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Taking great portraits is a great genre of photography to master. Some of the most famous photographs in the world and even paintings are simple head and shoulder portraits. They can tell us so much about the person being photographed. Think of arguably the most famous painting of all time and most people would probably say the Mona Lisa. But taking portraits also seems to be a difficult thing for newbie photographers to do. Fear not, here are 7 quick tips to help you capture better portraits.
It might seem daunting taking someone’s portrait, even in a studio. But it will get so much easier if you build a rapport with the person first. Whether it’s in the studio or in the street, start the shoot with a conversation and get to know who they are. Find out what they do, what they like, and even what their personality is like.
If you can, make them laugh with a joke. Not only will all of this help build a picture of who they are which can influence the photo, but it will also mean that they are much more comfortable working with you.
This, in turn, will mean that they will be more relaxed and also more be accommodating to you taking their photo. Clearly, sometimes that will be difficult in travel photography, for example, when you might not speak the same language. But even then it’s amazing what a few hand gestures, a few local phrases, and a smile can achieve.
While it might seem obvious, it’s amazing how often I’ve seen a portrait taken where it hasn’t been framed properly. When you are taking an environmental portrait, you need to capture some of the person’s surroundings to be able to tell a story. But when you’re doing a normal head and shoulders portrait, the sole focus should be the person standing in front of you. Their face is where the focus should be, so if there are distracting elements near them or in the background try to crop those out.
Often the reason that photographers end up with too many distractions in the photo is that they are too far away from their subject. So, if you find that you are not able to focus primarily on the subject’s face when taking a portrait, get closer.
Another key element of framing your portrait properly is to ensure that the background isn’t too overpowering. Ideally, a muted or plain surface such as a wall works best as the viewer isn’t distracted by anything else. They can focus solely on the person’s face. If you find that your subject is standing somewhere that doesn’t work best for the portrait, ask them if you can move them and position them somewhere better. Even if you don’t speak their language, usually pointing to where you want them to go does the trick.
If you find that you have to take the photo with too much stuff happening in the background, set a wide aperture so that you will get the background blurred. This will help make your subject stand out from the busy background and not get lost in the photo.
Most of the time the advice that you are given is to try and light your portrait using natural light, photograph your model from the front, and get close enough to eliminate any distractions. Sound familiar? For example, being outside on an overcast day is ideal for taking portraits as the soft even light means you don’t get harsh shadows on the person’s face.
But while these are great bits of advice that you should follow, it is also worth sometimes pushing the boundaries. So experiment with harsh lighting or even a more creative shots such as in the example below. I took a step back to let people pass and was immediately struck with the dynamism that having someone walk across the image brought to it. It’s still a portrait, but it’s a little more interesting than if there was no one else in the shot.
The key is to not be afraid to go against convention and try something different, you might be surprised by the results.
If there is just one rule that you need to follow when it comes to taking better portraits, it is to ensure that the subject’s eyes are sharp and in focus. If the eyes are not in sharp focus, the whole image looks soft and unappealing. So, take extra care that you are focusing correctly and that you are keeping the eyes sharp.
When taking portraits outside, the majority of the time you can get away with using a fairly wide aperture. So as long as there is decent light your shutter speed should remain fast enough to avoid camera shake. If you are unable to keep a fast enough shutter speed, raise your ISO accordingly.
You often have a relatively short window when taking portraits as your subject will usually want to get on with their day. But that should still give you plenty of time to take multiple photos. Try taking photos in burst mode so that you can capture the exact moment when your model has their eyes open or has an expression on their face that works for the photo.
You can also try a few different compositions and even angles to give your photos variety. The great thing about digital photography is that it won’t cost you anything to take multiple photos as long as you have enough memory space.
Sometimes the real key to taking any great photo is just relaxing and letting it happen naturally. So rather than rushing around and clicking away frantically, just slow down and take your time.
Start talking to people without the burden of knowing that you want to photograph them and if the situation lends itself to a photo just enjoy the process and have fun. Show the person the photos you’ve taken, keep everything casual and you will find that your photos become much better and more intimate.
Taking a great portrait takes great skill, but when done well it can have incredible results. You will find that not only will you have amazing photos that will look great anywhere, but also memories that you will cherish. Just follow these 7 quick tips to help you capture better portraits and you’ll be on your way to capturing great photos of people.
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