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8 Lessons Learned from My First Attempt at Portrait Photography

853978794_ZH47z-L.jpgOne of the things I love about dPS is that we have a variety of photographers of different levels of experience and exploring different types of photography – all learning together. Today Aaron Meyers shares what he learned in his first attempt at portrait photography.

Let me start out by saying I’m an amateur photographer. I always loved taking photos but I didn’t buy my first SLR (a D80) until 2007. Since then I’ve mostly done landscape/nature photography and I’ve slowly upgraded my gear (to a D300s) and I’m starting to branch out and try new things.

Lately I’ve really enjoyed looking at portrait/model photos on Flickr so I thought I would give it a try. I convinced 2 of my friends to model for me and we went over to Stanford University for a couple hours of fun.

The Things I learned on my first portrait photoshoot:

1. Background is key! Keep it simple: in fact, keep it even more simple than you think. I thought I was using easy backgrounds but often there’s tiny things (like trash bins) that can be really detracting (see below).

Also, don’t forget that bright spots show up in between tree/shrub leaves and those can be really distracting. Try to find something with a solid background. Also, try to find a background that leads into the model, by using columns, a hallway, stairs, something which can spruce up the photo a bit.


2. Use Objects to Help Relax the Model: When you’re using inexperienced models they’ll become a lot more comfortable if they have a prop to work with or something to lean against. It was kind of awkward when they had to just stand there.

3. Pay Close Attention to the Hands/Hair: Often I’d spend so much time worrying about how the model should stand or what was in the background or what my lighting was like that I forgot to look at their hand position. When I got back home and began editing the photos I found a lot of them had awkward hand positions that essentially ruined the photo. Additionally, stray hair (either due to wind or other factors) can also really detract/cover the models face.


4. Use an assistant: Bring a friend or family member if you don’t have a real assistant. They can help straighten out wind blown hair, hold a reflector, or just help make the shot look more natural. I brought a reflector with me but my friend ended up taking one of the models and shooting at the same time and I didn’t have anyone to hold the reflector. Next time we’ll take turns being each others assistant.

5. Use a sharp, fast, large focal length lens: I started the shoot using my Sigma 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. I figured 105mm would be perfect (longer focal lengths tend to “squish” things a bit and make your model look better) at f/2.8 but it turns out the lens was really soft and I didn’t like the results. I ended up switching to my 50mm f/1.8 and that worked much better. I’m a fan of sharpness in the features of my photos and the soft 105mm lens just made my models look too blurry.

6. Eye Position is really tough, learn to control your models: I spent a lot of time looking at other portraits/model photos on Flickr and a lot of photographers have the models eyes positioned so that they are not looking directly into the lens. I tried this out by telling my model to “look left” or “look right” but I quickly found out that if they looked too far to one way then their eyes would barely be in the photo. It took some work to figure out just how far to tell them to look in either direction.

7. Have the Models Wear Interesting Clothing: The models that I used were some of my friends and they weren’t too happy to be told to be at my apartment no later than 7am (I wanted the good light!) They showed up in normal jeans and a sweater. Although they brought a couple changes of clothes I felt bad making them change. When I got back to my computer after the shoot I wished they had been wearing something less every-day-clothing. Since it was spring time when we did the shoot, the best photos I had were when they were wearing spring dresses.

8. Have fun and learn what works! Don’t go into every shoot (or your first shoot) with high expectations: It’s going to be a learning experience for all so just relax and have fun with it. If you can have someone more experienced teach you the ropes, you’re lucky, but if you don’t, then find some friends like I did and just go out and have fun!

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