Portrait Photography Tips: 10 quick ideas for better images

10 Essential Portrait Photography Tips

10 Essential Portrait Photography Tips

Do your photos of family and friends look more like snapshots than fine art? It’s a common problem we all face when struggling with available light or stubborn subject.

Who better to turn to for advice than leading UK lifestyle, portrait and wedding photographer, Brett Harkness. Below, Brett shares his 10 best portrait photography tips and photo ideas for improving your output.

Brett’s Top 10 Portrait Photography Tips

10 Essential Portrait Photography Tips

1. Stay short

Try using a fixed short lens, such as 50mm, for your lifestyle portraits. This will help you to make more of the surrounding scene, rather than just focusing in on the subject. Longer zoom lenses can be great but, as you’re further away from the subject, they can make it difficult to interact well with your models. Shooting with your lens wide open can give great results but this shallow depth of field will make it hard to keep focus if the subjects – such as kids – are moving around.


2. Start indoors

When photographing children, start off your shoot indoors to get them on side in the comfort of their own home. Use your Canon’s Manual setting, which will give you accurate control over both shutter speed and aperture. Making use of a doorway or French doors to throw light onto the faces will help; or position them near the front door of the house, move outside and shoot back into the hallway. Overexpose by at least 1-stop, which will give lighter and better skin tones. Turn off any interior lights as they will cast an unwanted (yellow) light on the subject.


3. Time for reflection 

Always have a reflector with you. This fantastic and versatile tool can be used in many different ways. I use a Lastolite Sunfire soft silver reflector, which cools down warm skin and warms up whiter skin. Getting a small one will help indoors while a larger one will be better for outdoor use.


4. Clothes maketh the shoot

Clothes can make or break a lifestyle portrait shoot! Don’t be afraid to check out the wardrobe and find colours to suit your background; don’t force people to wear what you want but gently guide them. Pick colours that go well together, and always try to do at least one shot with the whole family wearing similar colours or tones. Getting your subjects to wear brighter clothing will help also when it comes to getting a faster shutter speed.
10 Essential Portrait Photography Tips

5. The light of day

Schedule your shoot to utilise enough daylight; shooting family groups with flash after the sun goes down isn’t easy and needs practice. If the light is fading then increase the ISO to compensate – recent cameras are excellent at minimising noise, but even so try to limit your ISO to around 800. During the winter months, the sun will go down quickly so use your time wisely.


6. It’ll be all white

If your shoot overruns and you start to lose the light and have to go indoors, turn on all the lights and try to perform a custom white balance from whichever is brightest. Shooting RAW also helps because you can alter the white balance later. If your whites still don’t look white, turn shots to monochrome for an easy way to overcome the issue.


7. Play the game

Kids get bored easily so you’ll need to shoot quickly and with a plan. Make sure you ‘play’ in the best light and in front of the best locations. If you’re struggling to get the entire family to look towards the camera, point to something in a tree or the sky and everyone’s attention will focus on the same thing. Using an assistant is invaluable for this: it takes the pressure off you having to entertain and shoot!


8. Be my baby 

Try putting babies in the bath with no water in it: a white bathtub is a fantastic reflective light source and keeps the subject from crawling away! Going in close with a macro lens enables you to pick out details; however, you will need to watch your depth of field; try to shoot at least f/5.6-f/8 to get more in focus. Another great way to capture babies is to use the downward light from a window. Put a couch up against the window, get a dark towel or cloth, lay the baby down on it, and underexpose by about 1-stop.


9. AI Servo vs One shot

For 95% of my family shoots, I keep my camera on One Shot. AI Servo or continuous focusing is great for moving subjects, but can get caught out. Try prefocusing on a spot, such as a twig, and have a child run towards you. When they reach that twig press the shutter: great for perfecting your timing.


10. Flash? Aaa-aaagh! 

Using flash on families with kids can be tricky. Keep it simple; bounce an on-camera flash off a ceiling or wall, making sure it’s light in colour, white or cream! The larger the flash surface area the better the results, so try a softbox on your flashgun; Lastolite do great on- and off-camera soft boxes that enable a lot more shooting creativity. Try using your flash in high-speed mode when shooting outside in bright light; this will facilitate pushing some great fill flash into the face of the subject, creating a beautifully natural look to your portraits


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