No matter what type of photography you specialize in or prefer, at some point you will find yourself having to photograph a human, or multiple humans. For favor, for fun, or because they share your genetic make-up or home address. If you own a fancy camera, there you will be at least once in your photographic life (but probably many more) where you will find yourself taking a portrait. Taking pictures of people is much different than beautiful mountains, scenic oceanscapes, historic architecture, butterflies, plates of food, or whatever it is that you usually photograph. Here are some basic tips to get the best portrait possible, especially for you if don’t usually see a human on the other side of the lens.
#1 Be realistic
Don’t overpromise your abilities or expect too much out of yourself. If someone asked me to take a picture of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains, which, as they have been my entire life, are right outside my window and something I know like the back of my hand, it would not be a good picture. I lack the skills for landscape photography, and more importantly, the interest. In my favor though, people aren’t likely to ask me to take a landscape image near like a non-portrait photographer will be asked to take portraits. Be upfront if you are willing to try it so that in the event it doesn’t go as planned, it won’t bother you enough to affect how you feel about photography in general.
#2 Simplify everything
Backgrounds, clothing, props, light, etc. – simplify everything. Give yourself a running start out of the gate by having a solid foundation to work with. Look for flat or level backgrounds, horizon lines that don’t run through people’s heads, even lighting, and solid colors. I can’t emphasize this enough. The details which are the focus should only relate to the person, whether it’s a portrait of just the face or a full body, everything else should compliment this, or completely disappear to the viewer’s eye.
#3 The easiest setting I know
At the risk of starting a heated discussion or this becoming a dumping ground for comments debating otherwise, I am going to share what I consider to be my best general setting and equipment advice.
First a few disclaimers: I shoot Canon and have no idea if these will translate to something else. Also, you must promise you will not be upset if this doesn’t work for you; sometimes finding what doesn’t work is just as important as finding what does (I tell myself this often to justify my many mistakes). Lastly, taking a great portrait is a lot more complicated than just one setting, but you have to start somewhere. There are likely to be people who disagree with my advice and I hope that this could start a supportive discussion on what has worked for others, rather than unhelpful commentary. Now, on with it…
- Using natural light only if at all possible, dial in your ISO for something that makes sense; ISO 200 if it’s bright, 400 if it’s cloudy but even, 600 if it’s darker.
- Shooting in Aperture Priority mode will allow you the most room for error, and is how many portrait photographers shoot regularly.
- I like the f-stop to be at f/2.2 for one or two people, and f/2.8 or f/3.2 for groups of three or more (obviously this is speaking very generally and would best be used as a starting point to find what works for you). These settings will give you that “portrait blurry background effect” known as good bokeh.
- Shooting in RAW will give you more wiggle room later when editing, though it takes more space on your memory card.
- Use a prime lens if you can; I shoot nearly everything I take with my 50mm L1.2. This is a fancy lens no doubt, but any prime lens will typically be faster (have a larger maximum aperture) than a zoom lens, and with everything else going on, I find that using my feet as my zoom is one less adjustment my eyes and hands have to do.
- I typically underexpose my images one stop. This works for me because I like to get the details and then bring it back up as needed myself in post.
This may not work for you, and there is absolutely no shame in running everything you aren’t sure about on auto. This doesn’t make you less of a photographer. All it means is that you think in this scenario, your camera – a magnificent piece of machinery that was created by thousands of professionals over decades with countless research, information, and experience – might guess better than you. That’s all.
#4 Shoot from their eye level or higher, and at an angle
While photographing a person from below and not capturing an amazing view of 15 chins they don’t even have is possible, it’s not easy. For the best, most flattering set-up, shoot at their same eye level or above. I often have people kneel down and look up at me while I remain standing. As someone who has 20 different chins that only come out and play for pictures, I’m sensitive about this one and I find that even a child with the most adorable chubby cheeks and double chin is best photographed on a level playing field.
Additionally, taking pictures of someone straight on is both unflattering and uninteresting. Asking them to twist at the waist, shoulders, or neck and not face their body square-on, but rather follow their face’s direction will not only be much more forgiving to any subject (every single human has one eye that is smaller than the other – I’ve researched it), but will also make for a more professional finished portrait.
#5 Don’t command a smile
Don’t command a smile, or instruct “cheese!” or say “hold still!”, or anything that could be interpreted as you attempted to force your feelings, or agenda, onto your subject. Even if you are going for a serious tone, and are trying to catch an image when they don’t realize or least expect it, you are much better off engaging them in conversation than setting up the moment and expecting a single second of utter perfection. A true portrait is genuine at its very least.
#6 Resist the urge to run your final images through every Photoshop trick you’ve ever learned
If you don’t usually photograph people, the idea of playing around with editing tools might be fun. There are so many! This one turns their eyes into laser beams. This one makes their skin look like pure plastic perfection. It’s fascinating, I get it. However, if you’re wanting to stick to the basics, there isn’t much that needs to be done. Clean up blemishes with the Spot Healing Brush Tool, run a basic sharpen (I like the oddly named Unsharp Mask at 60%/2.0/0), and adjust your color and levels if needed. If I get stuck while editing an image, I ask those thousands of professionals what they think by running auto color, tone, and contrast just to see what it does. It nearly always takes everything too far, but it gives me an idea of where I want to go sometimes, just by showing me where I don’t.
#7 Don’t try to turn it into something it’s not
Oh how I wish this image had a little more POW. A little zing. I’d love it if her entire face was showing and her hair was either more haphazard, or more perfectly fanned out. I wish there was more background showing. However, this is not a picture for a fashion magazine cover, but rather an image of my stepdaughter I took with my iPhone. We were on a walk and I spotted the purple flowers on the ground and told her to go lay in them. And because all of my stepdaughters do whatever I say, and think that I am totally magical, she raced right over and did it. Then an enchanted unicorn wandered up and flew us home. It’s drastically cropped, not necessarily for effect, but because she was giving me a snarl and wearing a very busy shirt. Is this a portrait? To me, it is. It’s a perfectly fine, authentic image and the subject herself loves it.
That is probably the most important thing when taking pictures of people.
Do you have any other tips you’d like to share? Please leave a comment below.