Have you ever taken a photograph, looked at the final image, and thought “man, I thought that was going to come out so much better than it did”? You’re not alone. Portrait photography is not a simple and straightforward as it may seem to be, although with a little bit of knowledge under your belt you’ll be snapping professional-looking portraits in no time!
All you’ll need is a camera capable of shooting in manual mode (a DSLR is ideal), a willing model, yourself and an open mind. Let’s begin!
If you’d like a bit of a refresher on the different modes of a DSLR camera, we’ve got you covered. Head on over to our beginners DSLR course and learn how to use your camera to its fullest extent.
Choosing Your Subject
What you photograph and where you photograph are two very important aspects of any image. After all, it’s what the viewer sees when they look at your photograph! If you’re just starting out with portrait photography, it would be wise to choose a model that you feel comfortable around. Since you may be fumbling around with your camera a bit to get familiar with the settings, leave the professional models to a later date. A sibling, significant other or best friend is the perfect model for this situation.
I wouldn’t worry too much about the styling, since you can focus more on that once you are more familiar with your camera. Have them show up in whatever they feel the most comfortable in, since it’ll make the photograph seem more natural.
Choosing Your Location
In order to make things easier on yourself, choose a location outdoors. The light inside often tends to be troublesome; the white balance always seems to be off, or there’s never the perfect amount of light. If you’re trying to go for a more street style urban feel, head to your downtown area and find an area where there are plenty of aesthetically pleasing brick buildings. If you’re going the more natural route, head out to your favorite field or forest and find an area that isn’t too dark. Usually you can determine a location based on what your model is wearing, unless you’re going the high-fashion route. Is your model dressed for a day out on the town? Photograph them in the city. Is your model dressed for a day working out on the farm? Photograph them in the country.
A note on lighting: you’ll usually find that overcast or shade is your best friend when taking portraits. This type of light is dispersed evenly, leading to a beautiful, even skin tone in the final photograph. If you try to shoot your model in bright sunlight, you’ll soon realize that the direct sun causes unflattering shadows and tends to make part of the face much too light while the other part is much too dark. By choosing overcast lighting, you’ll minimize the amount of exposure problems you’ll have.
Choosing the Right Aperture
When shooting portraits, often you want your model to be the main subject of the photograph. In order to draw a viewer’s eye directly to the model, the background of the photograph should be blurred. Many photographers swear on prime lenses for portrait photography. Why? Because the lens can open up wider than a traditional zoom lens. Lenses such as the 50mm f/1.8 and the 85mm f/1.4 are two very popular portrait lenses. The 50mm f/1.8 can be picked up for less than $200 if you’re just starting out. Shooting at an aperture of 2.8 or lower will create a very pleasing “bokeh” in the background of your photographs, which refers to the aesthetic quality of the blur in the image. Having everything but your model blurred out will create a more dramatic effect than if you were to take a simple snapshot, often using an aperture of f/8 or higher.
Maybe your photographs have been looking lackluster because you haven’t stepped out of your comfort zone. Sure, it feels right to stand directly in front of your subject, tell them to look into the camera and say “cheese”, but will this create an interesting portrait? Probably not. It’s important to think outside of the box when taking portraits. Try some of these ideas and see how they change your final images.
- Shoot from different angles! Lie down on the ground, climb a tree, peek out from the side of a building; do whatever you can to get yourself moving around the subject and creating different compositions.
- Try candid portraits. Sometimes posed portraits can look a little too posed. By capturing your subject in a natural state, the entire photograph will seem more genuine.
- Experiment with lighting. Having your subject partly hidden in shadow can create an intriguing dramatic effect. Play around with light, shadow, and even colored gels over your flash or smoke bombs to create more dramatic effects.
- Have your subject look both at the camera and away from the camera. Being able to connect with the subject’s eyes can be wonderful, but having the subject look away from the camera can add a bit of mystery to the photograph.
- Add a prop into the scene. While adding a prop or having the background also be part of the scene may take away some of the focus on your model, sometimes this is a good thing. Photographing your subject in their home or with their favorite material item can add an interesting story to the image.
If You Don’t Have a DSLR
Many cameras are simply point-and-shoot cameras, unable to take any direction from you other than composition and whether or not the flash is on. These types of cameras can certainly take good photographs, but they don’t offer the wide range of apertures like a DSLR does. If you want beautiful the beautiful bokeh created by an f/1.4 lens, you won’t be able to achieve that with a point-and-shoot. If you’re serious about getting involved in portrait photography, it may be wise to upgrade. I know that DSLRs can be extremely expensive! Often you can find older models of Canon or Nikon (both reliable cameras) that will be just as good as buying a new model.
The best rule to remember is to keep experimenting and keep shooting. The more ideas you try and the more you practice, the better you will get. By understanding the way your camera works and how to interact with your model to create natural looking photographs, you’ll be a pro in no time.
If you want a more in-depth look on portrait photography, Udemy has a great course that will teach you how to take stunning portraits with minimal equipment!