A great portrait photo can not only capture amazing detail about the subject but also immortalize emotion. However, any number of factors can turn a fantastic image into something that feels awkward and contrived. Some elements are easily controlled and might be obvious to beginners, but some other elements can prove difficult for even the most seasoned of photographers.
After all, there’s so much to arrange before you press the shutter, and each subject is different. Portrait photography, or portraiture in photography, is meant to freeze the subject’s personality in time, instantly acquiring a sense of who that person really is at a given moment. Aside from a fidgety model who just wants to scratch the itch on his or her nose the moment you take a picture, there is more to consider than just your automatic camera settings.
In fact, those automated settings may detract from what would otherwise be a great photo. To help novices, here are 8 tips to avoid the most common portrait photography mistakes.
1. Prepare your subject
Prior to even getting your camera out, you should communicate with your subject and convey what you intend to get out of them during the session. Whether it’s a random person on the street or a veteran model, basic communication becomes extremely important. If you want your subject to elicit sadness, but he or she is smiling broadly, it’s up to you to communicate that to them. Too often even professional photographers don’t do this and that only lead to wasted time and not the photo that you want. You need to connect with your subject to make sure that you’re all on the same page and to build that connection. Your photos will be better off for it.
2. Get yourself ready
It might seem obvious, but what happens when you set up a portrait photoshoot and realize that you forgot to pack the backdrop you intended to use? Or you don’t have enough lighting arranged? Double-check that you have everything you’re going to use including lenses, lighting and flashes. Additionally, preparing yourself is more than just having the physical items you’ll need for the shoot. It also means having a clear idea of what you want to accomplish during the session, so don’t end up taking random photos and hoping that one of them happens to turn out wonderful. This is no different if you are photographing a random stranger outdoors. Having a clear idea in your mind will make the process quicker, easier and give you better photos.
3. Select the right location
If you’re shooting a portrait in a studio, then you will have a lot of control over your surroundings, such as lighting and background. A studio may very well be the right place to shoot a specific kind of portrait. However, if you opt for an outdoor location, then some of these elements will not be under your control. Not only should you be concerned about natural lighting, but having your subject pose in front of a distracting background can also ruin a great photo. Select your lens carefully, since using a longer lens can trim down the background in your frame. Make sure to separate your subject from the background as well, so they don’t get lost in what could be a busy background. A wide aperture will help in blurring the background to ensure that your subject stands out.
4. Crop appropriately
Your subject is supposed to be the focal point in your image, therefore leaving too much empty space above their head or around them will make the subject look lost in the space. Crop your shot tighter to avoid leaving so much blank background that may take away from your subject. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to centre your subject; on the contrary, justifying to one side can make a much more dynamic image. Your subject doesn’t have to be centred perfectly to draw someone’s eye the way you intend. If you are leaving space around your subject you need to ensure that this done intentionally and there is balance in the composition.
5. Focus on the eyes
The eyes are the windows to the soul, or so we’re told. Portrait photography has the unique ability to really bring out different sides of a subject, and by keeping the focus on your subject’s eyes, it becomes much easier to find those different sides. If your subject is directly facing your camera, then it’s pretty easy to focus on both eyes. However, if your subject is turned away from you, then just focus on the one visible eye. If the eyes are out of focus, then your portrait will not work.
6. Use a fast shutter speed
A portrait is meant to freeze a moment in time, which means that if your subject moves (even slightly), then your image is going to blur. Your subject is going to move at some point, no matter what, so you don’t want to risk losing that perfect shot due to movement. Select a shutter speed that’s fast enough to really freeze your subject. How fast your shutter speed needs to be will depend on how steady you can hold a camera and your subject. But a safe choice is around 1/125 sec to 1/250 sec to ensure a fast enough shutter speed to capture your subject. A slower shutter speed may be possible but might be susceptible to some blurring.
7. Use appropriate lighting
Modern digital cameras have lots of automated features that portrait photographers generations ago would have loved to have. In fact, many smartphones can take decent pictures with next to no light. However, to get a nicely composed, in-focus portrait, you’ll absolutely want to make sure your lighting is on point. For portraits, lighting quickly sets the mood of your image. If you want a softer look for your subject, don’t use hard, high-contrast lighting. Conversely, if you’re trying to bring out a dramatic look, then don’t use softer lighting. This is one of the most important elements of a portrait so consider it carefully.
8. Be patient
If you’re trying to get a certain expression or mood from your subject, then don’t rush through the process to try and push them into looking “just right.” It’s unlikely that your subject will look into your camera, expressionless, for a prolonged period of time. Wait and watch their face for the right moment to take the photo. That doesn’t mean you should just take one photo. Instead, but rather to be patient not just with your subject, but yourself as well. Take plenty of photos so that you capture a range of expressions.
Portrait photography isn’t easy and takes time and practice to perfect. The great thing about portrait photography is that you can practice with friends and family. In the meantime, the following tip should help you avoid some of the most common portrait photography mistakes.
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission. Dreamstime.