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20 Fast Tips for Portrait Photography

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This post is part of a series called How to Shoot Perfect Portraits.
Phil Sharp: Having Eyes for Portraits
Getting Great Skin Without Photoshop

I love portrait photography. I'm sure many of you do, too. However, doing a great portrait is one of the most challenging kinds of photography out there. So, here are 20 tips that will help you take better portraits and improve your workflow.

You need to be concerned with lighting, composition, and other technicalities, but also expressing the subject's character and your own creative vision. With these tips, I hope you find a process that works for you.


1. Henri Cartier-Bresson

Cartier-Bresson is the iconic photographer of the decisive moment. No matter how much control you have in a portrait session, clicking the shutter at the right time, when all the elements are in place, is essential. In addition to that you must, "… put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt." (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

This isn't a passport or driver's license photo. It's a portrait.


2. Pose from the Ground Up

A good portrait pose, be it a headshot, partial or full-body, starts with the feet. If your subject's feet and legs are not set in the right manner, then the rest of the structure goes out-of-whack.

A good rule-of-thumb is to have your subject place their weight on the rear leg and turn 3/4 from the camera's position. Also, have your subject flare their elbows away from the body a little to thin-out their silhouette.


Good posing helps shape the figure and maximize your lighting. Bad posing adds those 10lbs everyone talks about. (Photo by Daniel Sone)

3. Don't Forget the Hands

Squaring up the hands to the camera presents a flat slab of meat to the camera, even if you adjust your lighting. If the photo is about the hands, squaring them is less interesting. Not even photographs of boxers do it. Present more of the edge of the hand and use angles to make them pleasing. Your female clients will appreciate it.


4. Stick Your Neck Out

As photographers, we work in a 2D space, so making something look as 3D as possible is both important and a challenge. Help your image by having your client elongate their neck and tilt their head in such a way that they have a jaw line. This helps your light shape the face and create some separation between the head and neck.


I rolled out of bed and snapped these two shots on my webcam. Notice the dramatic difference of moving/tilting my head just a few inches.

5. When in Doubt, Rembrandt it Out

Classic and simple, Rembrandt's "high and 45" lighting works for a ton of people. This is lighting set-up I use when I have no time, don't know what the client looks like beforehand, or other "in a pinch" situations. Just put the light at the 45 degree angle to the subject on both the horizontal and vertical planes.

I suggest learning this technique well and with a variety of modifiers so you can achieve a classic look in no time with a single light (flash, constant, or window).


Editorial and fashion photographer, Victoria Will Jackson, shows an example of Rembrandt-style lighting at a workshop. Just a single light with a black backdrop. (Photo by Daniel Sone)

6. An Ounce of Prevention Equals a Pound of Cure

This is a planning-phase tip. Have a good, clear plan and clear, cheerful communication with your client, venue management, and other vendors who may be involved. Bring back-ups of the equipment you'll be using and factor it into your pricing. That way, if a flash, batteries, or camera goes down it is just a minor hiccup and not a shoot-ender.


7. Get Some Help

I usually work solo on most jobs, but I have learned the value of having help on shoots that require more gear or logistics. Just having someone hold a reflector or light stand in place on a windy day, or keep track of the names of people you're shooting is beneficial. You can concentrate on your expertise better if you don't have to worry about so many other little things.


Something as simple holding a reflector can be a huge help to a photographer. (Photo by Daniel Sone)

8. Know Your Depth-of-Field (DoF)

You don't need to know exactly how many inches of acceptable sharpness from the plane of focus exists at 8 feet at f/3.5 on a 100mm lens, but you should have a good idea of how each lens treats a common f-stop.

You also should know how camera-to-subject distance affects your DoF so you can mimick longer or shorter lenses by adjusting your distance. This experience is also useful with extreme close-ups with very fast lenses where the DoF is very thin.


9. Eliminate Distracting Backgrounds

A portrait, even an environmental portrait, is about your subject. A distracting background element is a big "no no" in portraiture as it draws the eye away from your subject.

The human eye is attracted to bright colors, text, and human-like shapes. It is better to keep them out of the frame than it is to decrease your DoF or retouch them out. Also, don't have poles, trees, and the like "growing" out of your subject's head. It defeats that 3D feel.


10. Angle of Incidence = Angle of Reflectance

Remember this whenever you're dealing with glossy or reflective surfaces like eye glasses, polished furniture, and windows. You can use these hot spots to your advantage, but many times they're just distracting - breaking the illusion or connection you've created.

Place your camera outside the reflected angle, move your lights, or move your subject to help defeat or reduce the glare on those glasses.


Even though I was using gridded strip boxes, I had my main light nearly perpendicular to my camera's angle to move the reflection as far from the eye as I could. (Photo by Daniel Sone)

You can also switch to a larger, softer light source to make any remaining glare more pleasing if you simply cannot rid yourself of it.


11. Ratio to Taste

Adjust your lighting (contrast) ratios according to your subject and the objective of your session. These differences can be achieved by adjusting the power of your lights, their harshness, distance or angle, your camera's settings, and a few other things. Adjusting your lighting contrast changes the appearance and even the message you are trying to convey.


Notice the dramatic change in contrast ratios as well as the overall mood simply by changing the positioning of the lights. You can also see how the contouring of the face changes too. (Photo by Daniel Sone)

12. The Eyes Have It

If doing a portrait of a person or animal, make sure their eyes have life in them. "Dead" eyes are usually monotonously lit and without that specular highlight we usually see. Even if your goal is to convey a dead, empty look, getting light correctly into the eye is crucial. The shape, size, and position of the specular highlight in the eyes is important.


This close-up shows the specular highlight from the main light. Notice how it doesn't cut into the pupil. (Photo by Daniel Sone)

13. Have an Emergency Kit

I don't mean a first-aid kit with bandages and sterilized gauze, but one for your client's cosmetic needs. We won't always have a make-up artist or hair-stylist on hand for the portrait, so bring with you a few things that could prove very helpful especially when on-location.

Bring a small cosmetic mirror, hair ties or bobby pins, facial tissue, disposable haircomb, and even unscented hypoallergenic baby wipes to a shoot. With these you/your subject can blot away shiny foreheads and noses, fix hair, and even refresh themselves on hot days.


She was grateful I had a small mirror and comb on hand to fix the frizzes caused by the hot, humid breeze. Her make-up kit was in the car, over 75 yards away. (Photo by Daniel Sone)

14. Have Another Emergency Kit

A small first-aid kit isn't a terrible idea either, especially if you're shooting on-location like a park or the woods. I bring bug repellant and insect bite cream too. For my gear, I bring plastic bags (in case of rain), bungee ties, and gaffer's tape. Keep it compact especially if you're working alone.


15. Not Here is Not Here

Even if you have all day with your subject, wasting time isn't fun for anyone. Having your gear, especially a lens, flash, or stand in the car is almost like not having it at all. You now have to stop everything and run out to get it. That could take a lot of time you usually don't have. Being prepared isn't just about having what you need it's about having it on-hand when you need it.


16. Contracts and Permits, Have Them

Clients expect photographers to be magicians, especially when they think everything is a simple fix with Photoshop. Whenever you're doing a job, have a clear contract that also includes what kind of retouching you'll do and how long it will take. Factor that into your pricing.

Make sure you have the proper permissions and permits to be shooting where you're shooting. Even some public parks require permits to use their grounds for professional photography or other uses outside "normal use" (whatever that means). You may need multiple permits from multiple deptartments/jurisdictons if your shoot requires various locations or space.

Oh, and have the contract signed before work begins.


17. Have Model Releases

Aside from the contract, it is handy to have your subject sign a release form especially if their image may be used for another purpose. You will also want the venue to sign off on the use of their property. That way, on top of the contract, everyone is agreed and clear on what is going on.


18. Have a Personality

If you have the personality of a house plant, you're not going to get anyone enthusiastic about the session, especially if the subject or client doesn't understand or care much for your craft or why they're spending time and money on it.

You also won't get the expressions and cooperation you'll need when the time comes. Be friendly, empathetic, and purposeful. And if you run into that CEO-type that could care less, act like a good leader. I've gotten people who only had "5 minutes" to stick with me for half an hour, enjoy it, and be happy about the break in their routine.


19. Master the Rules, then Break Them

The rule of thirds, the golden spiral, exposing right-of-center, blah blah blah. These are things you need to master before you can break them and still make a great photograph. Otherwise, your images will just look foolish, even to the untrained eye.

There is no absolute right or wrong way of doing a portrait, but there is a right and wrong way breaking the rules that govern them. Essentially, you still want to look cool being an "unlawful" photographer.


20. K.I.S.S.

Keep It Simple, Stupid (K.I.S.S.). The "KISS" rule is a lot like Murphy's Law. Don't ignore it. In fact, KISS and Murphy's Law are exceptions to tip #19. Keep your concepts and gear setups as simple as you can.

If your equipment or assistants are getting in the way, then they are obstacles to your success. A lot of the best portraits are taken with minimal gear (camera, lens, natural light). So, don't think you're gonna need latest and greatest and most gear to pull it off. Keep it simple and it will be a more pleasant and successful experience for you and your client.


Baking sheet and aluminum foil. One light in a living room. Rembrandt style. Stupidly simple. (Photo by Daniel Sone)

Remember These Tips on Your Next Shoot

Remember these 20 tips on the next portrait you do. Some of them are big ones that will directly affect your images while others are more workflow that will improve your efficiency and care you demonstrate to your client. All in all these will help you become a better portrait photographer.

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