10 ways to take better portraits

Found in: Photo Tips
Jun 26 2012
by Stephen Hockman

Shooting portraits can be quite a challenging task. There are a lot of things involved: interaction with the people being photographed, various types of equipment, specifics of the location, and so on. Whether you are a working professional or just want to take photos of your family, the tips I share here are good to keep in mind to achieve better results every time.

Tip #1: Get the Exposure Right in Camera

One of the most important aspects of taking good portraits is to make sure you get the exposure right in the camera. Unfortunately, with post-production software being so cheap these days many photographers think that they can just rush through a portrait session and then fix any exposure mistakes during the editing process. Don't rely on this method. As you shoot more portrait sessions, you'll find out quickly how much time this wastes and how annoying it can be to fix faulty exposures. Just imagine how long it would take to fix the exposure on 300+ photos!

Before you take your first shot, make sure to look at the meter on your camera and see what it is reading. Most cameras show a value between -3 to +3. A good tip is to switch to spot metering mode and take a reading off of the skin on the face of your subject. Then, adjust the aperture or shutter speed (or use exposure compensation) so that the meter reads +1. Since the meter interprets the skin tone as gray, overexposing brings the skin to the proper exposure.

Tip #2: It's All About the Pose

Posing will make or break a photo. In fact, the fashion industry knows this better than anyone else and does everything they can to ensure great poses in their photos. That's why professional models go through intensive training and classes just to learn how to pose correctly for a camera.

As a portrait photographer, you can't expect your clients to know how to pose correctly, so it's your job to help your subjects pose correctly and make adjustments that lead to great looking photos.

While my best recommendation for you is to pick up a few books dedicated to portrait posing, as I can't go through every step here, I can give you a few pointers to help you get started.

For individual portraits, straight on shots or profile position are least attractive. The best poses tend to have your subject facing the camera at a angle. Have your subject stand placing his or her body at a 45-degree angle to the camera. Then, have that person turn the head past a angle, so he or she is facing the camera head on. Using this pose, you can then shoot at eye level, above or below to create different effects.

Individual portrait example
Photo by Martin SoulStealer. Image source

For group shots, symmetry is key. A great way to pose group of three or four people is to place them in a triangle position. If one person is the tallest, have that person stand in the middle and the other two on either side. If the other two people are really short they could even stand in front of the tallest person. For a family of four, it's very appealing to have the mother and father sitting with the children on their laps.

Group portrait example
Photo by Martin SoulStealer. Image source

Regardless of shooting individual or group portraits, the key is to make sure everyone looks comfortable. Posing should look natural and not stiff. If someone does look uncomfortable find a way to fix it; otherwise, their discomfort will show through in the photo.

Tip #3: Shoot Looser Than You Think

Although we live in a mostly digital world these days, you'll find that most of your clients will want to print copies of their portraits and frame them to be display in their homes. Because of this reason, you will want to shoot looser framing than you think. If you shoot too tight of a framing in camera, it may ruin which choices your clients have to print.

You would be surprised how much a difference there is between a 5x7, 8x10, and 11x14-sized prints. Each size has a different amount of leeway on the horizontal and vertical planes. A photo may look perfect in an 11x14 frame, but when the client tries to resize it to fit a 5x7 frame, some unflattering cropping may occur.

When capturing portraits, you should always shoot a looser framing and allow visual padding around your subjects. This will allow any size print to be framed without the fear of cropping off limbs or hairlines to fix a specific size. Finding out later that you did not allow enough padding can be a nightmare when dealing with unhappy clients, and it usually results in a costly reshoot or huge discount off the session. So, avoid this at all costs.

Tip #4: Use Your Smile as an Advantage

You'll find that most people are very nervous about having their portraits taken. This discomfort often comes through the photograph in the form of stiff or cheesy smiles. As a portrait photographer, your goal is to capture images of natural smiling people. It makes a better portrait.

One of the tricks I use to pull real smiles out of clients is to smile myself. People have a natural tendency to return a smile with a smile. Before I snap a picture, I usually lower the camera, so that the person can see my face, and I say, "Alright, give me a big smile this time!" while smiling myself. It works almost every time!

Another trick is not to be afraid to be goofy and fun, even if you have to make a fool of yourself. This is especially important when photographing children. Make noises, play peek-a-boo, or put silly hats on your head. Do anything to make your client laugh! At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what they think of you – it's that you capture beautiful and natural looking photos.

Tip #5: Always Be Prepared

This may sound like common sense, but you'd be surprised how often we need to be reminded of this tip. Nothing screams unprofessional more than a photographer who has to set up his lighting equipment or make major adjustments while the client is sitting there. Do this ahead of time, so you can focus on the portraits at hand. Equipment should be prepared well ahead of time.

If you are taking portraits outdoors, always try to find a spot that gives you at least 30 minutes of good lighting. You'd be surprised how fast the lighting can change on a location. Shadows can shift and ruin the light cast on your subject or the background, so try to scout it out beforehand. Also, make sure you have plenty of back up batteries, memory cards, and the necessary flash units.

Tip #6: Props Can Help Add to the Shot

Not all portraits have to have the person staring at the camera with their hands clasped or under their chin. In fact, adding props and things that the subject enjoys help make the photos more memorable.

If your subject loves basketball, have him or her bring a basketball with them to hold in the shots. If the person plays an instrument, include that in the portrait. If the person loves his or her dog, consider taking some shots with the person playing with their pet.

Using props: basketball Using props: cello
Photo by Robert McPherren. Image source
Photo by Muriel Jordan . Image source

Tip #7: Use a 50mm Lens (At Least for Some Shots)

The 50mm prime lens is considered one of the best lenses for portrait photography. Since it's a prime lens, it will have a wide aperture setting that allows you to create shallow depth of field for your photos. If you don't already own a 50mm lens, it is highly recommended that you get one.

One of the other advantages of a 50mm lens is that it takes photos most realistic to the human eye. They are not too compressed (which happens with a telephoto lens) or too distorted (which is often the case with a wide-angle lens). I recommend that you start your portrait session using this lens to get the "safe" style of shots. Then, after a while, you can introduce telephoto and wide-angle lenses to create different effects. This ensures that if your client is not too fond of the stylistic approach you took during the session, he or she will at least be happy with the standard photos created by the 50mm lens.

Tip #8: Pay Attention to the Details

This is a very important tip. Before starting your portrait session, make sure to look your client over from head to toe to make sure nothing on his or her body or clothing is out of place or messed up. If so, fix it. For example, is the man's tie square and tight to the neck, does a child have dirt on his or her cheek, is a person's shirt missing a button, is there something distracting in the person's hair, etc.

Once that is done, make sure to do a double check when looking through the viewfinder. You'd be surprised how many times the littlest things can be overlooked, like a stray hair jutting out from the head, glasses being on crooked, shoes untied, etc.

Not everything can be fixed in post-production without tremendous amounts of work, so make sure you fix any flaws while on location.

Tip #9: Don't Practice with Your Clients

I wish someone had share with me this tip when I first started taking portraits. When I first started out, I didn't have a lot of clients, so I used each session I booked to practice my skills. I didn't really know what I was doing, so I would have the person perform multiple poses and shoot them from many angles. Many times, I also went over our allotted session time and informed them that the extra time was free if they would stay just to try new shots.

Thinking back to those times makes me wish I could go back and kick myself. While I thought it was fun and a good learning experience, I later learned from my clients that they thought it was very unprofessional of me to act that way. Your clients are paying customers. In exchange for payment, they expect you to know what you are doing and not waste their time. Acting as I did when I first started screams out amateur and is not good for business. Instead, you should spend as much free time as possible practicing your portrait photography using family and friends to act as your models. During this time you can experiment, try new things, and learn which types of shots look the best. The lessons learned through these free sessions are invaluable and will prepare you for smooth and happy paying client sessions.

Tip #10: Have Fun!!! Enjoy what you do. It will show in the portraits you capture.

At the core, portrait photography is just any other type of photography. If you're not having fun while you're doing it, your photos will reflect it. While all of these tips I've given you above will help you to become a better portrait photographer, always remember the most important thing is to have fun during your sessions.

If you're stressed out or nervous during a session, your subject most likely won't feel at ease during the shoot. This will reflect badly in your portraits. Having fun will put your subjects at ease and help you to focus on getting the best shots possible.

So, enjoy and have fun!

Guest writer: Stephen Hockman

Stephen Hockman lives and breathes photography. He is an author, blogger, and business owner with a passion for teaching other photographers how to take amazing photographs. You can find more of his articles at FreeDigitalPhotographyTutorials.com or hanging out at ShutterPals.com.

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