Tips for taking portraits

I used to hate shooting people. NOW shooting people is what I love to do most! Ominous, eh?

Okay, okay… seriously. I hated taking pictures of people. Gooey kids, over-enthusiastic grandparents, and parents who needed a brown paper bag to make it through each day. So what changed? My knowledge and understanding about how to take basic portraits. Firstly, I had to realize that not everyone can pick up a camera and master a headshot within the first few attempts. Many factors come into play when taking portraits of people. Here are some basic things to keep in mind when you’re beginning the process of becoming a portrait photographer. 

1. Lens choice is important.

I used to head out to a portrait shoot with an 18-55mm included in my lineup. This is a no-no for portraits (unless your clients are a family of 15 plus their zoo performer third cousin…). Wide angles tend to be unflattering, as they can distort and stretch facial features. We know Aunt Bertha has a large nose, and the last thing you want it to do is exaggerate it! Instead, choose a longer lens and stand at a farther distance. Ideally, I prefer to shoot headshot-type portraits using a focal length of 70mm or longer. Environmental portraits work best with 50mm or wider to include, well, the environment. And don’t forget that when a 50mm is placed on an APS-C format camera, it becomes equivalent to an approximate 75mm lens which can be an ideal focal length for portraits.

Ironically, the image I chose for this first point happens to have been taken with a wide angle! I think it works pretty well for the subject.

Grain of salt, people...grain of salt.


2. Perspective is everything.

Sometimes having too much distance between you and your subject can leave large areas of negative space that take away from the portrait as a whole. Sometimes this space works incredibly well if you’re standing at a beautiful beach or in a large field of flowers. But if your background is cluttered or unappealing, it’s best if you zoom in for a tighter composition.

This is where depth of field comes into play, but that’s coming up. Ideally you want to shoot at eye-level or slightly above. By shooting from above, you make your subject appear slimmer and it also accentuates the eyes (which happen to be one of the key components in any standard portrait). Avoid shooting from below; as you can imagine, Aunt Bertha’s big nose comes with big nostrils…and if you’re shooting kids – get low. Hands and knees low. Just pack a few Advil and everything should be okay.


3. “How did you get the background to do that?”

The effect of background softness (professionally known as Depth of Field) is a combination of aperture and distance from your subject. Open up your aperture as far as your lens will allow and/or get closer to your subject. It works best when your subject is filling the frame. In order to get a shallow depth of field, choose a zoom lens and get close! With this longer focal length, you’re left with less depth of field at the same aperture, but you’ll have to step backwards to maintain the same composition. The main goal is to leave your subject tack sharp, while the background falls off softly around them. Aunt Bertha really loves "background fuzz"...


4. Pay attention and slow down.

Briefly examine the location prior to taking a photograph in order to eliminate any distracting background elements like telephone poles, wires, and even trees. Before pushing the shutter button, look closely at the background of your composition when you’re looking through your viewfinder. The last thing you want is for Aunt Bertha to have a tree growing out of her head.

To quickly eliminate distraction, take a few steps to either side, tilt up or down, focus, and recompose. Classic portraits should have their entire focus on the person; you don’t want the viewer’s eyes drifting away from the subject for any reason. Make sure the eyes are sharp, as this is the main focus and people’s eyes tend to go to the sharpest areas of a photograph. If you have time before moving on to the next frame, quickly zoom in to the image on the LCD screen as out of focus areas often look sharper when they’re compressed into a thumbnail size image and your eyes can be fooled.

This particular image had a large tree branch near the top of the frame. By getting to a higher perspective, I was able to eliminate the branch (...but lost head space - give and take!)


5. Pay attention to the quality and type of light.

Clouds sometimes act as a great diffuser, and can be a photographer’s best friend. If possible try to shoot in the shade, incorporating fill-flash if needed. In most cases, harsh shadows are distracting – especially if they’re falling on a person’s face. It is a personal rule of mine that portraits should not be taken at noon, as people usually look best with light coming from one side or the other, not from above. Having light coming from the sides creates depth, whereas midday light can be bright and flat. Aunt Bertha hates looking bright and flat.

I realize it isn’t always possible, and I’ve done my fair share of shoots at noon, however try to schedule shoots for early in the morning or later in the evening when the sun is lower in the sky. Depth and having shadows in the right places are important.


6. The final product.

After you’ve got the shot, you’re probably going to enhance it in Photoshop or a similar photo editing program. For portraits, you want the emphasis to fall on the subject (and their eyes). Your goal while editing should be to enhance, not change, your subject. This may mean eliminating skin flaws like pimples, blemishes, and even wrinkles. MAKE SURE you broach the subject of retouching with your client, as you can unintentionally offend someone by retouching too much.

Pay attention to skin tones, and do not soften the skin too much. A little touch of softness is nice, and too much can cause the person to look like a porcelain doll. The in-between is up to you. Personally, I use the Portraiture plug-in in Photoshop, using a mask to paint the filter on at a lowered opacity. You can also sharpen the image before saving, being careful to selectively sharpen specific areas; most importantly the eyes and hair, and staying away from the skin.

And there you have it: my Basic Portrait Photography 101 lesson. As I've mentioned, please take everything I have said with a grain of salt and add your own twists – have fun! Sometimes in photography amazing things happen when you break the rules - we all know how objective it can be. Oh, and now that I grasp these little fundamentals, portrait shoots are fun again.

Yes. I love shooting people.