for them.
Remember to run through each of these steps before your next portrait photography session. The difference in the result will really surprise you, and eventually you will tackle every session along these guidelines.