Although many photographers upgrade to a pro-sumer DSLR to give them more control when they take family portraits or pictures of friends, getting great shots of people is always a challenge. Whether you’re taking portraits of your kids for the first day of school or capturing headshots of your colleagues for their work IDs, the difference between amateur and professional portraits can be vast. Here are some of the most important portrait photography tips to take your headshots to the next level.
Your camera’s metering system (which determines how much light should enter the camera to make a correct exposure) plays a vital role when capturing images. The problem with metering is that it takes an average reading – either of the entire frame or part of it, depending on which metering mode you’re in – and this reading is assumed to be a mid-tone (halfway between black and white).
The metering system can struggle when a frame is dominated by areas of extreme brightness or darkness. When shooting portraits, light skin tones can easily trick the camera into underexposing the shot, while darker skin tones can make the camera overexpose the image. This becomes more noticeable when shooting full-face photos or when there’s lots of white in the scene (for example, a bride on her wedding day).
This can be quickly corrected with your camera’s Exposure Compensation controls. Try dialing up to +1 stop of positive Exposure Compensation to lighten up people’s faces, review your shots, and – if you feel you they need to be lightened more – increase the Exposure Compensation further.
When shooting portraits, it’s best to set a wide aperture (around f/2.8 – f/5.6) to capture a shallow depth of field, so the background behind your subject is nicely blurred, making them stand out.
A way to achieve this setting is to shoot in Aperture Priority mode to control depth of field. In this mode, your DSLR will set the shutter speed for a correct exposure. If the model’s face is slightly side-on to the camera, a wide aperture may blur one of the eyes. This can look a little strange, so consider stopping down to f/5.6 to keep both eyes sharp. Many portrait lenses have wider maximum apertures (from f/1.4 to f/2.8) in order to blur backgrounds even further. A very popular portrait lens within that aperture range is an 85mm f/1.8 lens. Remember that the wider aperture blurs background detail much more effectively.
When setting shutter speed, factor in your lens’s focal length, otherwise camera shake (and blurred results) will become an issue. As a general rule, make sure your shutter speed is higher than your focal length. For example, at 55mm use a 1/60 sec shutter speed or faster. This also means you can get away with slower shutter speeds when using a wide-angle lens (such as 1/20 with an 18mm focal length).
While it won’t help if your subject is moving around quickly, don’t forget to use your camera’s Vibration Reduction (if applicable). While some camera systems have this built-in around the sensor, some camera models have the system in the lens (the benefit being that you can see the effect in the viewfinder). Not every lens will feature this technology, but if you have it – use it. You’ll be able to shoot handheld at much lower shutter speeds than you would otherwise and you’ll still come away with sharp images.
Increase your ISO
People move around a lot as they’re photographed, not to mention blink and constantly change their facial expressions. To avoid these problems and to prevent motion blur, you’ll need to use a fast shutter speed. This will also help to ensure sharp images and avoid camera-shake. While in Aperture Priority mode and maintaining a wide aperture, to increase your shutter speed simply increase your ISO (for example, ISO 100 to ISO 400). In low light conditions, you may need to increase it to ISO 1600 or even 6400. A little grain is better than a blurry, useless photo.
Your choice of lens has a big impact on your portrait photos. Shooting from a low angle with a wide-angle lens will make your subject taller, which is a great technique for fooling the eye and changing the perspective of objects and people. However, make sure not to go too close as it can cause some distortion. To add even more drama to a wide-angle shot, simply try tilting the camera to an angle.
When using a medium telephoto lens such as 85mm or 105mm, the model is still the main subject in the scene, but the background plays an important part in the image. Always pay attention to what’s going on in the background.
A telephoto lens like a 70-200mm f/2.8 is one of the best tools for creating stunning portraits. This lens will enable you to zoom in to focus more on your subject. You can then reduce the amount of background and foreground distractions.
Many times, amateur photographers think it’s best to include all, or at least the top half, of their subject. Instead, fill the frame for a more inspired photo composition. Positioning your subject to one side of the frame (rule of thirds) is a great technique to master, as is experimenting with wide apertures to capture a very shallow depth of field.
Build a rapport
If your model doesn’t feel comfortable, the final shots aren’t going to work. Prior to capturing a wedding or engagement session, we always try chat with our clients before the shoot. It always helps to have a cup of tea and talk over your ideas. It actually helped one of our wedding clients go from a fight to one of the most loved-up sessions we’ve ever captured in a matter of minutes!
When the shoot begins, offer the model direction – don’t just shoot away silently. Tell them what you want and how you want them to pose. Remember that it also helps to show them shots you’ve captured during the session to build their confidence and spark their creativity.
Use a reflector
A quick and affordable way to brighten up your portraits and to give them a professional look is to use a reflector (I highly recommend the Neewer 43-inch / 110cm 5-in-1 Collapsible Multi-Disc Light Reflector). Use them indoors (near windows) or outdoors to bounce light back onto your subjects to fill in unwanted shadows. Many reflectors come double-sided or with detachable covers, so you get a choice of white, silver and gold reflective surfaces. The white surfaces of reflectors can also be used as diffusers to soften strong, direct sunshine. If a reflector is not in your budget, you can make one by simply using a large sheet of white cardboard – which you can also cover with tin foil for a silver effect!
Focusing your camera
When using wide apertures (especially f/2.8 or faster), your depth of field decreases dramatically. Make sure you pay attention to your focus or you could end up with out-of-focus facial features (for example, the person’s nose may be sharp but the eyes may have a soft focus). With tightly composed photos, focus on the eyes; with wider compositions, focus on the head. To help with pinpoint focusing, manually select a single auto-focus point. A good technique is to set the central AF point, half-press the shutter button to focus on the eyes/head, and then recompose to position your subject off to one side before fully pressing the button. This is often a much faster way of shooting than fiddling with auto-focus points.
Posing for portraits
How your subject stands, poses and looks will have a dramatic effect on your results. A slight change in facial expression can radically change the entire feeling of the photograph. When shooting, try and capture a range of expressions so you can pick which you prefer when editing. Also, consider having your subject look off-camera, up and down, or to one side. Have fun with it and see what works!
Using fill flash on sunny days
Although it may seem odd to use flash when the sun’s out, that’s when you should use it! The sun can cause all sorts of problems for portrait photographers: harsh shadows across faces, unbalanced exposures and burnt-out highlights. Try using a bit of ‘fill flash’ and you’ll instantly improve your portraits. Your camera will capture a much more balanced exposure because your flash will light up your subject while the camera exposes for the background.
A dedicated speed-light flash is much more powerful than the built-in one that’s on your camera. This enables you to have a brighter burst of light and set smaller apertures to capture more depth of field, or to light up a group of people. You also have more control over the flash’s settings by angling it up or sideways to bounce the light off ceilings and walls.
An off-camera flash is detachable and can be fired via a cable, a remote control attached to your hot-shoe or via your camera’s built-in flash. Taking your flash off your camera can transform your results, allowing you to sculpt the light for much more professional results. You can also use two flashes in unison for more complex lighting set-ups. Using a remote trigger will enable you to fire one flash (to act at the ‘master’) which in turn will fire the second ‘slave’ flash unit at the same time. Light your subjects from the side to add drama to your portraits, get creative by under-exposing the sky or background or dial in -2 stops of Exposure Compensation to capture a moody backdrop behind your subjects.
By using the tips and tools above, you will be able to take your portrait photography from a simple, DMV-style picture to an image worthy of a 20×30 canvas. Have fun with it and feel free to send us some of your results!