Becoming a master of portrait photography takes lots of patience and practice. It’s likely there you are making with your portraits that hold them back from excellence. In this article, I will walk through eight tips to instantly boost your portrait photography game and take it to the next level.
Adapt to the available light
Light is one of the most important elements to keep in mind when taking portraits – specifically how the light looks on your subject’s face. Proper lighting, or lack thereof, can make or break your image. Direct the person you are photographing to turn their head towards the main light source, whether it’s a street lamp or the sun. If you’re having them look towards the sun, tell them to look in a direction that won’t cause them to squint or be unpleasant for them. You don’t want people going blind on your shoot, right?
While the golden hour is a fabulous time to photograph portraits, you won’t always have the luxury of perfect lighting thanks to the whims of Mother Nature. In these situations, you need to adapt to the available light to maximize your portrait opportunities.
Keep in mind, there is no such thing as bad light. It can all be used to your advantage if you know what you’re doing. Here are some basic tips for different natural lighting scenarios:
Harsh sunlight – have your subject stand in the shade to provide even lighting across their face.
Golden hour – have your subject face the sun to give a nice glow on their face or put the sun behind them to get some halo lighting.
Cloudy day – you will pretty much be good to shoot anywhere since the clouds will naturally diffuse the sun and provide flattering, even light on your subject’s face.
Night time/low light – look for a street light or other light source that can provide good lighting on your subject’s face.
Give directions to your subject
Let’s face it, most people are not confident or even comfortable being in front of the camera. Providing gentle directions to the person you are photographing can help them relax. Keep your directions simple and positive. If you don’t know any poses, focus on one thing to improve each shoot. Perhaps you ask your subject to lift their chin to provide a more flattering view of their face. A little positive direction goes a long way.
Find a clean background that contrasts with the subject
Backgrounds are extremely important in creating pleasing portraits. The key role of the background is to provide context to the environment the person is occupying and make them stand out. Finding a clean background that provides contrast with your subject is crucial.
Some things to be mindful of:
Branches, poles or other objects may look like they are growing out of your subject’s head, depending on where they are in the image. Try to frame the shot so that your subject’s head is distanced from distracting elements.
Try to find colors or tones that either complement or contrast your subject’s skin tones and clothing.
Focus on the dominant eye
This is particularly important if you’re shooting with shallow depth of field. Be sure to focus on the dominant eye of your subject, the one that is closest to the lens. If the dominant eye is out of focus, your photo will end up looking slightly off. This can ruin an otherwise good portrait.
Keep your lines straight
Crooked horizon lines can give your portraits a weird look, so make sure to keep those lines straight. The same goes for environmental elements like doors and the edges of buildings. If these types of lines aren’t straight, it can give your portraits a tilted look that isn’t flattering. Of course, you can straighten important lines in post-production, but this will involve cropping, which may ruin the composition. Focus on getting it right in camera.