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15 Common Portrait Mistakes to Avoid

Creating portraits is challenging for many photographers, for many different reasons. There can be so much involved in making a portrait of someone that it’s easy to make mistakes.

To make great portraits you need to be concentrating on more than just your camera settings. (I believe this is true for all photography.) You have to make sure the lighting is right, the background is suitable and wardrobe and props are on hand if needed. Most of all, you must give your attention to the person you are photographing.

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Juggling all this is not easy, especially when you have little or no experience.

Practising taking portraits of someone you know, who enjoys being photographed, is a fabulous way to gain experience. Working with the same person for more than one or two portrait sessions will help you develop the skills you need.

As you begin you will most likely make some or all of these common portrait mistakes. Being aware of them can help you avoid making them.

1. Poor composition

The most common portrait mistake I see people on our workshops making with portraits is leaving too much space above the subjects head. Emptiness above someone usually does nothing for the look and feel of the photo.

Unless there’s significant information above a person, crop in more tightly to the top of their head.

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2. Distracting background

Having too much detail in focus behind your subject can draw attention away from them. Be careful about how you position your subject.

Also, make your lens choice thoughtfully. Using a longer lens will reduce the amount of background in your frame.

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3. Subject too close to the background

Don’t get your subject to sit or stand right up against the background. If it’s a busy scene your subject may be overwhelmed and end up not being the main focus. Even with a fairly plain background, it’s often best if you separate your subject from it.

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4. Not enough in focus

You may be tempted to open your aperture to the widest setting so you can blur out a distracting background. Be careful doing this that you maintain enough in focus on your subject.

Blurring the background may also mean blurring your subject more than what really looks good.

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5. Out of focus eyes

If your subject has eyes, focus on them. This is one photography rule I stick to, most of the time. It’s not often a portrait with the eyes out of focus looks great.

When your subject is facing directly at the camera it’s easy to get both eyes in focus. If their head is turned to one side you need to focus on the eye closest to the camera.

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6. Slow shutter speed

People move. You need to choose a fast enough shutter speed to freeze your subject. Even if they make a slight movement it can result in a blurred photo if your shutter speed is too slow.

1/250th of a second is usually fast enough. Slower than this and you may have problems.

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7. Poor lighting

Modern cameras can take photos when there’s next to no light, so it’s easy to get it wrong.

With portraits, it’s most important to have the right lighting for the mood you want to create in your photos. Hard, high contrast lighting is not good when you want a soft, romantic looking portrait. Equally, soft light will not help you create drama in a photo of a person.

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8. Bad timing

Capturing the right expression will flatter your subject. If you don’t, they may be reluctant to let you photograph them again.

Careful timing can make or break a portrait. Waiting and watching a person’s face for the right time to press the shutter button is vital. Most people will not stare into your camera without changing their expression. You need to be ready when they look their best.

If you’re photographing someone who is blinking a lot you need to time your photos in between blinks.

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9. Not taking enough photos

You need to take plenty of photos. Not taking enough photos will frustrate you when you are editing, because you will have too few to choose from.

Try to capture a range of expressions. Don’t just sit with your camera on burst mode filling your card up with nearly identical images. Aim to create a good variety. This will please your subject as it will allow them to make their selections more easily.

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10. Taking too many photos

Finding the balance between not enough and too many photos can be difficult. This will depend a lot on your subject.

Some people will be more comfortable being photographed for a longer period of time than others. You need to be aware of this. If your subject is getting bored or agitated because you are taking too long or taking too many photos, this will show in their face. Your results will suffer for it.

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© Kevin Landwer-Johan

11. Failing to connect with your subject

Connecting well with the person you are photographing is one of the most important aspects of portraiture. So many photographers spend more time and attention connecting with their cameras. This is a big mistake during a portrait session.

Building a rapport with your subject, even if you only have a few minutes, can make the biggest impact on your resulting photos.

When your subject is relaxed with you and happy, you will get better pictures of them. Your manner and the way you interact with them is vital.

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12. Not giving your subject enough direction

Communicate clearly what your intention for the portrait session is. What type of picture does your subject want? What kind of image do they want to portray?

When you know what they want, you will know what you have to achieve. If they do not understand what you are asking them to do, show them. Put your body, hands, face, just how you want them to look and they can mimic you.

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13. Feeling like you are imposing

This is common with photographing strangers. Many street photographers prefer candid portraits because they do not want to impose on people.

Standing back with a long lens on will not often produce an intimate portrait. You need to change your thinking and consider that what you are doing when you take someone’s photo has got the potential to bless them.

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14. Not being confident

If you are self-conscious and not confident this will generally be reflected back to you by your subject.

Having a calm, confident manner when you are making portraits will enhance both their experience and yours.

You don’t need to put on a show, but just be relaxed and assured that you are creating good photographs.

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15. Rushing to get finished

Take your time. It’s not a race.

Give yourself space to concentrate well on what you are doing. Make sure you are getting what you want and your subject is more likely to be pleased with your pictures.

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Conclusion

It takes practice. Like learning to do anything well, it takes concentrated perseverance to succeed. This is why it’s good to practice making portraits with someone you know who is willing to be photographed.

Know your camera, be confident with it and with your subject and you will learn to make wonderful portraits.

When I started out as a photographer I found it incredibly difficult to photograph people. I was shy and lacked confidence. It was hard work, but over the years I have come to really enjoy the art of portraiture.

Do you have any other tips or portraits you’d like to share? If so, do so in the comments below.

 

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and filmmaker with over 30 years experience.

Kevin is offering DPS readers his FREE course for beginner photographers which will build your confidence in photography. You will learn how to make sense of camera settings and gain a better understanding of the importance of light in photography.
Check out Kevin’s Blog for articles with a more personal approach to photography.