Getting Great Portraitsby Scott Bourne
have no firm statistics, but I'd guess that portraits are taken at a rate of 100 to one over every other kind of photograph. People portraits are particularly popular. Here are some tips on how to improve your portrait photography.
It all starts with the subject. What do you know about the person in front of the camera? Are they related to you? Do you know what they do for a living? What hobbies do they have?
Why is all this important to a discussion on portrait photography? If you want to take a good portrait then you need to tell a good story. Identifying with your subject helps you connect with them which in turn, puts them at ease.
A few years ago I photographed a local high school star baseball player. I suggested we make his senior portrait on the pitcher's mound at the ball field. If my subject had been someone who restores classic cars, I would have posed them with one of their favorite machines. These sorts of environmental portraits tell a story.
Even if I can't put a person into their regular environment, knowing something about them helps me make a better picture. If I can find something to talk about with them during their session, I can establish common ground. This makes it more likely that they will relax. Familiarity with your subject can make all the difference in a portrait session. If you don't believe this, take a picture of a child you know well, then take a picture of a child you don't know at all. Chances are the latter will run from you while the first will run towards you.
While there are many opinions on the best kind of equipment for making portraits, my position is that nearly any kind of camera works. What I mean is that almost any camera will work if it has an interchangeable lens. (I am not referring to a fixed zoom lens like those featured on most point and shoots.)
Whether you are shooting digital, 35mm, medium format or large format, the camera you have now if just fine for portraits if it allows you to change lenses and control exposure. The lens is probably more important than the camera. Selecting the best portrait lens depends on knowing in advance, the kind of portrait you are going to make.
Short focal length lenses such as wide angle and "normal" lenses in the 28 to 50 mm range are usually not appropriate unless you want to do an environmental portrait. In these cases, you will want less of the person and more of the environment around them. If you get too close to the person with a short lens, you are going to make their facial features look out of proportion.
Short telephotos are usually the first choice for a portrait lens. Lenses in the 100mm range usually allow you to get far enough away from your subject so that they will not feel like you are crowding them. These lenses are also long enough to smooth out the background at wide-open apertures and are more flattering to the face.
Long telephotos in the 300 to 400mm range are my favorites and the choice of most fashion photographers. They absolutely dissolve the background at any aperture larger than f8, and they flatter nearly any face, regardless of its faults. These lenses allow you to get far away from your subject. This creates problems and opportunities. It is harder to communicate with the subject, and the subject has to be in good light. On the plus side, the subject will usually relax. This happens because, while they know you are taking their picture, you are so far away that they aren't intimidated.
If you are working in a studio, you will probably want to use a strobe or hot light. Anything can work here, from on-camera flash to a full-blown four-light setup. The key is to be familiar with your equipment and know what kind of look you want. For beginners, I suggest a single light source, preferably off camera and slightly high to the right or left. The softer the light, the better. If you have access to a studio with natural light, use it. Diffusers, soft boxes, scrims, barn doors and other light modifiers can be used to control artificial light.
Outdoors, high overcast is great portrait light. Here you may want to practice subtractive lighting. Instead of using additional fill light, place the subject facing an open sky and then use a row of trees or an awning to block light from any two sides to shape the natural light falling on the face.
Whatever you do avoid splotchy light. Be sure the subject is in full shade or full sun but not a mixture of both.
Also, look for catch lights in the eyes. These are the mark of a pro photographer. If you can't see the eyes, you don't have a portrait. So make sure the eyes sparkle and just about anything else in the picture won't matter.
Unless you are shooting digitally, you will need film. I think that most portraits look better when they are monochromatic. Black and white or sepia toned photos are very popular these days, because they tend to flatter the subject. Thanks to advances from the film companies, monochrome films can now be developed using conventional C41 processes. Kodak's Portra B&W film is my favorite in this class. This type of film is good for portraits because it has wide latitude and muted contrast.
If you are shooting color, you will want to stay away from slides unless you are a pro shooting for magazines. Fashion shooters who make slides usually shoot Fuji Astia since it is a film especially balanced for skin tones. Otherwise, softer, low-contrast color print films are the way to go. You can't beat Kodak's Portra 160, 400 and 800 for soft tones and great skin color. Each is available in a NC (normal color) and VC (vivid color) version. I prefer the NC unless I am making a child's portrait and then I may opt for the VC. Fuji's NPS color print films are also a good choice.
When you want to make a portrait, try to schedule enough time to get to know your subject. Provide them with a clothing checklist. Long sleeved turtle necks or crew necked sweaters are very flattering. Solid colors are better than patterned clothing. Women should wear basic, understated makeup. Both men and women should avoid prominent jewelry.
Before your subject arrives, scout your location and have your equipment ready. Have your assistant help you preset a basic exposure. When the subject arrives, you want to put all of your attention on them and not your equipment. This takes practice but yields great results.
You should study the subject and look for problem areas. This will help you decide where to place the camera relative to the subject. In most cases, placing the camera lens at your subject's eye level is best. If you have a particularly heavy subject, raise your camera position and have the subject look up. This will thin out the neck and draw attention away from double chins. If you have someone with a scar, turn that side of the face toward the light. It sounds counter-intuitive but it works. The lit side tends to disappear in the photo. The shadow side of the face is more likely to reveal texture and facial imperfections.
If the subject is sitting, place them on the edge of their seat. Whether sitting or standing, ask them to straighten up. The pose should be basic. In fact, the more basic your posing technique, the more likely it is that your subject will appear natural.
The head and shoulders should point in the same direction. The head should be tilted towards the lower shoulder, so that it is perpendicular to the slope of the shoulder. The face and body should be turned towards the light. A variation on this theme is to turn the body away from the light and the face toward the light. The head is turned and tipped to the highest shoulder. This variation works especially well for women unless they are heavyset. In either pose, lean the body slightly forward at the waist. Be sure that the head turns and tips to the same shoulder.
Smiles and expression are also very important. There are some tricks you can use to get a natural smile. First ask the subject to lick their lips. It helps make the lips shine and gets them used to using their mouth. Then say something like..."Okay give me just a hint of a smile." Take the picture and then immediately say..."Oh come on, that's fake." This will usually cause the subject to break out into a natural grin. Another trick I use is to say something like..."Come on, you don't know me well enough to be that mad at me." Or..."Okay on this one, try not to look like you are posing for the WWF poster." Experiment with different jokes. You will develop your own sayings that work, and you will get the smile that counts, the real one.
Making good portraits requires practice. Start by practicing on your friends and family. When you get good results, branch out to co-workers and casual acquaintances. Then, when you're ready, try these techniques on total strangers. Remember, when you take someone's portrait, you are not just taking their picture, you are telling their story.
Scott is a professional photographer, author, teacher and pioneer in the digital imaging field. His career started in the early 70s as a stringer covering motor sports for Associated Press in Indiana. Since then, he has shot commercial, portrait, wedding, magazine and fine art assignments. His new passion is wildlife photography.
Scott regularly lectures on a variety of photo and media-related subjects. He's appeared on national television and radio programs and has written columns for several national magazines. He is the publisher of Photofocus.com, an online magazine for serious photographers and also serves as the executive director of the Olympic Mountain School of Photography in Gig Harbor, WA.