Next to landscapes, portraits are probably the most popular type of photography. It makes sense - there’s plenty of subjects out there, you can take portraits with just about any camera, and portraiture lends itself to images that connect with people and tell a story.
Of course, taking a high-quality portrait isn’t as simple as pointing and shooting. In fact, there’s a lot that can go wrong. Some problems, though, are more common than others. With that in mind, let’s have a look at three common portrait mistakes and what you can do to avoid them.
Out of Focus Eyes
There’s a reason why the saying goes “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” The eyes are the first thing we notice when we look at a portrait, so if they aren’t in focus, the image immediately loses its appeal. Eyes that are in sharp focus help the viewer engage with the photo on a deeper level and allows them to draw firmer conclusions about the person they are looking at. What’s more, having the eyes in focus helps direct the viewer’s eyes as well. Notice how in the image above, your attention immediately goes to the woman in the back. This is because her eyes are in focus. If the eyes aren’t in focus, that means something else is, and the viewer will naturally be drawn to that area instead.
An easy way to ensure you’ve got the focus right is to switch your camera to live view and zoom in. The larger view on the camera’s LCD is often all that’s needed to get sharper focus. Knowing how to use your camera’s focus modes is essential as well. Of course, using manual focus will give you the most control. Even though today’s cameras have excellent autofocus systems, they aren’t foolproof. Learning how to focus manually will get you sharper photos just about every time.
Using the Wrong Lens
Okay, so “wrong” is a strong word. But there are definitely some focal lengths that are better for portraiture than others. For example, portraits come out nicely if you use a lens in the 70mm range on a crop sensor camera and a 105mm lens on a full frame camera. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; there are certainly other lenses that will work just fine given the specific situation and the visual aesthetic you’re going for.
That said, using a short focal length lens, like those in the wide-angle range, can get you pretty poor results for portraits. This isn’t to say that you absolutely can’t get a nice portrait with a wide-angle, it’s just more difficult to do. Wide-angle lenses tend to distort a person’s face, especially if you’re relatively close to the subject. No one wants their nose or forehead to look overly big, so a wide-angle lens is usually not recommended. As a rule of thumb, try to stay above 50mm to avoid distortion.
Bad framing in this context doesn’t refer to the physical frame in which you put a portrait (although that can impact the overall appeal of the photo) but instead refers to how the subject is placed in the shot. If you get too close, for example, the person’s face will fill the shot and can make for an uncomfortable viewing experience. Conversely, if you position yourself too far away and don’t have the focal length to make the subject bigger, they will simply melt away into their surroundings, providing little or no detail about who they are.
What you should strive to do is find a happy medium between being too close and too far away. For close-ups, leave a hint of room around the subject’s face to provide a buffer zone around the edges of the shot. For waist-up or full body shots, take a position far enough away that you can see the subject’s body, but close enough that viewers can still see the details of the person’s face. Also keep the rule of thirds in mind - placing the subject off-center will lead to a more balanced and visually appealing shot, as is seen in the image above.
There you have it! Three common portrait mistakes that are easy to fix. Simply pay attention to the framing, use the right focal length for the portraits you wish to take, and use manual focus or live view to zero in the focus on the subject’s eyes, and you will have portraits that are immediately more pleasing to view.