If you’re like the vast majority of casual photographers, then the #1 reason you bought a camera is to take pictures of family members and friends, and then share them as prints or via social media. Your pictures are meant to preserve memories of events, such as birthdays, weddings, etc., to record images of children as they grow and to capture special moments with friends. While these photos are views of your life and the people with whom you share it, true portraits are meant to show people in the best setting possible and reveal more about their character, personality and lifestyle. When you put into the practice the techniques below, you’ll be able to advance your photography skills and present family members and friends with pictures they will like and cherish.
Portrait photography can be divided into two primary types: formal and informal. Formal portraits are typically taken in a studio setting with multiple lights and require more equipment and skills to execute successfully. For the purposes of this article, you’ll find it much easier to tackle informal portraits first, although many of the techniques apply to both types.
A benefit of the informal style of portrait photography is that you and your subject tend to be more comfortable and the experience is more enjoyable. Typically, a familiar or pleasant location is better than the sterile environment of a studio. Ask your subject to sit in his or her favorite chair or find an outdoor location under a tree. You can also photograph him or her in a location and/or with objects that help to identify his or her favorite hobby or interest. If Mom is known for her pies and loves to bake, then photograph her in the kitchen with a finished pie in her hands. If a friend is an avid golfer, then shoot the portrait with a golf course background and your friend dressed for the game with a club in hand, or tossing a golf ball in the air.
Once you’ve found a good location for your informal portrait, position yourself at a slight angle to your subject. You don’t want to photograph a flat face. With the help of your subject, determine the best side of his or her face/body, and then ask him or her to turn that side toward the camera. Direct your subject to tilt the body slightly forward, as the back remains straight.
Make sure to position the camera, so it is at the same level of the person’s face. Don’t shoot from too extreme an angle above or below his or her eye level.
Turn your camera vertically, so the person’s head or body fills that orientation.
Try various distances from your subject. Move in close to fill most of the frame with his or her face and also widen the view, especially if it is a lifestyle portrait where the setting and other objects add to the photo.
It’s also important to be aware of the angle of your subject’s arms and legs. Make sure they are bent at a pleasing angle, which is any angle other than 90 degrees, or a right angle at the elbow. Check where the framing of your portrait crops the arms and legs. If you don’t plan to show all of the arms or legs, then make the crop point between the joints, and not at the joints. Otherwise, it will look like the arm or leg has been amputated.
Unless the background is an essential element of your portrait photo, select the largest aperture, or lens opening, (the smallest f/stop setting), so the background will have a pleasing loss of focus and emphasize your subject. This will also create a more three-dimensional look, separating your subject from the background.
Focus is also critical to a good portrait. Select the single-point auto-focus setting on your camera, and then place that point over the eye that is closest to the camera.
Informal portraits also allow you and your subject to have some fun. Ask your subject to move slightly within the frame, much the same as a fashion model would. He or she can turn the head to various angles, look off camera and show various emotions, such as joy, sadness, seriousness, etc., as you move and shoot a continuous series of pictures. Try your camera’s continuous shooting mode and you may be surprised to discover you’ve captured a fabulous portrait that would have been otherwise impossible with a static pose.
This how to photography article outlines the basic portrait photography techniques for beginners or less-experienced digital photographers.
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Photograph by PhtographyTalk member: Rob Nerpel