Portrait photographers know how overwhelming it can be to create work that depends on working with a complete stranger. With that in mind, I asked five professional photographers in central Texas for their top tips for portrait photography.
Portrait photography is a unique subgenre in that it requires more “human” skills than most other types of shooting. Making a connection to your topic should come first. So even with superior technical skills, a professional’s portrait work will fall flat if the photographer and subject lack connection. Just one example of the importance of this human bond: a petition not to replace portrait photographers in Disney parks with automated photographers has recently been launched.
But personal connection is only one ingredient in the recipe for a great portrait. From capturing unique perspectives to planning your post-processing, there are many things to consider when running these custom sessions.
The first response I got was more of the “project planning” category than a shooting tip.
1. Beauty and product photographer Jay Brans tells us:
The objective of the final photo is important. If you are looking for skin texture, it is better to apply as little makeup as possible and use touch-ups to remove things (bags under the eyes, redness) rather than applying makeup to make things as perfect as possible in real life. Additionally, the philosophy behind your work is important to consider when it comes to taking photos / retouching.
Brans’ advice on post-processing hits the nail on the head, assuming you are proficient in Photoshop. It is also important to prevent yourself from overprocessing or improperly using frequency separation. Whether it’s photographing a person or a building, planning is your friend. Capture your photos with the final edited product in mind. And be aware of what you plan to do later, as well as the limitation in your skills or editing tools.
And even Photoshop has its own limitations, so keep those in mind as well. When was the last time someone asked, “You can Photoshop this person / object, can’t you?” Unless it’s something simple like a flaw, my response is often, “It depends on how foreground and background interact. “
2. Portrait photographer Alec Knight writes:
Try to look for a less obvious angle. Everyone takes the photo of someone with the waterfall behind them, and there is certainly a place for that. But try to think outside the box. Try to shoot through the waterfall or up and down. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when you get a unique angle that most people don’t, it really stands out! For this image, I was taking photos in front of a storefront, and instead of capturing it in front of the window, I took it from the side and got this great reflection.
I appreciate that Knight drew our attention to the prospect. Some of the most memorable photographs I have studied were taken from an unusual angle. This tip is important for anyone who wants their work to stand out in an ocean of digital chaos.
A few years ago a client showed me the work of a former photographer. Aside from the correct exposure, white balance and framing, one aspect that really stood out to me was the perspective approach. This shooter had clearly gone out of his way to break down, up, and everywhere in between.
One of the shots was of an event attendee grabbing a flyer from a registration table. A typical photographer would step back and zoom in on the subject’s hand, taking a snapshot at eye level of where he was. But the one I was shown was taken at a wide angle, with the camera held at table level, looking at the subject. Simple, but powerful.
If you are tall, this semi-low angle may seem difficult to bend, but it may not be. If your camera has a movable LCD screen, all you need to do is rotate it up. No folding required.
3. Sabrina Dunne writes:
Check the positioning of the hand. Everyone is focused on the face, but make sure the subject’s hands are relaxed and natural.
I couldn’t agree more with Sabrina. Your subject’s hands can make or break an otherwise excellent photo. I lost count of how many times I took a candid or poised photo that turned me on, only to later notice that the hands were misplaced, or worse, cropped. There is nothing more annoying than a seemingly minor detail that ruins a magical moment. So, don’t forget to watch those hands!
4. This next nugget of advice comes from creative portrait photographer Linda Drake:
Lighting is very important. You can use lighting to flatter certain characteristics of your subject and create an overall mood for your image i.e. dark and whimsical versus light and airy. Harsh lighting can create shadows and bring more drama to your images, while soft lighting will generally create a more flattering and even light.
As we all know, lighting is essential for portraiture just like any other kind of photography. Distance, diffusion, power and lighting angle all work together to create an ambiance. Diffusion is crucial to create softness.
To extend Linda’s advice, you can get extra soft light by turning your strobe to a low wattage setting and then bringing the light closer to the subject. This will wrap the light around your subject better, making it appear softer and more evenly lit.
For a harder effect, increase the power. Move the light away from the subject or simply create reciprocity by rebalancing the controls on your camera.
5. From Ellie of Ellie Chavez Photography in Lago Vista, TX:
Do your best to make customers feel like their friends! We always talk about the importance of capturing the connection and the relationship between subjects, but their relationship and connection to you as a photographer is almost as important. Consultations are extremely important for this reason! You can not only talk about what they expect from you as a photographer, but also where you can get to know yourself and connect before the session. The best photos are (almost) always when customers feel comfortable around the camera, and that also means around you.
The principle of creating a meaningful bond between the photographer and the subject is well known. But a photographer who piles up two or more shots in a day may forget to have (at least) a short conversation with the subject before taking the shot. Even a brief walk to the location or around the block of your studio can be enough to break down some barriers.
Bonus tip: While being close to your subject works in many situations, someone who feels shy in front of the camera may be more comfortable with a little distance. If you feel like you’re invading your subject’s space, set up a longer lens and shoot from further away. This can give the subject a chance to relax more quickly.
What tips do you have to add to the list? Please share them in the comments section below.