So! I’ve been getting some requests on my social media accounts for tips (aww yay!) and this topic has been coming up pretty often. Portrait photography is by far the easiest form of photography. Doing a simple portrait is about good lighting, best angle of the subject, and a bit of creativity. However, there are some (buahahaha!) who don’t do the “normal” style of portraiture. Either way, it’s whatever you want to do. I’ve decided to dish out some tips to help you shoot your best portrait yet!
1. Figure Out Your Portrait Style
What kind of portraits do you want to shoot? What is your photography style? Adding your own custom flavor is beneficial to your portfolio. A lot of artists get recognized by their photography style. If you want to be more creative with your photo shoot instead of using a simple backdrop, get dramatic with one or several aspects of the shoot. Take some time to mess around with lighting, back lighting, side lighting, and composition (model pose and camera positioning). Figure out what works, what doesn’t, how to edit post-shoot, and most importantly what you LIKE. If you want to have a set theme for the portrait (for a series), it’s always best to use the same style throughout (so choose carefully!).
2. Art Direction
What is the overall theme of your portrait? What are you trying to show? What is the mood? All of these questions and more will come up while choosing your theme/direction. If you want to do something simple with a backdrop, you don’t need to ask or answer so many questions. If you want to be more creative, plan it out. Every detail is important from the basics (such as background and clothing), to the complex (aesthetics, mood, and meaning). Keep it cohesive. There’s rarely anything worse than seeing a mismatched photograph. If you’re using different elements for the portrait, blend it with the theme. Unless you’re going for an opposites theme of some kind, don’t use random aesthetics (props, wardrobe etc).
3. Show Their Personality
Showing an intimate detail of your model/client will better help you to come up with a custom portrait. Some people want something cute and simple, others will want something elaborate and dark. Even if it’s just a series of the same style, it’s always cool to have a bit of your subject’s personality linked in.
4. It’s The Little Things
Along with background, there’s always the usage of props! It’s the little things that can either make or break your photo shoot. Having a model hold a flower is cute, but don’t let that deter you from using more creative objects. Things like movie scenes, or studying art history books help me choose a more meaningful object to put into place for a (not-so-hidden) meaning. There’s other ways you can come up with ideas; your model can (and probably will) suggest something that’s meaningful for them. If it’s for a client, suggest that they bring something dear to them for the photo shoot like a locket, or a family heirloom. The client will love it, and it will automatically be more of a memorable shoot that they’ll cherish for years.
5. Use The Right Lens
Portraits are generally done up close and personal, and your lens should be helpful in doing so. Using an 18mm or a 35mm lens will yield some awesome results, especially in close quarters. If you want more moody and detailed shot, I suggest a prime lens. If you don’t have a prime lens, use the next best thing, something with a good aperture (1.2f – 4f). Sometimes it’s not the equipment, it’s how you use it (this only applies to camera gear… sorry fellas). Depending on what kind of portrait you want to do, you should use the lens that works for your framing.
6. Aperture Settings
When shooting a portrait it’s best to use a highly detailed aperture setting. Scrolling to 4.5f rather than 22f would make for a better photograph. Apertures like 1.4f and 2.8f can work as well, but you may have more to fix post-shoot (blemishes). Portraits can either be soft or sharp; you have to be the one to decide. Following the basic rules of photography would help you choose which setting works best. However, high quality, highly detailed shots for portraits are more eye catching. The lower the aperture, the more precise you should be with your subject. Using a tripod can help you with lining up and focusing your shot. Also, NEVER shoot in anything else but manual mode. You need to be in complete control of the camera.
7. Shutter Speed
Good news! You don’t have to use a super slow shudder speed and get upset when you accidentally move the camera (whoops!). The shudder speed for portraits could be from 60 to 200 and anywhere in between. Always remember to calibrate, but I recommend you not to use a speed that’s not too fast (less light gets into the lens), or TOO slow (your subject is a living breathing human and will move). For example: I like to use a 4.5f with a 200 shudder speed and a calibrated ISO level (depending on the mood of the shoot). If you want to capture a moment (hair blowing in the wind), then bump up the speed and your ISO level (don’t change your low aperture settings).
8. ISO Level
Aperture and shudder speed (in my opinion) should be tweaked with first. The icing on the cake comes with the calibration of your ISO level. You can turn it up to a higher volume for a brighter photograph. Or, you can have it low for a dark and moody shoot. I can’t say this enough: play around with your camera. The basic 200-800 ISO level is the norm; however if your aperture setting is high (16f and higher), you’ll need to change your ISO to a higher level (800 and higher) and lower your shudder speed. The three-way tango between aperture settings, shutter speed, and ISO levels is an intricate dance. If you change one thing, you’ll most likely need to change the other two. Don’t go too high or too low with anything unless you’re looking for a dramatic effect. Beware of grainy images from too high of an ISO, too fast of a shudder speed, or too high of an aperture setting.
9. Posing Your Subject
When posing your subject it’s important to know how you want to frame your photo. If you’re looking for a more dynamic pose, shoot at a SLIGHT angle. It doesn’t take much movement to change a point-and-shoot headshot into a more interesting photo just by taking a small step to the side. You can easily frame your subject’s face by using the background (lining your subject up with their surroundings). Props can be used to frame the model or even their own hands (posing them by their face). For an even MORE dynamic portrait, change to a “bird-eye view” shot. Worm-eye view can be cool depending on how low you go. However, I’ve had more success with bird-eye view angles and slight left panning with the camera. Another way to create a beautiful portrait is to remember the “rule of thirds”. The subject DOESN’T have to be in the middle of the frame. You can have them take up one half of the frame (left or right side; top or bottom). Being innovative with the positioning of the model is another element of creative portraits.
10. Groom The Background
So your model shows up, gets their hair and make up done, changes into their wardrobe, and looks fabulously photo shoot ready! …but is your BACKGROUND photo shoot ready? I’ve seen far too many photo shoots not reach their full potential because of the background. If there’s an outlet on the wall, cover it. If there are unwanted or TOO many leaves on the ground, get rid of them. If there’s something out of character with the scene, fix it. There should be an allotted amount of time to groom the scene like you would a model. Don’t leave that soda can on the table. Do you even WANT the table? Set your scene, clean it up, and shoot. Keep in mind that the photograph will be looked at as a WHOLE, not just the part with the model present.
11. Get Freakin Lit!
Sometimes, camera settings just aren’t enough to get the effects that you want for your photo shoot. There’s an unlimited number of ways you can light up the scene, the best way to start is to know how you want it to look. Using basic photography gear such as: strobe lights, reflectors, or a speed light can help get the effect you want. You need to know your surroundings (on location outside or in a studio), and if you want it bright, dim, or dark. Remember to light up the background (even if it’s just a little bit). If you’re going for a more natural looking photoset, I suggest that you use a reflector (the metallic gold one is my personal favorite). For something on the darker side, you should use a well-placed strobe light (farther away) and calibrate the amount of light and dark in photoshop. Also, for darker shots, using a prime lens can set the mood of the shoot and get enough light in so the photograph doesn’t come out super grainy. For a brighter shoot, using a few umbrella lights and a soft flash. Even a small flood light would make a huge difference with brightening a room.
12. Don’t Over-Edit
When you’re done and you’ve got the shots that you need, it’s time to edit! Most photographers make the mistake of softening the photo by taking out all of the “clarity” while in camera RAW. Don’t make this mistake; it looks like a bad porno cover. If you want to soften the image up in camera RAW, go to the sharpening icon (the two triangles) and add “luminance”. The “luminance detail” bar will move with it automatically, but move it around to see where you want the sharpness to be. Also, another trick would be to soften the image in photoshop. The first step is to make a copy of the background layer and label it “skin”. Zoom in and take the spot healing brush tool to all unwanted blemishes (I like to leave the moles and freckles). Copy that layer and do a “surface blur” filter (calibrate the fill and opacity levels after you apply it so it doesn’t look super fake). After that, create a third layer and apply the “high pass” filter in “soft light” mode. Again, calibrate the layer so it doesn’t look overdone (you may need to recalibrate the blurred layer). I tend to zoom in and give more attention to make up, eye brows, eyelashes, fingernails etc. Sometimes you need to re-shape the brows, or fix eye shadow; don’t overlook the details. Teeth and eye whitening can make the difference, but remember that less is more (and too much looks creepy).
There you have it! Hopefully this helps some people with their photography journey! My biggest tip, if you haven’t guessed, is to KNOW what you want it to look like and aim for it. As always if you have any questions, you can go ahead and contact me. I’ll help out in any way that I can!