Let's take portraits - 7 tips for improving your portraiture
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
I've set out some of my favorite tips for taking nice portraits. I use these all the time and hope you find them useful.
1. Make your subject the focus of the photo
Eliminate distractions. If possible, compose the shot so there are no distracting elements in the background. If that's not an option, you can also use a shallow depth of field to create some creamy bokeh to reduce distractions too.
2. Focus on the subject's eye.
A common mistake is to focus on the nose. Don't do that. Focus on the eye closer to you.
3. Avoid harsh light. Embrace reflected light.
Bright, direct light (e.g. direct afternoon sunlight on a cloudless day) creates "harsh" light. Harsh light creates harsh shadows, which are deep and dark, and have hard lines. It's not a flattering look.
Instead, shoot your subject near the bright light, but not directly in it. This means putting your subject in doorways, under overhangs or ledges, in a room near a window, etc - fairly close to bright sunlight, but not directly in it.
The light will bounce off the nearby surfaces (including the ground) and onto your subject's face, lighting it up. But because it's reflected off various surfaces, it gets diffused and creates softer light and therefore softer shadows. It's more flattering.
Here's an example of where to place your subject if it's a bright day and there's an overhang nearby. Put your subject in the shade rather than directly in the sunlight. The brighter and harsher the light, the further into the shade your subject should be.
4. Don't shoot portraits with wide-angle lenses
It will cause your subject's face to distort and stretch out, like a fish-eye or bobble-head effect. Anywhere between 50mm - 100mm is (in my mind) fine for portraits. I shoot portraits at 50mm most often, simply because I love the versatility of this focal length and almost always have a 50mm on me.
I personally draw the line at around 35mm (if it's a 2/3rd body or full-body shot), I think anything wider than that and you're starting to get too much distortion. But if your intention is to get that distorted look then by all means, go wide! Fish-eye lenses are popular for this reason.
A portrait is more than just telling your subject to smile when you say "Cheese!" It's about finding some kind of understanding or connection between you and your subject, and expressing it through the photo. Whether the portrait aims to reveal a person's thoughts and concerns, or to share your subject's creativity and energy, find your connection first - then hit the shutter button.
6. Try shooting portraits in portrait orientation
For a little over a year, I shot almost exclusively in landscape orientation. It was very useful for developing some discipline in how I think about, frame, and compose shots. It might sound limiting, but it was actually a lot of fun and I discovered a lot about my own shooting style upon reviewing those photos.
I was discussing this phase with a good friend who does commercial and wedding photography (both involving a lot of portraiture), and he remarked "If you can't shoot it in portrait orientation, it's not worth shooting".
I think that's hysterical. He was kidding...or at least semi-kidding.
But that's also when I decided to stop shooting only in landscape orientation and rediscover how to shoot in portrait orientation. And I have to say that now I really enjoy taking portraits in portrait orientation. There's a sense of closeness and intimacy with the subject that landscape oriented photos rarely seem to capture.
7. If in doubt, get closer
This is basically the "fill-the-frame" composition rule - remember that you always have the option of filling the frame with your subject, so don't be afraid to do this.
If you find these tips useful, please consider sharing your photos with the community by tagging #dharmaportraits on your Instagram photos - I'd love to see how you're using these tips to create beautiful photos.