10 Techniques for Amazing Portraits
Tips from an experienced Wedding Photographer on Portrait Photography
A guest post by San Diego Wedding Photographer, Wayne Yuan
As full-time photographers shooting 30+ weddings a year, we have to admit, sometimes it’s easy to fall into the same old formulas when it comes to portraits. Even with new poses, taking portraits can become very mundane if the same compositions and angles are used for every couple–we’ve definitely been through that creative rut where our pictures start looking very familiar. Throughout the years, we’ve challenged ourselves to stay on top of our game with a few useful techniques. Here are some of our best tips to help keep things fresh and unique for each couple.
1. Use a longer lens.
A lot of photographers out there say that their 50mm is a “must-have” portrait lens, but what a mid-range lens offers is a very familiar perspective, something that our eyes are used to seeing all the time. To create a more interesting image, we avoid shooting portraits in mid-range because the images look too ordinary. Most of our portraits are shot at 200mm or 85mm to create beautiful image compression that a 50mm would not be able to produce. The compression will not only flatter your subjects with less feature distortion, but shooting at a longer focal length will also create more dramatic background blur (bokeh) and brings the background closer to your subject. It may be more difficult to communicate with your subjects while shooting at 200mm, but the difference will be apparent and well worth it. Our solution to this problem was to have one of us interact with our couples at close range while the other shoots from a distance.
2. Find angles that aren’t eye level.
Many times we are stuck seeing what is right in front of us. It is, after all, the easiest answer to everything. Challenge yourself to find a different angle from above or below eye-level to bring a new perspective to the image. This technique can also be used to flatter subjects of different body types and heights. In the image below, we asked the bride to sit on the ground in order to focus on her face and hair ornament while blurring out the rest of her body. It makes a more interesting image than the typical straight-on bridal portrait.
3. Use off-camera flash.
During a wedding, our speedlites are never on-camera, even during the reception. Flash rarely flatters a person’s face when it is straight on, and the image looses its dimensionality. Using flash to light our subjects from the side, we are able to create both light and shadow on our subjects, flattering their features and bringing a greater range of highlights and shadows to the image. It also helps us bring out details in the background to create a more dramatic landscape.
4. Overpower the sun with flash.
Shooting at mid-day is no easy task when using natural light. But with some artificial lights, something as simple as a couple of speedlites can diminish the power of the sun and darken the image for better exposure. We use this technique especially when we are trying to create environmental portraits that focus on the landscape. Using our speedlites, we are able to overpower the sun and underexpose the sky while only lighting up the subject. To create this amount of artificial light, we have to use 2-4 off-camera speedlites (with no diffuser) in order to generate enough light to overpower the sun. Holding the speedlites closer to the subject (to the side) also helps put more light on the subject and allows us to underexpose the background even more for dramatic effect.
5. Find back-light.
It takes time and practice to train your eye to find great light. Once you learn how to “find the light” in any situation, it will help you master taking some amazing portraits. Lighting is, after all, the essence of photographic images. Whether you are using the sun, a window, or an ordinary light bulb, these light sources can be used to create beautiful edge light (a.k.a. hair light, rim light) when the light source is place behind your subject. The effect that rim light creates can enhance the dimension of your image by separating your subject from the background, outlining and focusing on your subject.
6. Look for silhouettes and reflections.
Learning to look for reflective surfaces and silhouetting opportunities will greatly enhance your images both visually and in depth. For silhouettes, it is key to find a strong light source and place it behind your couple; this could be anything from the sky to a window or even a patch of light on a wall. For reflections, try to be creative with the different types of reflective surfaces; sometimes, the best reflections are found in unexpected places like floors, glass, puddles, and granite walls.
7. Shoot through objects.
When objects are in our way, we like to use them to our advantage. In fact, many times we are purposely trying to find elements to place in the foreground of our image. Learning to find holes between tree branches, abstract objects, or even ordinary household items are simple, everyday things that will help enhance your images by bringing an interesting, and sometimes colorful, element to your composition. Using a longer lens will help blur out the foreground objects to frame the subjects in a more intimate way.
8. Use the sun as a light source.
It is not uncommon for photographers to avoid shooting in the sun and run for the open shade for an easier and even exposure. We covered back-lighting earlier as a solution for shooting in harsh sun-lit situations. But sunlight can also be used as a direct spotlight on your subject. By exposing for the areas directly in contact with the sun, the background and surrounding shadows will dramatically darken, drawing focus and light to your subjects. Applying this technique to different lighting situations will create varying visual effects.
9. Use video light for night portraits.
Video lights are very useful when no light source is available to light up your subject in dark situations. The great thing about video lights is that they are a constant light source so you can see what the image will look like in camera. We use LED video lights, which give us enough power to last 2+ hours. They are a great alternative to speedlites for low light situations and are quicker to adjust for dark situations.
10. Use gels on your speedlites.
Adding CTO (orange) or CTB (blue) gels to your speedlites will change the mood of your image. Sometimes shooting in an environment which is overcast and very blue, adding a CTB gel will warm up the whole environment if you adjust the white balance correctly. CTO gels can also be used to emulate sunlight.
For more examples of on how to take great images, check out our website: San Diego Wedding Photographer – Wayne Yuan
Wayne and Angela are photographers/owners of Wayne Yuan Photography. They live in San Diego and New York area, but shoot weddings worldwide.