It may seem like a simple task to take a portrait but it can quickly turn into something quite hard. Maybe hard is the wrong choice of word, but there are a few things you need to keep in mind to get that perfect portrait. I hope my quick tips will help you pull through. Of course, keep in mind that these are tips & tricks, not binding rules. Great results sometimes comes up when you do the opposite. It’s a good thing to know the basics, before you do things backwards.
Lesson 1: Use a flash or some kind of illumination. Even when you are outside in the sun. If you don’t want to use a flash, at least use a reflector, preferably a golden one. Then you will get that fantastic glow that often suits the human skin tones. The reason you want to use a flash or a reflector, is that you want to control the light yourself and not be forced into different light situations that are not perfect.
Lesson 2: Never use an on-camera flash. As long as your target isn’t a convict and you are shooting a mug-shot, or if you want to be really mean to someone always remove the flash from the camera. An on-camera flash treats the person like if you have taken a baseball-bat and hit them right in the face. It’s not pretty in any way. The lighting will be harsh and every single flaw in the face will light up like a bright lamppost. Instead use a triggered off-camera flash. The difference is immensely huge.
Lesson 3: Set a correct white-balance from the beginning. In todays softwares like Photoshop or Lightroom it’s quite easy to change the white-balance afterwards, but it’s not as easy to get an accurate skin-tone. I will not go into how you do that on your camera, mainly because it differs from all kinds of brands. The best thing to do is check your manual.
Lesson 4: Choose a corresponding depth of field that suits the purpose of the image. In my opinion a shallow depth of field is usually the best choice for portraits, but there are situations when the surroundings is equally interesting as the person in the picture. Then it’s a good choice to choose a deep depth of field. Always try to use a depth of field that concentrates the feeling in the image. Sometimes it’s only in the eyes, f1.4 is perfect here, and sometimes you need both the eyes, nose and mouth to be sharp, then maybe f 4 is the best choice. In studio when you shoot clothes on a model and need to keep both the clothes and the model sharp I often pump up the aperture as far as f 11. For me the aperture functions as some kind of “mood-switch”. Choosing the wrong one can ruin the feeling in your picture.
Lesson 5: Compose the image and start shooting. There are not many wrongs here, there are way to many values that plays here. Of course there are some basics here to know, like don’t put the persons head in the middle, don’t cut someones hand or feet, use the rule of thirds and so forth. Sure, have these in mind, but don’t let them limit the spirit of your imagination. Take lots and lots of images with different composition, then choose the best one on the computer. Go with your feeling, and fill your frame with interestingness. Filling the frame doesn’t have to mean that the persons face covers the whole image, it means that there should be a balance in the image. Balance can both be a real close-up, and a portrait predominantly filled with negative space and the person far to either side. How to know when your doing it right? Here in lays the art of photography.
Lesson 6: Try to be as natural as possible and don’t let the model pose to much. Talk to the model and be that persons best friend for the moment. Get to know each other. Then try to capture a feeling in your portrait. Without a feeling your image will be completely flat. Some models have troubles to show feelings, in that case it’s your job to implement requested feeling with either music or real stories. Or for that matter fake stories. Don’t try to capture fake feelings. It will show in your image.
Lesson 7: Don’t forget to have fun. Period.