Tips for Better Portrait Photography

There are a few techniques that help with taking portraits, and I’m going to share some of those tips with you today. Lighting, composition, camera settings and your lens are the right places to start when you begin to take pictures of people. Without good lighting and a good portrait lens, your portrait photography can be less than stunning.

Photographing the eyes, skin tone, and facial expression are the key essentials that make up a good portrait of somebody. The beauty of portrait photography is that you can take candid photos, as opposed portraits shot in professional photography studios. Someone’s cheery facial expression combined with high-quality lighting and a good lens can be key ingredients to successful portraits.

baby portrait

“Alina” captured by Justin (Click image to see more from Justin.)

You can shoot portraits outdoors or inside, even if you do not have a professional photography studio. I have taken many photographs of clients in many situations.

So what are these diverse places and situations? I have shot photos of people performing on stage, collecting citizenship certificates from the mayor, reading underneath a tree in a garden, celebrating birthdays, taking vows of marriage, and smiling at loved ones when they didn’t know they were being photographed. All of these separate situations make up portrait photography. So let’s begin…

What Is The Best Lighting for Portrait Photos?

Let’s start with the most significant element in portrait photography. Lighting will either make or break your portrait. You need exactly the right amount of lighting to highlight the person you’re photographing.

Lighting also affects mood and feeling. When you opt for lighting that is soft and dim, it may create a more romantic feeling. Lighting that is very bright and high in contrast is ideal for sports portrait photography. If you want to create a romantic sentiment in your shots, think about softening your light. Creating gentle light can make portrait photography more interesting.

Choose lighting that is well-matched to the situation. Wedding photography that has filtered lighting can work very well. However, if you are photographing kids in the park, you may want to choose a bright and colourful lighting effect. Something that is vivid and vibrant can represent happiness and liveliness. A sense of fun can be enhanced by the right lighting.

child portraiture

“Amigos” captured by Mayo Stoppels (Click image to see more from Stoppels.)

So what about situations where lighting is poor? I have been in many situations where there has been almost no light, and I have not been able to use the flash. In these situations you may want to turn your ISO up to the highest setting. If you can use your flash, do it.

outdoor portrait photography

“Jelly @ 18” captured by Jheuz Marcoh (Click image to see more from Marcoh.)

Don’t stand close to the person you’re photographing and fire the flash at the same time. Depending on the type of flash unit you have, you can control the intensity of light being fired. If you stand too close to the person, you’ll overexpose the features on his or her face and produce small, bright areas of light on the cheekbones and nose. No matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to remove these flaws easily in Photoshop.

If you are creating photos of someone at a party at night-time, and the flash is the only source of light you have, make sure you stand back from the person. Any closer than three meters may overexpose the person. You also don’t want to blast them with an eye full of extreme, dazzling light. I prefer to shoot with a long telephoto lens and use the flash simultaneously. I like to stand back, zoom in, and increase my flash up to the maximum intensity. Whenever I’ve done this, I have found that I have nice light over the person’s features.

Bouncing the flash is a great method for enhancing portrait photography. To bounce the flash, you twist the head of the flash up to the ceiling or toward a wall and allow the light to reflect from that source back to the person. Bounced light is softer and thought to be better for portraits. It is a wonderful way to get better portraits at weddings, birthdays, and other celebrations.

Always remember that your lighting must be well-balanced. You need soft lighting over your subject’s face to create an appealing portrait. Even if you have the best lens and camera in the world, it won’t help you at all unless you have the light spread evenly across the person’s features. This emphasizes the eyes and smile.

Colour Portrait Photography

family portrait

“Eddiehausens” captured by Stacey Russell (Click image to see more from Russell.)

The secret to colour portrait photography is, of course, your lighting but also colour matching. For example, if you want to generate a beautiful colour portrait, you not only want to expose the light in a good way, but you want to make sure the colours match.

Colour portrait photography is successful when all the colours complement each other within the image. If you want to create a colour portrait that is striking, choose colours that go well with the person’s skin tone. Let’s take the example of a woman with blond hair, light skin, and green eyes. If you were to dress her in black it might not look good on her at all. However, earthy green, light pink, blue, and purple might suit her complexion. Someone who has black hair, dark skin and brown eyes may look best in other colours.

If you’re photographing a group of people, it often looks nice to dress people in either the same or similar colours. A family photographed on the beach might look nice all dressed in white, blue, and yellow. It doesn’t have to be the same white, blue, and yellow, but if you keep with the same colour theme, you will begin to create stunning portraits.

Camera Settings for Portraits

It is rather tough to recommend ideal camera settings for portraits. You see, digital camera settings are the way they are because of the lighting that you have to work with. If I advise you that f/14 and a shutter speed of 1/80 of a second is the best setting, your portrait could come out terribly if you are photographing people at night time with the flash.

However, I can tell you that your aperture has a huge impact on your portraits. If you are creating photos of someone up close and want to blur the background, I suggest you use a wide aperture. An aperture of f/4 might be a good place to start. When you zoom into someone’s face and use a big aperture, you may see that the background is totally blurry. This works well when there are distracting subjects in the environment that you want to remove. It works very well when you just want to capture on the person’s eyes.

portrait photography

“Farmer, Kim Son, Vietnam” captured by Thomas Jeppesen (Click image to see more from Jeppesen.)

So what about shutter speed? Again it depends on the lighting you have to work with. It also depends on whether you are taking candid portraits or you are shooting posed portraits. The difference will be the amount of speed and movement. Candid portraiture be tricky in low light, and this can create difficulty in getting the precise shutter speed. The camera may be telling you that it wants you to slow down the shutter speed. However, you know that if you do, you will completely blur the person. And that may not be ideal for the setting.

If you are photographing in studio lighting, these things are not going to be a big setback. You still need to watch your shutter speed, because even the smallest movement at a slow shutter speed can create out of focus pictures. Decide on a shutter speed that is quite fast so that you will not have to be anxious about blur from any movement.

The camera settings for portraits are not a black-and-white topic. You need to work out the right camera settings for the light you have to work with. As I mentioned, portrait photography covers a wide range of areas and conditions, so it is ideal that everything is well exposed and that you have a shutter speed to match the movement.

Which Is the Right Lens for Portrait Photography?

Being a professional photographer means I have many lenses. I have many lenses because it gives me the ability to be adaptable in each situation. This does not mean that you have to rush out and acquire different lenses yourself. I recommend trying out portraits with one lens so that you get comfortable with how your lens works for portrait shots.

Different lenses produce different effects. A 50mm fixed focal length lens is a good focal length for portrait photography. You can get up close to someone without making their nose look too huge as a wide angle can sometimes do. In fact, I suggest staying away from wide-angle lenses for your portrait photography. You have to be able to get a good head and shoulders shot, medium crop, or good vertical length shot. You can achieve this using a couple of lenses.

head shot portrait

“Umbrella Jackie” captured by Tracy DePaola (Click image to see more from DePaola.)

My favourite portrait lens is the 70-200mm Canon telephoto lens. I am a Canon user, however, I have used Nikon in the past and found both of them excellent. Nikon also has a 70-200mm telephoto lens that I found excellent. At this focal length you can take remarkable candid portraits, and you can also use this lens to take clear studio shots. You almost certainly don’t need a focal length that is so long if you are working in the studio. Your 50-70mm range will probably do quite fine.

Why do I like 70-200mm? It gives me the versatility of zooming in quite close up to someone, and it also gives me the flexibility to take candid shots in social situations. I find the flexibility and adaptability of this focal range very clever indeed. I know photographers that take a couple of cameras to a wedding because they have numerous lenses that they want to utilize. I find the 70-200mm range does the job just fine.

These are pricey lenses. This is a professional capability lens so I propose becoming very familiar with the lens you have before buying something like this. I also have a 24-105mm lens that works very well for portrait photography. I only prefer to use the 70-200mm since I do candid shots. Having that additional focal length of 200mm lets me to get a little bit closer than I could with a 105mm.

I have also taken portraits with the 50mm lens that have worked superbly. However, I can’t really use this lens in a candid situation. I simply can’t get in close enough without being noticed. When I have done animal portraits and ordinary human portraits, I found that the 50mm prime lens was a clear lens to use. The 50mm prime lens is sharp and clear for posed portraits up close.

In a nutshell, I would have to say that lens choice is dependent on the sort of portrait photography you are doing.

Creative Portrait Photography Ideas

There are lots of creative portrait photography ideas that you can use easily. Here are a few ideas that you can use:

Candid Portraiture

  • talking over lunch or dinner
  • watching boats at a marina
  • playing with the cat
  • feeding the ducks at the local creek or pond
  • sitting on the riverbank
  • doing an activity they like, perhaps painting, playing a sport, etc.
candid portrait

“Laura B/W” captured by Gary Vernon (Click image to see more from Vernon.)

Posed Portraiture

  • leaning on a beautiful old tree and looking at the camera
  • relaxing on a park bench with stunning leaves behind them
  • enjoying nature all around them
  • sitting with their child, both looking at the camera

Don’t forget to add black and white into the mix. Black and white portraits provide a beautiful, timeless look. And, in a basic sense, everybody looks great in black and white. When you come to your post processing, reduce a little of the mid-tones, boost your contrast, and you will have a good black and white photo.

These are just some ideas that you can use to produce lovely, inventive portraiture. You will find that the more you do it, the more easily creative ideas come. It really is just a matter of preparation and application. You will be successful in no time.

Just remember that the key to taking sharp portraits is good lighting, knowledge of camera technique, awareness of camera settings for the light, and comfort with people.

About the Author:
Amy Renfrey writes for DigitalPhotographySuccess.com. She’s photographed many things from famous musicians (Drummers for Prince and Anastasia) to weddings and portraits of babies. Amy also teaches photography online to her students.

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