Tips for Taking Portrait Photos of a Friend

Perhaps you can no longer count on your two hands the number of times you have been asked to take a friend or relative’s portrait…gratis. Maybe you are visiting someone for a few days and it comes up that your sister or cousin or friend needs a head shot for professional purposes…or just to use on a favorite social media site.

portrait photo tips

Image captured by PictureSocial member Grant McKinlay

“Hey, Bud…I could really use a new professional-looking head shot for my new website. Could you take a few snaps of me? It doesn’t have to be a big deal.” Sound familiar? Most professional or skilled amateur photographers are all too familiar with this kind of request.

Friend Portraits: Personal Favors Can Lead to Professional Recognition

While it might seem presumptuous to be asked to put your talent time and effort into a no earnings project, it really doesn’t have to be a huge imposition-if you know how to make the most of the available lighting, circumstances of the location, and the subject. It can even be fun and rewarding and, yes, it can even be “no big deal”.

Your subject will probably be thrilled just to have a decent photo that they can use for professional purposes or maybe just for casual web purposes. Be glad that there is such a high demand these days for high quality personal photographs. You never know when one of these freebies will lead to a well-paying gig.

So, to create the optimal casual portrait on the fly, here are a few tricks and tips to make the subject look great, to minimize common flaws in composition and exposure, and to make it as effortless as possible:

Working with What Each Photo-Shooting Situation Presents

So there you are, in the backyard or on a street corner with your best friend’s girl, trying to get her to look her best without the help of controlled lighting or professional stylist for great hair and makeup. Working with what you have is a skill that can be cultivated and can give you the kind of chops that photojournalists have learned from years in the field, so think of it as an unpaid practicum.

Making the Most of Available Natural Light

If you can choose the time, suggest later in the day when the light is mellow and can create a warm, flattering glow. Choosing to shoot just before sunset is usually good for spontaneous lighting. You can place your subject with the setting sun slightly off to the side, so that squinting into bright light is not a problem.

black and white portrait

“NYC” captured by PictureSocial member Sasha.S

This kind of situation will probably be the easiest, as the light is less intense and you don’t have to work around too many other obstacles that harsh or dull light can create. Not all situations will be ideal. You will often find yourself having to work with harsh light or obstacles in the environment, but these can be dealt with easily.

Breaking the Rules

You’ve probably heard the photographic rule: “Place the light behind your right or left shoulder.” This is a rule that should be broken. Unless you have a studio, or optimal lighting in the early-evening situation described above, it is more flattering to the subject (and easier on their eyes) to place the light behind them. This will also give the hair a nice halo effect and soften any facial shadows, while making it easier for your subject to produce a pleasant and natural expression.

Of course, there are other dilemmas that must be dealt with. For instance, you will want to put a darker background behind your subject so that the haloed hair is visible against the deeper field–possibly a mountain, the side of a building, or some dark foliage. AND you will need some tall object, just out of the frame that will offer the camera some shade.

Open sky behind you will offer a nice, even lighting to the faces and a tree, a building, or a sign under which you can position yourself, will work to block the sun from flaring into the lens. You can obtain some pretty decent shots without reflectors or extra lighting while working in this way.

Getting a good casual portrait for a friend or relative need not be a hassle or a drain on your time if you approach the task with a good camera, the right attitude, and a few professional tricks up your sleeve.

portrait of a friend

“Urban Dreamz” captured by PictureSocial member Gary Vernon

About the Author:
Lee Varis (http://www.blog.varis.com/) has worked in the field of photography for over 35 years and is widely known for his Hollywood movie posters and video covers. Lee´s creative imaging has been featured in National Geographic and Fortune magazines as well as numerous trade publications including: Photo-Electronic Imaging, Studio Photography, PC Photo, Rangefinder Magazine, Photo District News and Mac Art & Design. He conducts nationwide seminars on the finer points of digital photography and maintains close relationships with numerous hardware and software companies and is also involved in beta testing programs. He is also the president of LADIG (Los Angeles Digital Imaging Group).

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2 responses to “Tips for Taking Portrait Photos of a Friend”

  1. bikographer says:

    This is such an informative article; your articles always are!
    Thank you so much! :D

  2. Rebecca says:

    I disagree you should just take whatever photos you can for free because it might lead to a paid gig. It never leads to paid gigs, but it does often lead to more free gigs when folks realize you’re available for freebies.

    Unless it’s a VERY close relative and friend, offering up freebies constantly only diminishes the value of our profession. Why would anyone pay for a photographer at all when they can just use a friend.

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