Although a popular subject to photograph, taking a good portrait is often harder than it looks. Here are some tips to get you started
Even before the invention of cameras, artists were fascinating viewers with their portrait paintings. Some of the most famous images in history are simple portraits - and that simplicity is what makes them so engaging and powerful to the viewer.
Our fascination with portraiture has evolved from paintings to photography over the last 100 years. From Steve McCurry’s haunting image of the Afghan Girl to Alberto Korda’s symbolic Che Guevara photo - a great portrait photograph has the power to “wow” and inspire.
If you’re just getting started in the genre, capturing great portraits isn’t always easy. So here are 7 tips to help you get those stunning photos of people.
1 Get closer to your subject
“If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. These famous words by acclaimed photographer Robert Capa are one of the most common bits of feedback that I give to people on my workshops.
Whilst state-of-the-art zoom lenses can be beneficial for a variety of photography situations, portraiture requires you to build that connection with the subject. That is hard to do from across the street. By getting closer to your subject, you will be forced to engage with them, possibly get to know them or even share a joke to break the ice.
Getting close to your subject allows you to build a connection which can, in turn, manifest itself in the photo. Imagine if Steve McCurry had photographed the Afghan Girl from a distance - we wouldn’t have that steely haunted gaze that pulls us into the image.
Most photographers avoid getting closer to their subject because of shyness. But you needn’t worry as most people will be flattered that you want to take their photo. If they don’t want their picture taken, they will usually just wave a hand politely to tell you otherwise.
2 Shoot from the hip
There are of course times when you don’t want the person you are photographing to notice you are taking a picture of them. For example, they might be deep in thought or concentrating on what they are doing. In these situations, if you hold up a camera to your eye, the chances are they will notice.
So, you can use a technique called “shooting from the hip” whereby you take the photo quickly by merely pointing the camera and shooting without looking through the viewfinder. This can be hit and miss, and you need to ensure you have your settings correct (see tip 6). But if done well - you can photograph some great moments.
If you can take the photo by looking through the viewfinder without the person noticing, then do so. But the key here is that you are still close enough for the image to look intimate rather than you hiding in the shadows from across the road.
3 Focus on the right place
The most critical part of a head and shoulder portrait are the eyes, so this is where you need to focus.
Other aspects of the portrait, such as the background or even ears can be slightly blurred if the eyes are not sharp and the photo won’t work. If the person you are photographing is turning their face (i.e. one eye is closer to the camera than the other) focus on the eye nearest to you.
Typically for a head and shoulder portrait, you will be using a wide aperture so you will have a shallow depth of field. This makes the correct focus point even more vital. Learn more about the importance of depth of field with our dedicated tutorial.
4 Think about your background
The best portraits will often have your subject as the main point of interest without distractions. This is one of the main reasons that photographers will usually use a wide aperture for portrait photography.
By blurring out all the distracting elements in the background, it will ensure your subject stands out. Ideally, you should try to photograph your subject in front of a plain background. For example, a brick wall or a hedge will work much better than a reflective surface.
If you find that the person posing for you isn’t in the right place (because there is something behind them), don’t be shy about moving them left or right, or even to another location.
Even if you don’t speak their language, a simple hand movement and a smile usually do the trick. The most important thing is that nothing distracts the viewer from the person in the shot.
5 Learn how to use a flash
The best light for portraiture is the natural light that you would get outdoors on a cloudy day. Cloud cover will act as a natural diffuser and ensure that your subject will have an even light across their face without harsh shadows. But of course, sometimes you might not have the ideal conditions and so you need to use artificial light for your portrait photo. Low light conditions are often where people use a direct flash to light the face of their model. Unfortunately - this is possibly the worst way to use your flash in these conditions.
The harsh light will wash out the details and give you a flat looking image. If you have no choice but to use a flash, point your flash somewhere so that it bounces off a surface like a wall rather than directly onto your subject. I must confess that over the last few years I have pretty much never used my flash and instead I use an LED light. Not only can I adjust the brightness, but I can position the small LED on a gorilla pod anywhere without the need for sensors and triggers.
Whatever you decide to use, whether it's a flash or an LED light - make sure you learn how best to use it for your portrait shots.
6 Get your settings right
One of the significant challenges in portrait photography is knowing what settings to use for what scenario. While there isn’t a one-stop solution, generally there are two types of portrait photos. The standard head and shoulder portrait which as mentioned earlier, you will be aiming to use a fairly wide aperture (i.e. f/4 or wider).
Remember to make sure you have focused on the right part of the image when using wide apertures. For an environmental portrait, you will want to show more of the surroundings of your subject, so you will want a slightly greater depth of field (i.e. f/5.6 or greater). For further reading on depth of field in photography, read our guide here.
When it comes to shutter speeds - aim for around 1/100 sec as a minimum just to be sure of a sharp photo. However, you'll be able to capture a sharp image at 1/80 sec and possibly slightly slower depending on how steady you can hold the camera.
I would also advise shooting in burst mode. This is where your camera shoots several frames when you have the shutter pressed down. This is essential to avoid situations where the person in the photograph has their eyes closed because they blinked. By shooting in burst mode, you can then select the best image from the set you have taken in post-production.
7 Don’t forget to edit your photo
Some people prefer minimal editing in post-production on an image. Others happily edit more extensively. The one sure thing is that every photo will benefit from some level of editing. Even if that is simply straightening or cropping it. But if you do nothing else with your editing, just make sure that your white balance is correct. This is imperative to avoid unwanted hue and colour casts appearing in your image, which can give an unnatural tone to skin colours.
Shooting in RAW files is the best way to edit white balance using editing software such as Lightroom. You can try to get the right white balance out in the field when taking a photo. Still, sometimes in fast-moving situations like street photography, it isn’t possible. If you have time and are using a model, a grey card can help you ensure your balance is correct both when taking a photo or in post-production.
A great portrait photograph has the power to captivate the viewer. But it can also tell even more of a story with a subject's face, expression, or actions.
The great thing about portrait photography is that no matter where you live - you will likely have people around you that you can photograph. So, get out there and use the tips above to capture your own stunning portrait shots!