21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

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Are you stuck for portrait ideas? Sometimes we’ve found that you can over-think these things. When you put so much thought into backdrops and colour schemes, etc, you can overlook some of the fundamentals of portrait photography, such as your subject’s pose.

Although many photographers upgrade to a decent DSLR to give them more control when they take family portraits or pictures of friends, getting great shots of people is always a challenge.

The difference between amateur and professional portraits can be vast. So we’ve compiled this list of 17 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro.

We’ll start off with the basics on aperture, shutter speed and lens choice, then move on to focusing and photo composition techniques, before showing you how to use natural light and reflectors to dramatically improve your results.

1. Check your Mood

Have you ever been served by a rude shop assistant or waiter that was in a bad mood? How did it make you feel?

Your mood on the day of your shoot is going to have a huge impact on the people around you. If you want the people you photograph to look and feel relaxed then you should look and feel relaxed too.

2. Try to be interested rather than Interesting

A great portrait photographer knows how to speak to their models and make them feel comfortable, confident and relaxed. A persons name is the sweetest sound to their ears so remember it and use it often.

Most people’s favorite topic of conversation is themselves. Ask questions, be interested and really listen to their answers

3. “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” Oscar Wilde

Ditch the boring clichés, saying stuff like “make love to my camera” just sounds really creepy

Work with a language you are totally comfortable with. If you are softly spoken then this is how you should give direction. Trying to be someone else will just make directing awkward for you and your model.

4. Connect with Your Subject and Share in the Process

As Adler points out in the quote above, the recipe for a good portrait entails more than just photo and lighting gear. It starts with the photographer making a distinct effort to connect with the subject so they are at ease with the image-making process. This can often include advance research on your portrait subject and his or her interests—everything from familiarizing yourself with their passions to bring up as a conversation starter, to specific environmental factors, such as their favorite music playing in the studio to make them feel more relaxed during the shoot.

When doing online research, pay close attention to other portraits of the subject you find, and ask yourself what you can do improve on what others have captured. If there’s time for the two of you to chat in advance, a few well-directed questions about details—such as your subject’s favorite color or article of clothing; if there’s a facial angle, a pose or even a past portrait that they like best; as well as whether the portrait you’ll be making has a specific purpose or any production specs you’ll need to match—can go a long way in making them satisfied with the results.

5. When to use Exposure Compensation

Your camera’s metering system plays a vital role in picture-taking. It works out how much light should enter the camera to make a correct exposure. It’s very clever, but it’s not completely foolproof. The problem with metering is that it takes an average reading – either of the entire frame or part of it, depending on which metering mode you’re in – and this reading is assumed to be a midtone, or in other words, halfway between white and black.

More often than not this assumption comes out right, but a metering system can struggle when a frame is dominated by areas of extreme brightness or darkness.

When shooting portraits, light skin tones can easily trick the camera into underexposing the shot. You’ll notice this more when shooting full-face photos or when there’s lots of white in the scene – brides at weddings are a prime example.

How to use Exposure Compensation 1 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

This can be quickly corrected though with your camera’s Exposure Compensation controls. To begin with, try dialling in up to +1 stop of positive Exposure Compensation to lighten up people’s faces. Review your shots, and if you feel you they need to be lightened further, increase this further.

How to use Exposure Compensation 2 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

Dialling in an exposure compensation of +2.3 stops, it has correctly exposed the face, but some background details are blown out. That’s fine, we can’t have it both ways…

6. Watch the Dynamics of Your Camera and Lens

In shooting a portrait, you are effectively translating a three-dimensional face into a flat plane of space, so deciding on your lens or focal length and positioning the camera in a way that complements your subject’s features will have a significant effect on the success of the resulting image. The overwhelming variety of individual facial features and combinations thereof—from heavy brows to pronounced noses to double chins and beyond—furthers the challenge of capturing a pleasing portrait of any given subject.

Are you coming in close for a headshot or beauty portrait or does your subject want an environmental portrait that conveys a sense of what they do or where they live? Each of these vantage points requires a different approach. Keep in mind that whatever is closest to the camera will appear largest in an image and that wide-angle lenses will amplify this effect. When shooting a close-up portrait, facial features such as a pronounced nose can be particularly challenging, requiring special attention.

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50mm
Dynamics of Your Camera and Lens 3 199x300 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro
85mm
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200mm

7. Aperture advice

When shooting portraits, it’s best to set a wide aperture (around f/2.8-f/5.6) to capture a shallow depth of field, so the background behind your subject is nicely blurred, making them stand out better.

Shoot in Aperture Priority mode to control depth of field; in this mode your DSLR will helpfully set the shutter speed for a correct exposure.

Aperture advice 1 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

If the model’s face is slightly side-on to the camera, a wide aperture may blur one of the eyes. This can look a little strange, so consider stopping down to f/5.6 to keep both eyes sharp

Specialist portrait lenses tend to have even wider maximum apertures (from f/1.4 to f/2.8) in order to blur backgrounds further.

Aperture advice 2 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

Fast lenses are ideal for portraits. The difference between f/2.8 (left) and f/5.6 (right) doesn’t seem much, but the wider aperture blurs background detail much more effectively

8. Shutter speed settings

When setting shutter speed, factor in your lens’s focal length otherwise camera-shake (and blurred results) will become an issue.

As a general rule, make sure your shutter speed is higher than your effective focal length. For example, at 200mm use a 1/250 sec shutter speed or faster. This also means you can get away with slower shutter speeds when using a wide-angle lens – such as 1/20sec with an 18mm focal length.

While it won’t help if your subject is moving around quickly, don’t forget to use your camera’s anti-shake system. While some camera systems have this built-in around the sensor, of camera systems prefer to have the system in the lens – the benefit being that you can see the effect in the viewfinder.

Who to Shutter speed settings 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

Not every lens will feature this technology though, but if you have it – use it. You’ll be able to shoot handheld at much lower shutter speeds than you would otherwise normally be able to do and still come away with pin-sharp shots.

9. Increase your ISO

People move around a lot as they’re photographed, not to mention blink and constantly change their facial expressions – and there’s nothing worse than a photo of somebody half-blinking or gurning instead of smiling!

To avoid these problems, and to prevent motion blur appearing, you’ll need to use a fast shutter speed. This will also help to ensure sharp shots and avoid camera-shake because more often than not you’ll be shooting portraits handheld.

How to Increase your ISO 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

While in Aperture Priority mode and maintaining a wide aperture, to increase your shutter speed simply increase your ISO (from ISO100 to ISO400, say).

In low light (indoors and outside), you may need to increase it to ISO1,600, 3,200 or even 6,400. A little grain is infinitely better than a blurry, useless photo.

10. Lens choice

Lens choice 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

Your choice of lens has a big impact on your portrait photos. For portraits with visual impact a wide-angle lens is a must. Shooting from a low angle will make your subject taller than they actually are. This is a great technique for fooling the eye and changing the perspective of objects and people. However, be careful not to go too close, as you might see some distortion, which isn’t flattering at all! To add even more drama to a wide-angle shot, simply try tilting the camera to an angle.

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When using a medium telephoto such as 85mm or 105mm, the model is still the main subject in the scene, but the background plays an important part in the image – the steps in the shot above appear out of focus and act as another point of interest. Always pay attention to what’s going on in the background.

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A telephoto lens like a 70-200mm f/2.8 is one of the best tools for creating stunning portraits. Enabling you to zoom in closer to focus more on your subject, you can then reduce the amount of background and foreground distractions on display.

11. Creative compositions

Creative Portrait compositions 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

Don’t be lazy with your compositions. Too often photographers stand back, thinking it’s best to include all, or at least the top half, of their subject.

Zoom in instead to fill the frame for a more inspired photo composition. Positioning your subject to one side of the frame, with ‘space to look into’, is a great technique to master, as is experimenting with wide apertures to capture a very shallow depth of field.

12. Build a rapport

Beauty Female Portrait Photography 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

If your model doesn’t feel comfortable, then the final shots aren’t going to work. Take time to chat with your subject before the shoot – have a cup of tea or coffee and talk over your ideas.

When the shoot begins, offer them direction – don’t just shoot away silently. Tell them what you want and how you want them to pose. Remember as well to show them shots of the back of the screen as this can build confidence.

13. Focusing your camera

If you’re really strapped for cash, you can make a reflector by simply using a large sheet of white cardboard – which you can also cover with tin foil for a silver effect – and it should still work a treat!

When using wide apertures (especially f/2.8 or faster), your depth of field decreases dramatically, so it’s crucial your focusing is bang on, otherwise you could end up with out-of-focus facial features; the person’s nose may be sharp but the eyes soft.

Focusing your camera 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

With tightly composed photos, focus on the eyes; with wider compositions, focus on the head. To help with pinpoint focusing, manually select a single autofocus (AF) point.

A good technique is to set the central AF point, half-press the shutter button to focus on the eyes/head, then recompose to position your subject off to one side before fully pressing the button – this is often a much faster way of shooting than fiddling with AF points.

Alternatively, set AF points in the top corners and place them over your subject’s eyes to take your shot. Either option will help you position your subject off-centre for a more balanced composition.

14. It’s all about the Eyes

The eyes have been called the “windows to the soul.” “Nothing could be closer to the truth for portrait photography,” says Brian Smith. “When photographing people, you’ll almost always want to place the emphasis on their eyes. You could have the perfect composition and exposure, but if the eyes aren’t sharp, the entire image suffers.”

Wonderful Female Eyes Photograph 2 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro Wonderful Female Eyes Photograph 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

Smith, a Sony Artisan of Imagery, notes that most Sony mirrorless cameras have a handy feature called Eye AF that allows you to track focus right on the eyes. “You can also use Flexible Spot AF points to place the focusing point right on your subject’s eye,” he adds. “That way, it’s always tack sharp no matter how shallow your depth of field.”

15. Use a reflector

How to Use a reflector for better result 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

A quick and affordable way to brighten up your portraits and to give them a professional look is to use a reflector. Use them indoors (near windows) or outdoors to bounce light back onto your subjects to fill in unwanted shadows.

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Many reflectors come double-sided or with detachable covers, so you get a choice of white, silver and gold reflective surfaces. The white surfaces of reflectors can also double up as diffusers to soften strong direct sunshine.

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No reflector: Without a reflector, the side of the face furthest from the window is noticeably deeper in shadow

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Gold side: Gold gives off a warm glow, which works with the right subject, but looks unnatural in an indoor setup

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Silver side: The silver side, being more reflective, bounces more light, and is slightly cooler than white

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White side: The white side of a reflector gives the most natural-looking results when shooting portraits

16. Posing for portraits

 

How your subject stands, poses and looks will have a dramatic effect on your results. A slight change in facial expression – such as whether they smile or not – can radically change the entire feeling of the photograph.

Posing for portraits 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

When shooting, try and capture a range of expressions so you can pick which you prefer when editing them back home on the computer.

Also consider setting up portrait shots where your subject looks off-camera, up or down, or to one side. Play around and see what works.

17. Move In and Out and Get Down on their Level

Brian Smith is a master of telling a great story through portraits. While he appreciates the precision and acuity offered by traditional 85mm, 100mm, and 135mm prime portrait lenses, he generally prefers the focal range offered by a 24–70mm zoom as he works. “At its widest setting of 24mm, this zoom allows you to capture a lot of environment around your subject,” he explains. “Or, for an intimate portrait, select a longer focal length like 70mm. Even when shooting with a prime lens, I move in and out as I shoot, zooming with my feet rather than the lens,” he adds.

How to set environmental for photograph 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

If you’ll be working with children, “don’t shoot down from an adult’s eye level,” he explains. “Getting the camera down to their level will make your images more personal and less imposing. The same is true of adults,” he notes. “Seeing eye-to-eye is a great way to make your portraits convey more of the connection you established with the subject.”

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18. Using fill flash on sunny days

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Although it may seem odd to use flash when the sun’s out, that’s precisely the time when you should use it!

The sun can cause all sorts of problems for portrait photographers: harsh shadows across faces, unbalanced exposures and burnt-out highlights.

Use a bit of ‘fill flash’ and you’ll instantly improve your portraits; your camera will capture a much more balanced exposure, because your flash will light up your subject while the camera exposes for the background.

19. Get a dedicated flashgun

flashgun 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

A dedicated flashgun (or often referred to as a speedlight or speedlite) is much more powerful than the built-in one that’s on your camera, which means a brighter burst of light, enabling you to set smaller apertures to capture more depth of field, or to light up a group of people.

You also have more control over its settings, and you can angle it up or sideways to bounce the light off ceilings and walls.

20. Fire your flashgun remotely

flashgun remotely 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

A flashgun is detachable and can be fired via a cable, wirelessly using a remote control attached to your hotshoe or many camera systems let you trigger a compatible flashgun via your camera’s built-in flash.

Taking your flash off you camera can transform your results, allowing you to sculpt the light for much more professional results.

You can also use two flashes in unison for more complex lighting set-ups. Using a remote trigger will enable you to fire one flash, to act at the ‘master’, which in turn will fire the second ‘slave’ flash unit at the same time.

21. Get artistic with flash lighting

 

Equipped with a flashgun, remote triggers and a good-sized diffuser, you open up the possibility of a vast array of clever and cool lighting set-ups.

Artistic photograph with flash lighting 21 Killer Portrait Photography Tips Make Shoot like a Pro

Light your subjects from the side to add drama to your portraits, and get creative by under-exposing the sky or background, dialling in -2 stops of Exposure Compensation to capture a moody backdrop behind your subjects.

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