Portraits can be incredibly powerful. Think of Steve McCurry’s famous “Afghan Girl” and you are immediately struck by her intensity. The fear and hardship in those eyes tell you more about her life than if she sat explaining it. But capturing portraits isn’t as simple as it might seem. It requires skill and a lot of practice to master. In the meantime, here are 7 quick tips to help you capture stunning portraits.
1. Focus on the eyes
As in the photo of the “Afghan Girl”, the eyes in a portrait photo are the most critical element to capture correctly. If the eyes are not in focus and sharp the whole image looks soft and fails. So, your focus when capturing a portrait should be on the subject’s eyes. From there you can tweak your depth of field for how much more of the person’s face you want to keep in focus. But always remember that eyes have to be sharp.
2. Light it correctly
The way you light a person’s face will have a huge impact on the type of photo you will end up with. A harsh or intense light and your image will become more striking. A more even light and your image will seem more tranquil and calmer. As an easy alternative to these or photographing in a studio, use natural outdoor light. Simply place your model outside on a cloudy or overcast day (or in the shade if bright sunshine). On cloudy days the soft even light will mean that you won’t harsh shadows on the person’s face and it will be evenly lit.
If you do find that you are getting shadows on the person’s face use a flash to fill in the shadows. This is a technique called “fill in flash”. As the name suggests, the flash will remove the shadows on the face of the subject which will give you an even light across the person’s face.
3. Shoot in burst mode
How many times have you taken a photo, only to find out later that the person has their eyes closed? Whenever ever you are taking portraits, try to set your camera to burst mode. This is when the camera will fire off a series of shots in seconds. This will give you a much better chance of capturing a photo where your subject has their eyes open.
4. Use a simple background
In a traditional portrait, the person’s face is the most important part of the photo. As such that is where you want the viewer’s eyes to be focused. So, anything that will be distracting should be removed from the composition. That’s why a simple background works best as your model won’t be lost amongst everything else. So, try to place your model in front of a wall or similar. But if you do find that it’s not possible and there is busy scene behind them, select a wide aperture (low f/number) to blur the background and make your subject stand out more amongst the background.
5. Get them talking
Unless you are going to be using professional models, you will usually find that people are pretty shy when comes to having their photo taken. This might mean that there is an un-natural look or smile on their face. The best way to get around this is to start talking to the person. Get them relaxed and comfortable and make them laugh. The more relaxed and comfortable they are the more natural and candid the portrait will be.
You can also try to take some photos as they are in midconversation or laughing as they will often feel very natural. But remember to shoot in burst mode to be able to avoid closed eyes or unflattering expressions on the person’s face.
6. Direct your model
People usually find photographing other people daunting. Let’s face it, a mountain can’t get upset that you are taking too long. But people are often much more accommodating than you might think. So, don’t be afraid to direct your model to where and how you want them to stand. Is their hair coming across the face? Do you want them to turn slightly? Be confident and ask them to pose the way you want them to. The worst that could happen is that they say no. You can also offer to send the person you are photographing their photo as a thank you for modelling for you.
7. Correct white balance
One of the many reasons that the human eye is so much more advanced than even the most expensive DSLR is this very concept – white balance. Our eyes automatically adjust so that we see a natural scene in front of us. In other words, on a bright sunny day, we see a clear picture. Cameras, unfortunately, can’t and so for example on a bright sunny day the camera will give photos a blue tint (unless adjusted).
In a portrait, this will obviously will make the person’s skin look unnatural. It might be too warm (yellow, orange, red) or too cold (blue). You can adjust this whilst taking the photo by tweaking your white balance to compensate for this difference in colour. But if you don’t know how to or find it easier, you can do it in post-production. Just make sure you capture your photos in RAW format and you can change the white balance as much as you like.
A great portrait looks so simple when you look at it, but it often can reveal so much about the subject. It is also one of the easier genres to practice and improve in as you don’t have to look far to find potential models to practice with. Family and friends can help you practice and build confidence so that when you approach strangers you know what you are doing. With enough practice, you will become much more efficient at taking portraits and if you follow these simple tips you will be capturing great portraits in no time.