A lot of people get into photography so they can take portraits of friends and family. For some, that’s as far as the desire goes, and a “pretty good” portrait will suffice. For others, there is a desire to create portraits that look less like they were taken by an amateur and more like they were taken by a pro.
With these three surefire tips for taking better portraits, you’ll be more likely to create professional-style portraits that are sure to impress!
A Natural Expression
If you take a photo of someone that isn’t comfortable in front of the camera, it will show. The strained smile, the awkward hands, and the odd posture are all tell-tale signs that having their picture made isn’t on their list of priorities.
In addition to creating a portrait that just doesn’t have much life, this situation results in a portrait that doesn’t connect with viewers either. The forced, cheesy smile is much less likely to invoke interest among viewers than a natural, laid back pose in which the subject looks utterly and completely comfortable. The trouble, of course, is making that laid-back look a possibility.
To get your subject comfortable, talk to them. Ask them questions. Crack jokes. Try to distract them from thinking about being photographed and thinking more about things they enjoy. Better still - trick your subject into thinking you aren’t shooting the “real” photos yet. Saying you need to take a few test shots to get the focus, framing, and lighting right, when you’re actually taking “real” shots, might just get you the most relaxed, natural looking portraits of the day.
How the subject looks, how they feel in front of the camera, is more important than anything else - the location, the quality of your gear, and even the lighting. If you don’t endeavor to make your subject comfortable, you won’t get the high-quality photos you’re looking for.
The Right Focal Length
If you want a portrait that is both flattering and has a great depth of field to give the background a nice blurriness, you’ll need to work with the right lens. The precise length will depend on a lot of factors, including the type of camera you have. If it’s a full frame, an 85mm lens is a very good choice. If it’s a crop sensor, give a 50mm lens a try.
These lenses are wide enough that you can take an environmental portrait if need be, while also working well if you take a few steps toward your subject for something more tightly framed. If you opt for a fast 50mm or 85mm lens, you’ll be able to shoot in a greater variety of lighting conditions as well, without worry of noise being introduced into the image.
Take One Lens and One Camera
Professional portrait photographers have a trunk full of gear that they use for portraits, but if you’re amateur or even a budding professional, taking one lens and one camera body to a shoot will benefit you more. Here’s why:
By taking less gear, you’re more able to be present in the moment, engage with your subject in a more meaningful manner, and concentrate more on the creative aspects of taking a portrait. Too often, beginning and enthusiast photographers (and plenty of pros too!) are far too focused on the technical aspects of taking a photo, and not enough on how the photo resonates with other people. At the end of the day, people will react more positively to a creative, if not technically unsound photo, than they will to a technically perfect photo that lacks any creativity whatsoever. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be technically proficient; rather, it’s just as important to work on the creative presentation of your photos as it is on technical things like aperture and shutter speed.
To ensure you’re doing your best creative work, thin the herd of gear so you can concentrate on the other elements of portraiture that will greatly impact the success of your images. Help the subject feel comfortable. Focus on composition and framing. Find the best natural lighting to work with. The more you’re in the creative zone, the better the results will be.