How to Take Better Portraits in Five Steps
There are WAY more than five steps to creating a truly epic portrait.
However, you don't have to follow every single portrait photography tip ever written to see a change for the better in the images you take of family, friends, and clients.
That's where this list comes in.
With these five steps, you'll have a recipe for photos that have more drama and more emotional impact, and those are certainly good things when it comes to portraits.
Think About Lighting - Part One
Lighting is obviously a critical component of any image.
However, with portraits, the lighting can make or break the mood of the shot.
For example, if you take a portrait during golden hour, the warm, soft light will create a more intimate and inviting shot that makes your subject glow.
By contrast, taking a portrait under direct sunlight during midday results in an image that has a lot of contrast, harsh shadows, and washes out the subject.
Clearly, the winner here is the soft, warm light of golden hour.
Try using frontlighting in this situation to illuminate your subject without the worry of them having to squint.
Use backlighting for a nice silhouette as well.
If you want even more drama, try sidelighting so the setting sun casts a long shadow.
Talk about drama!
Think About Lighting - Part Two
There's a second aspect to thinking about lighting, and it's this: never, ever use the on-camera flash.
Now, I'm not trying to diminish the value of using artificial lighting for portraits.
But if you choose to use artificial lighting, at least make it good artificial lighting.
The on-camera flash is, in a word, terrible. It will only give your portraits a harsh and unnatural look.
Part of this has to do with its color temperature, which is intended to mimic midday sun, which, as noted earlier, is bright and harsh.
The other issue is that the on-camera flash fires from the same direction and virtually the same angle as the camera's lens.
Our eyes don't interpret that sort of look well, and the result is something that just feels strange.
Instead, opt for using natural light or invest in a good speedlight that you can use off-camera to shape the light. Learn more about using an off-camera flash in the video above by Matt Granger.
Get a Prime Lens
Don't get me wrong - there's something to be said for having a good zoom lens in your kit.
What's more, you can take excellent portraits with a zoom.
But for me, prime lenses offer much more in the way of benefits for a portrait photographer.
For starters, they typically have a much larger maximum aperture than a zoom lens. That means you can open the aperture and collect a lot more light. That's convenient for low-light shooting situations (and for avoiding having to use a flash, too).
What's more, prime lenses have fewer elements inside than zoom lenses, meaning they produce sharper results. A sharper photo is a better photo any day of the week.
Another great feature of prime lenses is that they are small, compact, and lightweight, which enables you to move around the subject much more freely. When it comes to composing and framing your shot, having that freedom of movement can do your images a lot of good.
There is a time and a place for heavily posed portraits. But for my money, a candid portrait is a better bet the vast majority of the time.
Not only do candid portraits feel more natural, but they also have a better ability to convey emotion than something that's formally posed.
Additionally, if you can manage a candid portrait, it gives the viewer a sense of being a fly on the wall, that they are there, experiencing the moment with the subjects in the shot. That's a very powerful tool!
At the end of the day, most people will want photos that make them feel something or remember something fondly, and a candid portrait can do that very well.
Opt for that natural experience over the "smile at the camera" look that's so common in family photos from back in the day!
Go For Subject-Environment Interaction
Another way to create a better portrait is to highlight how you subject interacts with his or her environment.
If this sounds somewhat like taking a candid portrait, it is.
The goal here is to document what's going on, hopefully without disturbing the activity of the subject.
Doing so achieves a few different things.
First, including the environment offers viewers a better understanding of the setting. The more such details viewers are privy to, the more likely they are to develop a story about what's happening in the portrait they see.
Second, including the environment helps you create an image with more depth and dimension than a typical portrait because there are elements in the foreground, midground, and background of the photo.
Lastly, an environmental portrait opens up the possibility of creating an image with two, three, or four people (or more) in a setting that's comfortable.
Rather than stuffing everyone into a tightly framed and posed portrait, an environmental portrait allows everyone a little space and freedom, and that helps you create an image that feels laid back and much more natural.
As I noted in the introduction, there are plenty of other portrait photography tips and tricks that will prove valuable to you.
But with these five techniques, you've got a lot of power at your fingertips to start creating more impactful and meaningful portraits right now, today.
And you know what else?
With the exception of the tip to use a prime lens, these techniques can be used with any type of camera gear from your smartphone up to a full frame DSLR.
So what are you waiting for? Start practicing these techniques so you can start getting more pleasing portraits!