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Portrait photography tips: take perfect people pictures

portrait photography tips
(Image credit: Future)

When it comes to taking portraits, there are many different ways to go about it – so there are plenty of great portrait photography tips to learn, whether you are capturing candid moments out on the streets or putting together skilled lighting setups in the studio. 

The genre ‘portraits’ sits under a huge umbrella with various kit, skills and knowledge needed for alternative approaches. However there are many portrait photography tips that transpire across all the different methods, so whether you’re just starting out with your camera or have been doing it for a while, make sure you follow these top tips to take your portrait photography to the next level.  

1. Background matters 

(Image credit: Claire Gillo)

The background is just as important as the subject in the frame. Where you place your subject will reveal lots about them, for example, are they in a studio, in a familiar environment, out on location, or in their workplace? All these decisions need to be thought thoroughly through, and enhance your portrait in what you want to say and reveal about your subject.  

Blurred backgrounds look great for portraiture and it can help to isolate your subject to make them stand out. If your lens’s aperture setting is not capable of opening as wide as you would like bring your subject forward and away from any surface areas to enhance the blur. 

If you are shooting out and about remember it’s very easy to get distracted by looking at how your subject is posing and facial expressions and miss that big tree in the background popping out of their head! Look for obstructions like this as you shoot else you may be disappointed when you bring your images up on the computer at the editing stage. 

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2. What are the eyes doing?

(Image credit: Claire Gillo)

The eyes are the key to the soul and the connection to the audience. Even if the eyes are closed this says something about the subject, for example, are they shy, worried or perhaps thoughtful. If the eyes are looking into the lens make sure they are pinpoint sharp (closest eye if your subject is at an angle). Use a single AF focus point and select it manually to be sure you are spot on.  

3. Candid approach  

Getting a great candid is all about getting the shot at the right moment, from the right position. The shot above right clearly works better than the shot above left. (Image credit: Claire Gillo)

There is nothing more satisfying then capturing your subject in a special unstaged moment, so for this reason the fly on the wall and informal candid approach is loved by many when it comes to portraiture. A 50mm lens is often a good choice when taking pics on the go as the angle of view imitates what our eyes see. For that reason, you can be fast when observing and composing your shots. It goes without saying but to get a great candid capture you need to be fully observant, but also try and predict your subject’s movements. If you get it right you’ll be sure to snap the ultimate moment.      

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4. Camera settings for portraits

Use Auto ISO and Manual exposure mode for failsafe portrait shooting

When it comes to shooting portraits your basic camera settings are important. We recommend you put your camera into the Manual mode for full control. Start with the aperture setting and decide how much of the face you want to be in focus. If you’re shooting a close up headshot f/1.8 is very shallow and will blur most of the facial features so f/5.6 might be a better place to begin and adjust accordingly. For wider angle shots try starting at a wider setting (for example f/2.8) and adjust on how much you want the background to blur.   

Once you’ve decided on your aperture you want to balance your shutter speed and ISO together. If you don’t want your subject to blur then you’ll need a shutter speed of at least 1/200 sec or 1/500 sec for faster moving subjects (e.g. children and animal portraits). For a fast and easy way to shoot set your ISO to the Auto ISO setting, as this will adjust accordingly with the light. Most Auto ISO settings can be limited, for example at ISO 1000, so if you are worried about noise this should help. 

5. Break the norm

(Image credit: Claire Gillo)

When it comes to finding an alternative approach to portraiture don’t be afraid to go abstract! Take for example this image here which uses the frame in a frame in a frame idea. Photoshop is a wonderful tool and can be used in conjunction with the portrait genre to create some great results. For those who don’t want to spend as much time at the editing stage mirrors also work well on location with a portrait subject.  

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6. Lens choice 

(Image credit: Claire Gillo)

What lens you pick will determine the look and feel of your portrait. Long lenses (for example 70-200mm view) are great for portraiture as they compress facial features for a flattering result. They can also blur the background more further isolating the subject.  

Wide angle lenses are traditionally not used for portraiture, however they still have their uses. If you want to shoot environmental portraits then a wide angle lens might be better. Placing people in their environment surrounded by their possessions or hobby reveals so much about them. If using using a wide angle lens around 15-35mm then make sure your subject is comfortably in the middle of the frame and not close up on the face as it may distort their features.    

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7. Flashgun recycle time

(Image credit: Claire Gillo)

A flashgun is a great photographic accessory for portraiture that can be used remotely as it is small and portable to carry, plus powered by battery without the use of mains. If you have the budget to invest get a couple of units as it will open up your creative possibilities. When it comes to setting the strength of your flashgun if the light allows you we advise you reduce the power down to 1/4 setting or lower and increase the ISO on your camera. That way your flash’s recycle time will be much faster allowing you to shoot faster, which in portraiture is vital. 

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8. Natural light

You don’t need loads of expensive lighting gear to get professional looking results. The natural light is great and easy to work with and more importantly it’s free! Grey cloudy days are perfect for portraits as the clouds act like a big diffuser panel. Sunny days are fine too however avoid the midday sun (especially in the summer) as the light is hard and tricky to work with, and can cause unflattering shadows. On bright sunny days we recommend placing your subject in shaded areas.   

A great tip when positioning your subject is to spin them around in a 360 degree circle to see how the light falls on their face for the optimum result.  

9. Editing tips 

The portrait above left lacked shadow detail, and therefore needed some post-production editing to get the final imagee (above right) (Image credit: Claire Gillo)

The file that comes directly out of a camera (especially a raw uncompressed one) is never going to look as good as an edited one. Editing allows us to bring back emotions to our portraits and also tidy up unwanted skin blemishes and spots. 

Photoshop is a good tool to use for cleaning up marks and spots on the face however remember not to go too far with your beautifying. Although we can remove every line, crinkle and flaw from your subject you want your sitter to still look like them and not an alien!    

10. Communication, collaboration and posing  

Remember that taking a portrait is just as much about the subject as the photographer! Your subject will reflect your behaviour and directions so be clear in what you want to achieve. If your technical skills still require more thinking keep practicing with your camera to get more familiar and comfortable with it. Once you can get past having to think about your camera settings you can focus more on your subject and their posing and position. Remember everyone has to start somewhere and we all have failed portrait photoshoots - that is how you learn! Talk with your model beforehand and ask them to be patient with you. That is harder with children though!  

11. Photographing children

(Image credit: Claire Gillo)

They say never work with children but what an opportunity you’re missing out on if you don’t. Firstly kids are fun - such good fun. They have tons of energy and many of them love to perform in front of the camera. The trick is trying to capture them in those candid moments where they’re unaware of you taking a photograph. Keep them busy and if they have loads of energy let them jump it out, run towards you and spring around. Often the second part of your shoot is when you’ll capture the winning shots once they’ve dispelled some of that initial energy. 

Set your focus setting to the AF tracking feature so when they’re darting left, right and centre so you never miss a moment.  

Also don’t be afraid to capture them when they’re not smiling, after all this is part of who they are as well! Many parents like to have a mixture of images that reflect reality rather than cheesy staged ones.  

12. Wrinkles and crinkles

(Image credit: Claire Gillo)

There are certain subjects that lend themselves to the portrait genre. Older people with a story to tell and texture on their face are brilliant subjects to photograph. Try converting your image to monochrome to make the most of the textures and push the contrast up to enhance the black and white tones.    

13. Location portraits 

(Image credit: Claire Gillo)

It’s tempting to stay indoors when it comes to portraiture as there is less to logistically oraginse, however heading out on location opens up many creative opportunities. This photo shoot of ballerina Lydia Brayshaw was taken on a secluded beach in Devon. The idea behind the shoot was for Lydia to dance with the scenery blending the idyllic beach scene and the ballet together. The warm glowing evening summer light was a key part of the feel for the images and no flash was used.     

14. DIY kit

(Image credit: Lastolite)

You don’t need much to help enhance your portraits. A 5-in-1 reflector is a useful accessory however if you don’t have one you can easily make one out of card and tinfoil to bounce light back into the shadows. Equally a piece of white card close to the face will pick up features or if you want to darken the shadows for a moody result you can use a piece of black card to flag the light. 

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