Here are a few tips to keep in mind next time you have a portrait session:
Blur the background
When you shoot a portrait you can make the photograph more focused by using a high aperture (small f-stop) like 2.0, 2.5, or 2.8. This will cause the focus to be on the person and in turn blur out the background. This makes the viewer focus on the person and effectively removes clutter from the photo.
Also, as a bonus, this will help you shoot in lower light and thus getting sharper images. However, be aware that apertures of 1.2 – 1.8 might give you problems placing the focus correctly since it’s so narrow. So if you shoot a portrait and the focus ends up on their nose instead of their eyes (which is where you want to place the focus) it will be extremely distracting.
Always strive to remove clutter from a portrait. The environment can surely be visible and in focus if you want it to but remove cluttered backgrounds that doesn’t contribute to the photo or takes away focus from the person. Make sure the background is what it’s supposed to be—a background.
Be aware of your lighting
I prefer to be flexible than having perfect lighting as I’ve mentioned time after time again on this site. Reason being that I don’t want to miss that perfect moment. But this doesn’t mean that I always go flexible on the lights. Sometimes I do use studio lights or just create my own little studio. Either way, when it comes to lighting a subject, soft lighting tend to be more flattering and hard light tends to bring out flaws because of its harsh shadows that makes wrinkles and such pop. On that note – never, ever, photograph with a flash on top of your camera straight ahead without a second light source. Pop-up flashes are horrible and you will always benefit more from using natural light, reposition your subject, use a more light sensitive lens or just raise the ISO. Knowing light is a massive knowledge, but studying it will pay off since it’s the building block of the photograph.
Take down notes, plan the shoot, and prepare equipment before you meet with the model. If you start messing around with these things during the shoot the model will lose energy and it will look unprofessional. So figure out your theme, poses, location, equipment, and such beforehand. I personally prefer to have the shoot planned out, but more in rough drafts than in detail, so I leave some room for creativity. But I also have a backup plan in case something falls apart.
Get to know them
If they are a music artist, listen to their music and lyrics. An “ordinary” person? Call them up and chat. Get to know them. What makes them passionate? What makes them comfortable? What gives them joy? A portrait isn’t about showing a face, it’s about portraying a personality.
Most people are uncomfortable in front of a camera and to help them keep their mind off of it, I suggest that you engage them in something. Gather them around a pillar, between two walls, pose on a chair, chop wood, play some guitar, or why not ask them to sing to you? Just make sure it’s something that fits the person you’re shooting and that makes them feel passionate and comfortable.
Corny yourself up
If you are comfortable being a bit corny and energetic on the set the model will feel comfortable, too. So if you want them to scream out hard, then you better be prepared to do it yourself first.
Touch them, don’t grope them
It actually makes a model comfortable if you touch them, but only if you know how to do it. If it gets even the slightest bit intrusive s/he will be uncomfortable, and that’s just not good. Things you can do are to walk up to them, remove a hair from their face, adjust a collar—something small, and it doesn’t even have to be real. What you do is show that you want them to look good, and touching another person, when done right, creates a very strong connection and a sense of trust. I cannot go into the details of how to touch here, but a post about this might show up in the future.
It’s in the people skills
And finally the most powerful tip to shooting awesome portraits: it’s in your people skills. There is one single thing that every great portrait photographer knows how to do and that is to make the subject relax and feel comfortable. What your subject feels will shine through. I cannot emphasize that enough. So if the model is feeling uncomfortable it WILL be visible in the final picture. Work on your people skills and your portraits will come out better no matter what technology you use.
About the Author:
This article was written by Mikael Cedergren, fine art photographer.
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