As many of you already know, different genres of photography have their own challenges and rewards. Portrait photography is not exempt.
I have personally shot many portraits and I have also looked at and evaluated thousands of photos, the good, the bad, yes, even the ugly in some cases. I thought I would take this opportunity to share some of the best tips I have learned over the years.
Build a Warm Relationship
Nothing screams amateur like really awkward, uncomfortable expressions and poses. So, if it's possible (and you aren't shooting people in street-type scenes which we will discuss in a future article), you should always take a few minutes to just talk to your subjects. Be warm, genuine, and friendly. Smile at them! If you are taking photos of children, play with them, ask them about their favorite toys or games. Basically, engage as a friendly person before you point a camera at them.
Show them the really good shots
One of the joys of modern digital cameras is the instant ability to see the shot. While you are shooting, be encouraging. When you see a great shot of them, show it to them. It helps put them at ease that the photos will be good, which relaxes them, and actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They start to feel like models and engage with you, they often get creative and playful. It's a win, win! Kids love to see themselves and if they think you are a really cool photographer, they will start to give you really great, real smiles.
I love Lucille Ball! She was a very beautiful lady, but she would always go for the silly stuff to make people laugh. As a photographer, it's your job to get the expressions. Don't be afraid to be silly, make dumb jokes or tell them funny things that have happened before. The better "performer" you are behind the lens, the more natural smiles/expressions you will be able to capture.
In the photo below, we were actually joking about the cow doing the photo-bomb. Don't forget to have fun!
Watch the Light
If you are shooting outdoors, a nice large patch of even shade is your friend! Dappled light through trees is not! I once shot a wedding at midday in July. It was hot! The poor, bald minister kept edging into the dappled shade of a nearby tree making some interesting shadows on his head. I kept waving him out, but he kept sliding back. I spent hours in Photoshop trying to fix it! I can attest that it was no fun!
If you are shooting people in situations where you can move them around, keep them in solid shade. Also, I keep a large white umbrella in my car and have had an assistant hold it out of the frame to block the bright sun or diffuse the blotchy light in cases where the light is not cooperating and you can't move them.
Also, using flash as a fill light outdoors works great! I shoot with a small beauty dish that clamps onto my camera mounted flash. It makes great fill light, especially when I am using the sun as a lovely backlight and allows me to be very mobile. The one I use is similar to the one shown below, available at B & H Photo. They don't make the one I use anymore...bummer!
If you are shooting indoors, north facing windows give great light. You can also use extra lighting such as a soft box to light up your subject without the harshness of direct flash.
Remember, we are most used to seeing people when light is above them. Outdoors, it's the sun, indoors, overhead lights. When we use additional lighting, remember to keep it subtle, otherwise you start to get that deer-in-the-headlignts, or even worse, the flashlight-under-the-chin, campfire-ghost-story look, and most folks don't want that look for family photos.
Keep Eyes in Sharp Focus
Ok, ok, I know. I have harped on this subject enough, so I'll just refer you to the rant...er article I posted about that. It's All About the Eyes
Colors reflect far more than most people realize. For that reason, you never want to wear a red, pink, or orange shirt when shooting portraits, especially outside. Why, because those colors will reflect on your subjects. I wear a solid white shirt that can act as a light reflector for that reason. Ever noticed that babies and toddlers with particularly pale skin often have a blueish or greenish tone to their skin in outdoor photos? It's because the sky/trees/grass is reflecting. Don't forget to adjust for that, either by watching your light when taking the photo or in post processing.
The photo below is the underexposed frame of a bracketed set, but it's a great illustration of color casts. To the right of the frame there was a window with lots of greenery. You can see the green cast it throws on the wall. The bathroom, in the center, has incandescent lighting. Here we see the warm cast from those lights. Finally, on the left, the washer/dryer closet has a fluorescent light which throws a blue cast.
These are things that affect your white balance (WB), but as you can see here, setting a different WB in your camera would not work for all three in the same shot. This is actually something that had to be taken care of in post processing. Another fix would have been to use additional lighting.
Wedding dresses can be major light and color reflectors. Keep that in mind when shooting. Pay attention to what colors might be reflecting (i.e. red bridesmaid's dresses beside of them will create a pink tone on the wedding dress, etc).
TIP: If you have a great shot that got ruined by weird color casts, try converting it to black and white (some of my favorite portraits are done in b&w).
Find the Flattering Shots
I'm no skinny girl! Often I cringe when I see photos where the photographer has taken no account of the shape of the person. I believe everyone is beautiful and it's my job, as a photographer, to find just how best to bring that out. Keep in mind that this person has entrusted you with creating/capturing a moment of their lives that they will share with friends and family and will last through the years. The least you can do, is try to find the most flattering angle, pose, and lighting for them as an individual. This takes some work since we are not cookie cutter shapes and sizes, everyone is different, but no one looks good with a double-chin.
For example, I would never want anyone to shoot my photo from a low angle, because that would make me look heavier. Side lighting someone minimal wrinkles will accentuate them and make them look older. When you are shooting and you see something that doesn't look good, don't shoot it, adjust them to a better spot or position, or adjust yourself to a better point of view.
Now, that said.....
I Choose Not to Formally Pose People
Why? Well, because I don't know how they normally stand, or sit, or lean, etc. If I pose someone in a specific pose, it's likely not going to look like them and they are not going to look comfortable. I gravitate towards letting people interact naturally. Some of the best shots I have ever taken, award winning shots, have been when they didn't even know I was shooting. Taken on the fly in-between more organized shots.
Fake smiles and pretend interactions can't hold a candle to a real moment between people. I prefer families playing and laughing as opposed to everyone in an awkward grouping looking like they are being held at gun-point.
So, I choose to let them arrange themselves (and I shoot interactions while they are doing this, too), and then I gently adjust for small things like chins tilted up just a tiny bit, slight turns, move closer, etc.
Be Prepared and Keep it Short
Try to keep the session short, especially if small children are involved, otherwise you will only have shots of red-eyed or crying children and frustrated parents. To avoid this, make sure you have all the equipment you might need ready, batteries charged, SD cards loaded, gear attached. Get to the location early (I usually try to be there for a half-hour at the minimum). Scout out the light and possible shoot locations, assemble tripods, lights, etc. That way, after a few minutes of warming up, when you are ready to shoot, no one has to wait for you to get your act together.
TIP: For weddings, have the bride/groom create a shot list with names, that way no important shots get forgotten and someone can have the next group "on deck" so people can get back to the fun part at the reception.
Don't Post Bad Photos
Ugh, I feel so bad for people sometimes when someone posts terrible photos of them! I have seen eyes closed, mouths wide open, odd body positions, etc, all posted on social media. Trust me when I tell you, that does not make people want to call you up to take their photos! Throw out the crappy shots! If it's something that you don't like or thing the person in the photo would like, don't post it for the world to see. I don't even process those. They go straight into the unused/unprocessed file. I don't delete them, just in case I can use one to patch a problem in another photo, etc, but they don't see the light of day. Do yourself and your subject a favor and keep those private at least.
- Build a warm relationship with your clients, make them feel comfortable before you start shooting.
- Show them the good shots as you shoot, build their confidence in themselves and in you.
- Don't be afraid to be funny and silly to get the real smiles.
- Watch the light and pay attention to shadows on faces, move or adjust to prevent weird light.
- Always keep eyes in focus (read the other article) I promise it's worth the effort!
- Be aware of color casts and how they are reflecting on the clothes and skin of your subject(s).
- Find the flattering shots, be kind and considerate of how people look their best and most beautiful.
- Try to avoid stiff and uncomfortable poses. Let people be themselves and then adjust minimally.
- Be prepared, have all equipment ready and keep session short, make it fun, not frustrating.
- Don't post bad photos! If they are bad, do not put them on social media.
There are many intricacies of portrait photography, you can go as deep as you want in a lot of directions. If you are doing portrait photography as your main-stay, I definitely suggest learning all you can, even with a side of psychology to learn the best way to communicate with all types of people. Making it fun and getting great shots is the name of the game!