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  • August 27, 2018
  • 22 min to read

10 Things You Need to Know Before Taking Portraits

10 Things You Need to Know Before Taking Portraits

You Too Can Take Great Portraits!

Do you want to learn how to take great photos of your kids or your friends? Do you see amazing portrait photography and want to achieve a similar skill level? 

Portrait photography doesn’t have to be complicated or even tricky. With a few simple tips and tricks, you too can achieve those great portraits that you see other photographers do. With a little preparation and some simple rules to take into account, you can take those amazing portraits of your family and friends that you want. 

Let’s take a look at a few things to think about when setting out to do some portraits. You don’t need fancy equipment or expensive studio equipment, you can use whatever you have available and make the most of it. 

1. Prepare Your Portrait Models

Preparing your models ahead of time will definitely give you more professional looking results. Guide your models on what to wear and how to style their look. Ask your model to wear clothing that does not contain loud prints or graphics. This can distract the attention to the clothing and not the model. They must keep their own personal style obviously, but should not wear anything off-putting. Heavy jewelry and too much makeup will also sidetrack the viewer’s attention away from the subject. 

If you are shooting a family or a group of people, try to coordinate the clothing so that there is kind of a flow throughout the models’ looks. They don’t have to necessarily match their clothing as this can look a little fake, but choosing harmonizing colors will soften the overall look of the photo and keep the attention where it should be, on the subjects! 

Helpful tip: Casual outside family portraits look great when the family members are wearing denim bottoms and light colored tops. Another interesting color option is having your subjects wear black & white clothing. This can be a good idea for a couple portrait session.

2. Light! 

If you are shooting inside, make sure that you have plenty of light. Remember, photography is all about light so if there isn’t sufficient lighting available your portraits will look amateur. You can choose natural light if there are enough windows to provide the light that you need. If not, you can use other sources of light that you have handy in the house. 

Make sure that the lighting is soft and does not create heavy shadows on your subjects faces. Play around with the lighting until you achieve a look where all the subjects are well lit in a natural looking way and they don’t have shadows on their faces.

If you choose to shoot outside, try not to shoot midday as this is the harshest light. Shooting in the middle of the day will create dark shadows on your subjects faces. Not very attractive! The best times are during the golden hour just before sunset or early in the morning when the sun is creating long and soft shadows. 

Using a reflector to direct the light onto your subject can help. This can be a white cardboard or any other white material that will direct light. Aluminum foil can be used as a good reflector as well. You will also need an assistant if you choose to use a reflector. This is part of the planning. 

Helpful tip: Achieving “catchlights” in your subjects’ eyes will definitely put you up there with the pros! Many reflecting materials directed towards the subject’s eyes will create this interesting element in the eyes. Experiment and see the dimension and interest you can create in the eyes. The eyes are the windows to the soul!

3. Make Your Subjects Feel Comfortable 

This is crucial if you want to have a pleasant experience, both for you and your models. If you are photographing your children, you obviously already have a bond and you should always make them feel at ease. Shoot them in their natural environment so that you get more natural looking portraits. Try to make it fun for them and try to avoid stressing them out and you will get those beautiful smiles and happy smiling eyes. 

If your model is not a close family member or friend, take some time to talk with them before starting to shoot. You will be amazed at how much this relaxes them and makes them more comfortable with you. Never start shooting straight away without having some interaction with your subject. Try to connect with them before pointing the camera at them and they will feel more relaxed during the shoot. Also, keep talking to them while you are shooting, reminding them that you are behind the camera.

Helpful tip: If you plan to shoot children, have some props and toys on hand to keep them entertained and engaged with you.

4. Environment 

You want to keep the attention on your subject, obviously. Choose an environment that does not have distracting elements or features. Always be aware of your background to make sure that there isn’t anything that you don’t want in your portraits. Nothing says amateur like a portrait with a garbage pail sitting in the background. 

Helpful tip: It’s important to prepare your setting in advance. It’s easy to direct all your attention on the subject while shooting and to not think about looking around. Do a little staging before you start shooting.  

5. Position Yourself

We tend to stand in our regular upright position when taking photographs. This can create boring photos and can even ruin a portrait shooting session. Try to get on a different level to give an interesting dimension and angle to your portraits. If you are shooting children, get down to their level so that you don’t look too imposing and your photos look more natural. 

Angles will make a big impact on your final portrait images. If you shoot your subject from above and have them look up at you, they will look soft and friendly. If you want to achieve more powerful and imposing portraits, try shooting your model from a slightly lower angle, having them look down at you. 

Helpful tip: It’s always a good idea to wear comfortable clothing that you won’t mind getting a little dirty. You will perhaps be bending in different positions and possibly kneeling on the ground.

6. Experiment with Black & White Portraits

This always creates more dramatic and intense portraits. Not all shots will provide good black & white portraits, but take a look at your images after the shoot and choose the ones where your model looks more reflective or moody. Some cameras provide the option of shooting in black & white, but you can always convert your photos post shoot in an editing software like Photolemur.

7. A Little Technical Stuff

Knowing a few basic technicalities about camera settings and how to use them during portrait photography can help you achieve better results. 

  • Exposure Compensation

This is your camera’s metering system that enables it to take well exposed images. If you dial one stop up +1, your model’s skin with look brighter. 

  • Wide Aperture

You know those dreamy photos with the blurred background? These make great portraits! You can also achieve this by using a smaller f-stop number (wide aperture) f2.4-f4.5. The smaller the f-stop number on your camera the shallower the depth of field, thus creating the blurry backgrounds. Make sure you focus directly on your model, preferably the eyes.

  • Fast Shutter Speed

Use the fastest shutter speed you can to prevent blurry images. Shooting in aperture priority is actually a good idea. Let the camera choose the shutter speed while you keep control of the f-stop number.

  • ISO

If the environment is slightly dark, raise the ISO on your camera to help with the exposure. But remember that the higher the ISO number, the more chances of getting grainy images. 

  • Lenses

Your choice of lens will definitely affect your final outcome. If you have a DSLR with interchangeable lenses, try using a prime lens like a 50mm or an 85mm lens at the smallest f-stop number it can achieve. Telephoto lenses like 70-200mm at a small f-stop number can also take amazing portraits!

8. Get Creative

Who said that your subject needs to be smack in the middle of the image. Experiment with different compositions during your photo shoot. If there is an interesting background that is not too distracting, try putting your model off to the side of the photo. The rule-of-thirds can easily apply to portrait photography as well. Just make sure not to distract the attention of the viewer. You want the subject to be the focal point of your image.

There is no magic formula to achieve good portraits. Try different things and look at what other photographers are doing to get inspiration. Have fun with the poses and the different types of environments and settings. 

Helpful Tip: Have fun and experiment, but remember not to get too wild. The attention should always be on the subject and the eyes should always be the most important element in the photos.

9. Use Props

This is especially useful when photographing children or babies. Use toys, blankets, hats, or any other prop that will make your portraits interesting. Adults will also feel more comfortable if they are holding something or if they have somewhere to put their hands. 

10. Direct Your Models

Remember that you are shooting a regular person and not a professional model. They most probably will not know what to do or how to place themselves. Your job is to make them as comfortable as possible to get the best out of them. You want your portraits to capture the person’s individual essence and personality. 

Research some poses online and prepare for the type of poses you will want your model to take. Go over these poses before you start to shoot by showing them some examples of what they can do with their hands and other important things to remember during the shoot.

Also, while you are shooting make sure to express to your model what angle you want them to be in and how you want them to look at you. 

Helpful Tip: Having your model sit will provide them with more comfort and your portraits will look more natural.

Experiment and Practice

You probably took up photography because you wanted to take great family portraits, right? Maybe you bought a DSLR with a few lenses and now you’re sitting there wondering why you aren’t getting those amazing portraits that you dreamed of. Having the best equipment is not the most important thing when doing portrait photography. Many elements will affect your final results and keeping these in mind will give you better chances to achieve great portraits. Remember that preparation is very important when doing portrait photography.  

Scout your setting beforehand and keep the time of day in mind. Try to keep the attention on your model and not on some distracting features like bright clothing or unwanted background elements. The eyes are key when doing portraits and keep your focus on them during the entire shoot. 

The most important thing is to make your subjects feel at ease and comfortable in their setting. Portrait photography can easily be unsuccessful if the people in the photos look awkward and flash fake smiles. Work on your rapport with the model and build some kind of bond before pointing the camera at them. Also try to capture candid shots while you crack jokes and make them laugh. 

Experimenting and practicing are your best options to raise your portrait photography skills. Try to choose subjects that you know very well at first and ask them to be patient as you get to know your camera better and learn how to apply some of these helpful tips and tricks that we mentioned here in this article.

Don’t get discouraged if you don’t accomplish those amazing portraits at first, keep trying and learning from your mistakes and you will definitely see your skills get better in time.

Most of all, have fun!

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